“Seeing – is Believing!” Shabbat Chol Hamo’ed Succot @ Sephardic Bikur Cholim Synagogue in Seattle

Up, Up and Away
Of the various intricate laws of the Succah, there is one that stirred much debate amongst the sages of the Talmud.  One view in the mishna invalidates a Succah, the roof of which is 20 amot (30 feet) high or higher. 

Why?

Raba cites the following verse:

“You shall dwell in booths for seven days…So that your generations will know that I caused the Children of Israel to dwell in booths when I took them out of the land of Egypt.”
(Vayikra 23:42-43)

Now, the plain meaning of the verse is that we must dwell in Succot in memory of the booths – or protective “clouds of glory” – during our desert wanderings.  The knowledge implied in the phrase, “So that your generations will know”… appears to be the knowledge or historical memory we gain of the Divine Providence that cared for us during those 40 years.

Raba, however, derives a very specific halacha from this verse: When I dwell in a Succah, I must be aware that I am actually present in a halachic succah, commanded to do so by the Almighty.  My eyes must be able to see that which makes a Succah – a Succah: the schach, or greenery, the Succah’s hallmark roof.  For Raba, the yediya, knowledge, referred to by the verse, means: my knowledge, here and now, that I am sitting in a Torah-mandated Succah.

Getting Inside Raba’s Mind
Rabbi Meir of Lublin (1558-1616) is troubled by this seemingly unnecessary drasha:  Why, he asks, does Raba stretch the phrase “So that your generations will know” to such an extent?

Doesn’t the mitzvah to recall the history of G-d’s Providence imply that each Jew must be aware that he or she is sitting in a Succah?  Knowing, argues Rav Meir, refers to the jogging of our historical memory.  How is this achieved?  Surely, Rav Meir maintains, through a fully conscious act of dwelling in the Succah.  Therefore, he concludes, the 20-amot high Succah should have been disqualified not by virtue of creative re-interpretation of the text, but through a simple reading of the verse!

Peering into Raba’s mind, Rav Meir of Lublin arrives at the following solution: Sure, the Torah wants to jog our historical memory.  We may have mistakenly thought that this could be achieved by simply being asked to relocate from the comfort of our homes to the temporary dwelling, the Succah.  Yearly, the inconvenience and effort would prompt us to focus on the Jewish tradition, passed down from time immemorial, that G-d sheltered us from the sweltering heat for 40 years.  A plain reading of the verse would not have necessarily taught us that the schach of the Succah must be low enough to be in our field of vision.

Re-wind Forty Years
This discussion reminds me of a story: I remember returning home one April afternoon in 1970 to find my mother setting the table for our extended family’s First Seder.  Beautiful China, Haggadot at every place setting, the smell of warm Kosher for Passover brownies wafting through the kitchen – and in the middle of the dining room table – a wooden bowl overflowing with nuts, a nutcracker snugly tucked into the perimeter of the bowl.

“What’s with the walnuts?” I asked Mom.

My mother had nuts at her Pesach Seder – we have nuts at ours.  Besides, Dad and I got this nutcracker as a wedding gift…”

It was only a decade and a half later, when the significance of the nutcracker hit me.  While studying in a Jerusalem yeshiva, I came across Rabbi Akiva’s prescription to parents: On seder night, be sure to distribute nuts and seeds to your children so that they’ll stay awake and ask questions pertaining to the evening.   This will pave the way to the story of the Exodus.

Amazing! A tool aimed at prompting questions from children did just that!  But, ironically, over the years, the parent’s answer had been “forgotten” !  

However crucial Mesorah is in the lives of our families and communities, traditions can sometimes become frozen, petrified, and devoid of meaning….

Tough to be a Jew?
I heard that Rav Moshe Feinstein was a firm opponent of the Yiddish expression, “shver tzu zayn a yid” , it’s tough to be a Jew.  He felt that it fosters a negative Jewish self-image. 

“Leave your houses once a year, and move outside, during the chilly fall season.”

At first blush, this is a major inconvenience!  Eat, sleep, and conduct our affairs out of a hut?  Doesn’t this mitzvah play right into: shver tzu zayn a yid?  

The mandate to leave our homes, in and of itself, may be an insufficient way of jogging the individual’s historical memory. 

It may even be resented. 

Tradition and Parental Guidance: The Succah’s Walls
If I can use a Succah metaphor, a parent often provides the structure, the walls, that help define custom and practice.  But the essence of the Succah, our sources say, is the schach. It’s the modest, flimsy covering – the symbol of both our national and personal vulnerability, our dependence on G-d.  

Generating a true Bitachon B’Hashem, trust in G-d, that He will shade me, and protect me, is a very personal experience.   If dwelling in the succah, to borrow terminology from Brisk, is the ma’aseh hamitzvah – the physical act required of me – then trust in Hashem is the kiyum, the fulfillment, ultimate goal of the mitzvah.    To be mikayem the mitzvah in the full sense of the word, my eyes have to see the schachI have to internalize that I am right now sitting in this structure and that history is not a mere memory — but a living reality for me. 

I have to internalize the fact that G-d did and still does protect me with clouds of glory.  I must enter into a personal relationship with this G-d of history….

 

A P.S.
Raba notes one way that a Succah could be twenty amot high plus – and still be kosher: If the walls of the Succah reach the schach.  In such a case, Meiri explains, the human eye will follow those walls all the way up to the schach.

A few of us may be so inspired that the structure we give our children is so clear and so directed that it “reaches the schach”.  We model such a devout commitment to Torah and mitzvot, that our children’s eyes are effortlessly guided towards the schach.  Many of us, though, “fall short” of rising to this challenge.   That’s where finding an appropriate teacher for our kids comes in.   A teacher who can truly inspire our children. 

For Raba, historical memory can ultimately only be fed by meaningful personal experience.

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