There is a famous law regarding the sukkah, learned by all children in yeshiva day school, that a sukkah cannot be more than 20 amot (cubits) tall. This is somewhere in the 30-40 foot range and this law is the very first taught in Mishnah Sukkah:
A sukkah which is taller than 20 cubits is invalid.
The Talmud in Sukkah, as it does so often, asks how we know this? We know that this is the practice and the law; that is to say, it is what we refer to as Torah sheb’al peh, the Oral Torah; but if our many practices might be compared to the branches of a great tree, what are their roots? From where do we derive them in the Written Torah?
Rabbah said: Because the verse states, “(You must dwell in booths) so that your generations will know that I housed Israel in booths (when I took them out of Egypt).”
In a sukkah up to 20 cubits high, even without a concerted effort, a person is aware that he is residing in a sukkah. (His eye catches sight of the roofing, evoking the sukkah and its associated mitzvot.) However, in a sukkah that is more than 20 cubits high, a person is not aware that he is residing in a sukkah, because his eye does not involuntarily catch sight of the roof.
Why must we know that G-d put us in booths when He took us out of Egypt? Why is G-d so concerned with this?
The Rashbam says that we dwell in sukkot to remind ourselves of our vulnerability. During the year, like the nursery-rhyme pig who lives in his solid, brick house, safe from big bad wolves, we have shelter, food, clothing, and luxury. It is only natural that we become accustomed to all of this and forget to view it all as tenuous gifts from our Creator. So, once a year we venture outside and remember what it is like to be vulnerable. Then we again remember that there but for the grace of G-d go we, and we gratefully recall G-d and his gifts to us throughout the year.
Ramban says, assuming in contrast to Rashbam that the “booths” in question refer to the clouds of glory, that we sit in our own booths in order to recall the amazing miracle G-d performed on our behalf. This is in line with his general approach that G-d performs miracles in order to bolster our loyalty to him.
Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, the Netziv, gives a different answer. It is one that, like so many of his comments, seems tailor made to our moment:
“So that they know, etc.” – so that they do not give up on the good life, even when they do not have land and natural sources of joy. Nevertheless, they will know from the commandment of the sukkah that it is possible to recall that G-d took them out in booths. And see, they still experienced an eternal joy.
It is a brief comment but the Netziv teaches us much in it. Let us take it bit by bit.
First, Sukkot is, as we know, z’man simchatenu, our time of increased joy. It is a time of increased celebration, music, and dancing, as well as the time of harvest and material success. These are not things that we avoid as spiritual servants of G-d. Rather, they are part of the fabric of the wholesome religious life, things we appreciate and celebrate and which form one part of a healthy and balanced spiritual diet.
In fact, says the Netziv, joy and enjoyment are so important that they serve as the very basis for this holiday. We sit in booths so as not to give up on what he calls “the good life.” It is not, G-d forbid, that we are supposed to be crazed hedonists and material addicts (though we so often are), but we should enjoy life; we should find it pleasant and good even when times are tough. Even then, when we do not enjoy property and financial ease, things that give us “natural joy,” we shouldn’t despair of joy.
And this leads us to the Netziv’s second point. How do we remember this joy? How do we make sure that we never lose sight of the many small gifts that G-d gives us? By sitting, less than comfortably, outside. With fewer amenities, a longer walk from the kitchen, and a ceiling that does not protect us from the rain. It’s a bit like camping. And that, I think, is precisely the point the Netziv is trying to make.
Recall your happiest times as a child or a young adult. How many come from when times were lean? How many are from when you went to camp or on a family vacation and, somehow or another, you roughed it? How many wonderful memories do you have from those first years of college or marriage, before you could afford what you can so easily and comfortably afford now?
For many of us, these memories offer a feeling we badly wish we could recapture. If only we could feel so carefree, so happy, so young, so innocent, so simple and wholesome.
This is very encouraging, as the Netziv says. Even when we do not have much, we can be very happy. This is something to take advantage of. We should steal moments of happiness when we can. Borrow a good book from the library, try a new recipe, hold a puppy, visit a day-school and see small children bouncing and joyfully learning. These are experiences so simple and pure and beautiful that they cannot help but buoy us when we require it. And we often do, so the reminder is worth having.
But it is also a piece of kind criticism which the Netziv offers us. If those simple things made us feel so good – times without the distractions, the crazy work hours, the Zoom meetings – then why should we not be more than just nostalgic? Why don’t we really go for it? Why don’t we call our family and friends together, gather together for meals on Sukkot and Shabbatot and then also on Sundays and Mondays, and do the things that actually make the best memories?
We sit in these huts, all under a certain height, just to remind us that we need not climb so high to be happy. There is so much to appreciate in the company we take, the dirt beneath our feet, and the sounds of singing from birds and celebrants. Let’s take it in and really enjoy it and then use that as a model for the rest of our year.