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October 18, 2008

The Festival of Sukkot-Joy or Discomfort?
By Rabbi David Greenstein

The festival of Sukkot is traditionally called “Z’man Simchatenu – The Season of Our Joy.” This follows from the Biblical injunction that specifically emphasizes the mitzvah of rejoicing whenever this holiday is mentioned, whether in Leviticus – “And you shall rejoice before the Eternal One, your Almighty, for seven days.” (Lev. 23:40) or in Deuteronomy – “And you shall rejoice in your holiday (of Sukkot).” (Deut. 16:13)

The primacy of this element is so strong that it endows Sukkot with a unique rule that is not present with regard to other commandments. This rule is the exemption of “mitzta`er – being in discomfort.” According to traditional Jewish law, while one must dwell in a sukkah for seven days in fulfillment of the Torah’s command, this obligation is set aside if doing so would cause a person discomfort. Now we must appreciate how exceptional this rule is. In regard to no other commandment is there any exemption for discomfort.

Shabbat observance is an obvious example. The traditional halakhah requires strict adherence to the laws of Shabbat. While it is true that these laws are designed to create a day of great spiritual meaning and of rest and regeneration, it is equally true that the tradition did not allow for bending the rules simply because they caused personal discomfort or inconvenience. The prohibition to light a fire was held sacrosanct, even in very cold climes. Indeed, one’s piety and devotion to God called for great sacrifices and for the willingness of every Jew to suffer discomfort, or worse, in fulfillment of the mitzvot.

How different is the command to sit in a sukkah ! Built-in, so to speak, to the commandment, is the rule that one is not at all obligated to sit in a sukkah in inclement weather, when the ostensible fulfillment of God’s command would make one uncomfortable and cause distress. Why should this be so? Why shouldn’t we have to try harder for this mitzvah in the same way that we must sacrifice our own comfort for all other commandments?

The answer may lie in the Torah’s explanation for this commandment. The Torah does not always explain the reasons for commandments. For instance, it does not explain why one must take the lulav and etrog during Sukkot. But with regard to sitting in a sukkah God does give an explanation, saying: “It is so that your future generations will know that I housed the Children of Israel in sukkot when I took them out of the land of Egypt, I the Eternal One, your Almighty.” Lev. 23:43)

Usually this is taken to mean that sitting in a sukkah is a reminder or a recreation of an historical moment, just as the Passover seder is meant to be a recreation of the moment of the Exodus. But there must be more to this. The Passover exodus was a moment of miraculous redemption. Of course we need to remember and retell the Exodus over and over. But what difference does it make whether God housed us in sukkot, in tents or in mobile homes when we left Egypt and wandered in the desert? What does God want us to really remember?

The answer of the Sukkot text may be surprising. We are used to reading of all the troubles that beset the Israelites in the wilderness and of all their exasperating complaining. But we have another, quieter, tradition, as well. It speaks of Israel following God into the wilderness overcome with feelings of love and devotion: “I remember your youthful love, the romance of your engagement, when you followed Me in the wilderness, in an unsown land.” (Jer. 2:2) The Sukkot tradition is part of that narrative. It tells us that God sheltered us in the desert and that our day-to-day existence under Divine care must have been a time of comfort and joy. How could it have been otherwise? Would we imagine that God would treat us harshly? While the Biblical days of troubles and complaining made more noise, they were far fewer than the many quiet days of happiness and contentment that we spent under God’s Clouds of Glory throughout those 40 years.

It makes sense, therefore, that if sitting in a sukkah is meant to recall that time of quiet joy and contentment, that it cannot be fulfilled by requiring one to do so in discomfort and distress. Such was not the habitation prepared for us by God’s Sheltering Presence.

May we all recapture those feelings of joy and satisfaction and may we be sustained by those experiences and their memories as we embark upon a new year. _____________________________________

Rabbi David Greenstein is Rosh Ha-Yeshivah of AJR.