Secret of Sukkot Joy

Free translation of a discourse by
the Lubavitcher Rebbe,
Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson
Shabbat Hol Hamoed, Sukkot 5734-1973

by Rabbi David Rothschild


I. Eight Days a Week

Hut Habitat

Sukkot are unique because their commandment is performed physically. We eat and drink physical substances in a sukkah. Its shade provides physical relief from scorching sunlight. According to Maimonides, our physical wellbeing guides the ruling, "A sukkah roof must provide more shade than sunlight." He also declares, "A person who suffers in a sukkah doesn't have to sit there." Since a sukkah's raison d'etre is physicality, holiness descends within its earthly components. That in turn makes operative the Torah's decree: "A sukkah's physicality is sanctified".

But don't all mitzvot exhibit this quality? After all, they too are performed on objects with clearly defined physical characteristics. What's more, the physicality of mitzvot distinguishes them from Torah study. True, Torah isn't relegated to heavenly realms; it is accessible to mortals and applicable to mundane affairs. Nonetheless, even while it functions in the physical realm, "My word is like fire" (Jeremiah 23:29).

In contrast, mitzvot pertain exclusively to physical objects: tzitzit are spun from wool and tefillin are fashioned from leather. For this reason every mitzvah's physical object entails precise measurement.

Tanya expounds the advantage which a mitzvah's execution gains: "A person's body energy enacts the deed. Then, his corporal energy is sublimated into divinity. By means of this process, his body realizes its ultimate aspiration and G-dly intent."  

Muscle Moods

A second category of mitzvot, called "obligations of the heart", relates to spirituality. The cardinal expressions of these mitzvot are love and fear of G-d. Yet, they too are carried out with physicality – the heart. Scripture enjoins corporal love, "You shall love the L-rd your G-d with all your heart." (Deut.6:4) And it commands physical fear, "You shall fear the L-rd your G-d" (Deut. 6:13). How are commandments felt physically? Fear constricts the heart's muscle; love causes it to expand.

All mitzvot incorporate degrees of physicality. Yet, the extent of that expression differs from one mitzvah to the next. A sukkah, though, manifests physicality in a comprehensive manner. That’s why its mitzvah is so exalted. It encompasses the physicality of our daily life, not merely a solitary facet of the world.

This, then, explains why sanctity of body permeates a sukkah more than other mitzvot objects. Even though a person has discharged his duty to eat and drink in a sukkah, holiness continues to infuse its thatched roof and walls for the remainder of the Festival.

G-d Gradients

A distinction exists between the times in which a mitzvah is enacted and after it has been completed. For example, prior to placing a phylactery (tefillin) on one's head, the resting of supernal Wisdom (the sefira of Wisdom of the World of Emanation) and G-d's Infinite Being (Ein Sof) are hinted to. But the Ein Sof still hasn't shined within Supernal Wisdom. And supernal Wisdom hasn't illuminated inside the phylactery's parchments.

However, when the phylactery is actually donned, Ein Sof shines Infinite Light into Supernal Wisdom. Then, Supernal Wisdom transfers the Infinite Light down into the phylactery's four parchments. Hence, we observe a difference in the phylactery's state of being when its mitzvah is performed. After the mitzvah has been completed, it no longer enjoys this condition.

Kabbala draws an even finer distinction: "There are three gradients of Divine revelation. A most diminished revelation presides within any physical object prior to its selection for mitzvah purposes. After it has been fashioned into a ritual object a stronger revelation shines there. An intense illumination occurs when the object is being used for a mitzvah."

A Sukkah, though, manifests an extension to this principle. For, even after observing the mitzvah of sitting there, the sukkah's holiness continues to illuminate open revelation. This is the identical Divinity which descended when the earlier mitzvah was performed.

I Call Your Name

Before performing a mitzvah we recite, "Who has sanctified us with His commandments." What does "sanctified" signify? By means of the mitzvah and its benediction, Divinity descends upon the practitioner's G-dly soul.

A verse intimates, "This is My Name eternally, and this is my remembrance from generation to generation." (Ex.3:15). The numerical value of "My Name" is 350. When added to the first two letters of G-d's name – yud and hei – the tally equals the 365 Torah prohibitions. "My remembrance" equals 237. Added to the last two letters of the four-letter Name – vav and hei – the sum corresponds to the 248 positive commandments.

We recite in our Shabbat prayers, "Israel who sanctifies Your Name." Since "Your Name" refers to the mitzvot, we sanctify the mitzvot through their performance. Chassidus allegorizes this concept.

When Jews practice mitzvot, they call out G-d's Name. When a person is called by his name, he stops what he's doing and directs his entire being to the caller. Likewise, through mitzvot, G-d's Essence descends into the mitzvot.

II. Transcendence Turnaround

Holy Haze

We explained the contrast between the holiness of a sukkah and all other ritual objects. But what is the inner reason why Sukkot are so extraordinary?

The spirituality of a sukkah's roof descends from the cloud of smoke generated by Yom Kippur's ignited incense offering. Only on that day did the High Priest burn incense inside the Temple's Holy of Holies, as Scripture commands, "Once a year" (Lev.16:34). The rising vapors have a purpose. They elicit a revelation of G-d's Holiness, which is above and beyond our holiness.

Torah informs, "You shall be holy, for holy am I, G-d your L-rd" (Lev.19:2). Midrash Rabba asks, "Are Jews really similar to G-d? Read correctly, the verse proves they are not: 'For holy am I.' My Holiness is exalted above your holiness."

But on Yom Kippur the High Priest, as the envoy of the Jewish People, beseeches G-d on behalf of virtually every Jew. His supplications draw down a manifestation of the sublime "My Holiness" upon each and every Jew for the duration of the ensuring year. And on Sukkot it descends into a sukkah's roof.

Sukkah Simcha

That's why the seven-day Sukkot Festival is referred to in liturgy, "the time of our rejoicing." An obvious question, though, arises. On Passover, Shavuot and Sukkahs we recite in our prayers, "festivals for rejoicing." If that's the case, why does liturgy call Sukkot "the time of our rejoicing"?

Chasidut provides a parable which sheds light on this matter. A king's son was separated from his father in some distant land. He eventually returns home. When the lad draws within eyesight of his father, their joy explodes in leaps and bounds.

In a similar manner, we can understand the unique joy of "The time of our rejoicing". Previously, our transgressions caused us to be far away from G-d. But following our repentance – where misdeeds are transformed into merits – our joy is enormous. Hence, Isaiah said, "Peace, peace, for the far and near" (Isaiah 57:19). Talmud interprets the verse as, "The distant which becomes close."

What are the mechanics of this Yom Kippur-Sukkot interplay? At first, our Yom Kippur Divine service elicits the higher G-d from our lowly position below. Subsequently, G-d reveals His aspect of "My Holiness", which is beyond "your holiness." His Infinite Light rectifies all the blemishes and defects created by our sins. All of this transpires in the midst of our ascending spirituality.

Absolute's Absorption

On Sukkot the vector of spirituality reverses. Yom Kippur's incense cloud descends upon our sukkah roofs. The term "sukkah", itself, demonstrates this concept. It is derived from the Hebrew word for its thatched roof – skach. Sukkot' exposed descending Infinity causes immeasurable joy. For this reason Sukkot is called – exclusive of all other Festivals –"the time of our rejoicing."

Sukkah roofs embody the lowering of "my Holiness" down to the bottommost realms. G-d's Absolute Essence comes to illuminate even the subterranean domain of transgressions. There, they are converted into merits. While this metamorphosis occurred on Yom Kippur, nonetheless, at that time G-d's atonement operated while our Divine service was projected upward. Now, on Sukkot, G-d's act is manifest inside a motion of descent.

What's the upshot of this U-turn of revelation?  G-d's Holiness permeates physicality to a greater extent than through any other mitzvah. This, then, is the ultimate explanation why the very leaves of a sukkah roof (from Scripture) and its walls (from the sages) possess sanctity of body.

III. Foliage Funnel

The identical phenomenon occurs regarding the four species of foliage. Infinite Light enters their physicality to a greater degree than other ritual objects. As previously discussed, we rejoice on Sukkot since G-d's Absolute Essence – attained on Yom Kippur – descends below. Its primary revelation takes places when we lift the four species in the execution of their mitzvah.

Torah commands, "You shall take for yourselves on the first day the fruit of a beautiful tree, the branches of date palms (lulav), twigs of plaited tree and brook willows; and you shall rejoice before G-d your L-rd, for a seven day period" (Lev.23:40). The verse conveys that a sukkah's Divine revelation in physicality is also manifest in the four species. What's more, they exhibit this in a more pronounced fashion. Scripture instructs, "You shall dwell in Sukkot for a seven-day period" (Lev. 23:42). However, a sukkah encompasses us from all sides. G-d's Light, while near to us, remains transcendent.

Every morning (except on the Sabbath) during the Sukkot Festival, we enter our Sukkot, take the four species in hand, and pronounce their benediction. The cluster is extended outwards in six directions and then drawn toward our hearts. What does that accomplish? The lulav's straight rod directs the sukkah's Encompassing Light down into inwardness. Infinity becomes grasped, contained and absorbed.

G-d's Holiness is drawn into the physicality of the four species.

United Species

What's intrinsic to the four species that prompted G-d to choose them to download His Infinity? Each one openly displays unity. Unity connotes the opposite of division. An entity's sensation of self separates it from G-d. But when it is egoless, its true reality – G-d's enlivening Light – becomes apparent. The object and G-d are one and the same: its state of unity with G-d is revealed.

Verily, every physical object is continuously brought into existence by G-d's Light. However, G-d encumbers our faculty of sight. For, should His Infinite Light be exposed, finite reality would burst. Intellectually, we can understand how an object can't possibly fashion itself. Upon reflection, we can discern the Baal Shem Tov's teaching, "The Hebrew letters of the Creation Narrative are forever operative. They perform the three-phased operation of continuously bringing into existence, enlivening and sustaining virtually every created entity." This perception, though, is relegated to the intellect. When we gaze at objects, we only see their physicality.

Limited Gaze

Scripture calls lulavs "branches of date palms". Talmud reveals the word "branches" (kapot) is read aloud with a different vowel – kafut, which translates as "bound together." A single lulav branch consists of multiple leaves. And each leaf can be split into two more. Nonetheless, they are joined together to fashion what appears as a single unity. Relative to its created state a lulav is divided into numerous leaves. This reflects the quality of separation. But due to the revelation of G-d enlivening light in a lulav, its leaves are joined together as one.

A similar phenomenon is manifest in the myrtle branch, which the Torah calls "twigs of plaited tree." It has numerous sets of three leaves. Talmud informs, "Each set of three sprouts from a single branch." Its physical appearance also portrays unity.

A willow leave has neither taste nor fragrance -- bereft of "spirituality in physicality." It symbolizes rudimentary physicality. Nonetheless, its state of unification with G-d is clearly visible. Willow trees grow together in groups. And Talmud notes their Aramaic term is "brotherhood."

Regarding the etrog, a Midrash teaches, "Since it is written first in the four-species verse, it is superior to the others. Etrogs possess both taste and fragrance." Talmud imparts, "Etrogs dwell on trees from year to year." An etrog bears antithetical climatic conditions: cold, heat, summer, winter etc. Talmud adds, "It requires three years to mature." And three years establishes legal fact. In addition, an etrog doesn't only survive varying climate, its growth is augmented by them. And that diversification doesn't merely help it develop; rather, it affects the etrog to become "beautiful." And the etrog's beauty serves as an example for the other three species, which likewise should be of the finest quality.

Each of the four species exhibits the concept of unity in an observable manner. That's what empowers them to draw the sukkah's Encompassing Light down into internality.

IV. Dark Light

Metaphysical Metamorphosis     

The happiness of "the time of our rejoicing" exclusively occurs during the Festival of Sukkot. It comes on the heels of our prior remoteness from G-d wrought by transgressions. But on Yom Kippur we drew close to G-d. For, then our misdeeds were transformed into merits.

Zohar describes this metamorphosis as, "The conversion of darkness into light and bitterness into sweetness." Darkness itself becomes light. Returnees to Judaism manifest this principle. Talmud relates, "The righteous cannot attain the level of returnees."

Yom Kippur's sublime revelation of G-d's Essence descends into the sukkah's roof. Its absorption into physicality is so comprehensive that the sukkah's components acquire sanctity of body. This expresses the metaphysical metamorphosis of reality: the locale of darkness becomes light. And that's what produces the incredible joy of the Sukkot Festival.

Feet Feat

The assimilation of Infinity culminates on Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. That' why our Divine service on Simchat Torah is to dance with our feet. This expresses ultimate unity; in dance, all Jews are equivalent.

The Oral Torah requires understanding and comprehension. On the other hand, a person is credited with learning by merely reading the Written Torah's script, irrespective of his ignorance. Still, the words must be enunciated in speech. But on Simchat Torah, its mitzvah is accomplished by dance. Even distinguished Torah sages fulfill their Divine service by dancing with their feet.

Ecstatic Extension

Sukkahs' joy extends to the entire year. This is similar to the operative nature of the month of Tishrei. Tishrei is regarded a "general month" because it influences every day of the ensuing year. Correspondingly, Sukkot's joy continues year-round.

May G-d bless each individual with life as Solomon said, "In the light of the King's countenance is life" (Proverbs 16:15). What's more, G-d should supply the Delight, which originates from His realm of "Life of Life." On Yom Kippur we attained this aspect. King David refers to Yom Kippur as, "To sustain them in famine" (Psalms 33:19). On that day we are sustained by fasting. This connotes Absolute Delight – abstracted above our bodily need. It corresponds to the Resurrection, when bodies will be animated directly by G-d's Light.

Joy breaks all boundaries. It should bring about the coming of Messiah. Micah the prophet promises, "The one who breaks forth will go before them; they will break forth and pass through; they will go out through the gates; the king will pass in front of them, with G-d at their head" (Micah 2:13). Messiah will come, redeem and bring us upright to our land. This will happen in the immediate future.

[Rabbi David Rothschild, a resident of Safed, is the founder and editor of Nefesh Magazine.]


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