SUKKOT SHABBAT CHOL HAMOED 5775
Sukkot is really a very strange and wonderful holiday—all at the same time. In contrast to the solemnity and spirituality of Yom Kippur, Sukkot is joyful, even boisterous—a very different spiritual pursuit. Sukkot is very physical—with shaking the etrog and lulav. In fact, the mitzvah of the Sukkah itself is one of the only mitzvot that you can do with your whole body—just placing your body in a Sukkah is a mitzvah.
But why do we have the mitzvah of the Sukkah? The simple meaning is that it commemorates the dwelling of our ancestors in Sukkot when they left Egypt. But what is so significant about commemorating camping-out in a lean-two? After all, it seems from the Torah that the Jews lived mostly in tents in their journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. Bilam the heathen prophet blessed the Jews: Ma tovu oholecha Yaakov, “How goodly are your tents O Jacob” (Num. 24:5); tents—not huts.
The deeper meaning, according to Rabbi Gershon Winkler is that Sukkot are more than huts. It’s a state of being. Sukkot are about stopping dead in our tracks—i.e. build and sit in a Sukkah and take time out to appreciate what just happened to you. Winkler emphasizes this point with a passage from the Torah that most people do not pay attention to. It tell us that Sukkot happens to be the name of the 1st place where our ancestors camped out following their exodus from Egypt (Ex. 13:20). Perhaps there they built Sukkot so that they could absorb what just happened to them in their miraculous escape from the tyranny of Egypt. And so we move into Sukkot after Yom Kippur to take time out to absorb the changes and promises we made on the High Holy Days.
What’s the message? Winkler writes: Quite often we tend to move on too quickly following a sacred event, or a moment of being gifted something significant by someone. How much time do we take to sit back and appreciate what we have received, compared to how much time we invest in pushing onward?
How much more do we expect of our partners, compared to how much we consciously appreciate what they have done for us already? Or how much they mean to us, as is? The moment our ancestors were liberated from Ramses, they no doubt became entirely focused on the journey ahead. They no doubt asked, “Okay, what’s next on the agenda?” rather than stay a few moments with the enormous gift of having been liberated from slavery. They were therefore instructed to construct Sukkot and to camp-out in these flimsy, temporary lean-twos, and take in what they had just received.
Judaism refers to this as hakaret hatov, “recognition of the good.” This is what Sukkot is really about: taking time to recognize the gifts in our lives, whether it be our health, our wealth, our partners, our children and so on. It’s the time to be grateful for being given another year and to then stop and take stock and appreciate life’s gifts.
Can we not acknowledge our life gifts in a house or a tent? Why a sukkah? Because it’s temporary, built anew every time—just as our gratitude and appreciation should be fresh every time and not just the same-old, same-old refrains.
Let me drive home this point with a beautiful story called, “The Curse of Blessings,” by Rabbi Mitchell Chefetz. It’s a story that can be life-changing if you can absorb its message:
There was an Officer of the Law, a recent graduate, proud as you can imagine, in his uniform of blue with brass buttons and gold epaulets. He wore a hat with a plume and a sword with a gold and ivory handle. He was as pompous as could be. He was arrogant and bold and callous. Every letter of the alphabet served only to demonstrate his authority and exalt his being.
One day he was walking his beat and heard a commotion in an alley. He ventured into the darkness, and there in the distance saw a man in rags. “Come forward,” he commanded. “Come forward now!” But the man in rags did not come forward. “I am an Officer of the Law, and I command you, come forward!”
The man in rags did not move. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other and spoke, “I don’t know what I’m going to do with you.”
“Do with me?” the Officer of the Law mocked. “Do with me? You don’t do with me! I do with you! I am an Officer of the Law, and I command you to come forward.”
“Now I know what to do with you,” the man in rags said, and as he spoke, he drew his sword. “Now I know what to do.” Without further word he moved to attack.
The Officer of the Law drew his own sword in defense. “Stop that!” he ordered. “Put your sword down right now!” But the man in rags did not stop. The Officer of the Law had to parry thrusts left and right. “Stop!” he said again, but to no avail. The Officer of the Law was forced to retreat.
When it seemed the man in rags would prevail, he lowered his guard, and what the Officer of the Law had intended as a parry became a thrust. His sword ran through the man in rags. “I didn’t mean that,” the Officer of the Law said. “I didn’t mean to hurt you. Why didn’t you stop when I ordered you to? Why did you attack me?”
The man in rags waved the words away. “I am leaving you,” he said, “and as I do, I put upon you the Curse of Blessings.”
“What do you mean?” asked the Officer of the Law, now quite confused.
“The Curse of Blessings. Every day you must say a new blessing, one you have never said before. On the day you do not say a new blessing, on that day you will die.”
The man in rags closed his eyes. The Officer of the Law looked about for help. There was none to be found. When he turned back, the man in rags had disappeared. He was gone.
“It was a dream,” the Officer of the Law thought. “Only a dream. I imagined it.”
The time was late in the afternoon. The sun was setting. As much as the Officer of the Law tried to ignore his experience, he could not. The Jewish day ends with the sunset. The Officer of the Law felt his body growing cold and knew from the chill that his life was leaving him. In a panic, he uttered these words of blessing: “You are blessed, Lrd our Gd, ruler of the universe, who has created such a beautiful sunset.” At once warmth and life flowed back into him. He realized, with both shock and relief, the curse had been for real.
The next morning he did not delay. He woke with words of blessing. “You are blessed that You allowed me to wake up this morning.” His life felt secure the entire day. The next morning he blessed his ability to rise from his bed—the following day that he could tie his shoes.
Day after day he found abilities he could bless. That he could go to the bathroom, that he had teeth to brush, that each finger of his hands still worked, that he had toes on his feet and hair on his head. He blessed his clothes, every garment. He blessed his house, the roof and floor, his furniture, every table and chair.
At last he ran out of things to bless, so he began to bless relationships. He blessed his family and friends, fellow workers, and those who worked for him. He blessed the mailman and the clerks. He was surprised to find they appreciated the blessings. His words had power. They drew family and friends closer to him. Word went out that the Officer of the Law was a source of blessing.
Years passed, decades. The Officer of the Law had to go farther afield to find new sources of blessing. He blessed city councils and university buildings, scientists, and their discoveries. As he traveled through the world he became in awe of its balance and beauty and blessed that. The more he learned, the more he had to bless. His life was long, and he had the opportunity to learn in every field.
He passed the age of 100. Most of his friends were long gone. His time was relegated to searching for the purpose in his life and the one source from which all blessings flow. He had long since realized he was not the source but only the conduit, and even that realization was welcomed with a blessing that sustained him for yet another day.
As he approached the age of 120, he considered that his life was long enough. Even Moses had not lived longer. On his birthday he made a conscious decision to utter no new blessing and allow his life to come to an end. Still he could recite old blessings, and throughout the day he reviewed them, all the blessings for his body and his possessions, for relationships that spread throughout the world, for the awesome beauty and balance of creation, and for the deep resonance, the pulse of purpose that pervaded his very being. But no new blessing passed his lips.
As the sun was setting, a chill progressed inward from his extremities. He did not resist it. In the twilight a figure appeared, the man in rags. “You!” the Officer of the Law exclaimed. “I have thought about you every day for a hundred years! I never meant to harm you. Please, forgive me.”
“You don’t understand,” said the man in rags. “You don’t know who I am, do you? I am the angel who was sent 100 years ago to harvest your soul, but when I looked at you, so pompous and proud, there was nothing there to harvest. An empty uniform was all I saw. So I put upon you the Curse of Blessings, and now look what you’ve become!”
The Officer of the Law grasped in an instant all that had happened and why. Overwhelmed he said, “You are blessed, my Gd, ruler of the universe, that You have kept me alive and sustained me so I could attain this moment.”
“Now look what you've done!” the man in rags said in frustration. “A new blessing!”
Life flowed back into the Officer of the Law, and he and the man in rags looked to each other, neither of them knowing quite what to do.
My friends, like the Officer of the Law was forced to recite blessing after blessing—a lifetime of blessings—Sukkot commands us to recite blessing after blessing—over the Sukkah, the etrog, the lulav, the myrtle and the willow. Just like the Officer of the Law could not stop saying blessings—even when his life was ending—so too may we absorb the gift of another year and the message of Sukkot, which is, to not stop saying blessings when Sukkot is over. Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis