JWR Outlook

Jewish World Review Oct. 7, 1998 / 17 Tishrei, 5759

Security, Illusion and Reality

Reflections on Succos and its relationship to the entire holiday season

By Rabbi Ralph Pelcowitz

SUCCOS IS THE SEASON of simcha, the holiday of authentic joy and true happiness. Succos is a time of harvest, of ingathering. Were we to follow the normal procedure of society -- the universally accepted practices of mankind -- we would mark this festival with symbols of stability and thanksgiving. We would invoke G-d's blessings upon our homes and contemplate our good fortune as we observe our storehouses filled to overflowing.

Instead, however, we leave our homes and dwell in booths and devote the Shabbes of Chol HaMoed to the study of Koheles, book that examines man and his life, finding them to be filled with vanity! In the midst of simcha we ask ourselves: "And of joy what doth it accomplish?" (Koheles 2:2). In the midst of affluence and the security of prosperity, we take up residence in a flimsy hut with a fragile roof!

Another anomaly. In Bircas HaMazon, the grace after meals, we add a brief petition --- "May the All-merciful raise up for us the fallen Tabernacle (succah) of David." We ask for the restoration of the Davidic Kingdom, the Messianic Age. Why only during this Yom Tov? Because the prophet Amos refers to the fallen Kingdom or Kingship as a succah? But that is begging the question. The royal house would be a far more appropriate phrase than a royal booth of tabernacle. "And He made them houses," the blessing granted by the Almighty to the midwives in Egypt, is interpreted by Chazal to mean houses of priesthood and royalty. Why then does the prophet refer to the most illustrious and historic royal house of David as a mere succah?


Succos is the third holiday in the month of Tishrei. Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Judgement; and Succos, the Season of Rejoicing --- this is the sequence, with each following the other in rapid succession. The Midrash quotes the Psalmist: "You make me know the path of life, in Your presence is fullness of joy," (Psalms 16) and comments that the "path of life" is taught to us during the Days of Awe, while the "fullness of joy" is revealed to us through the experience of Succos, thereby indicating not only a sequence but a cause and effect relationship between the Days of Awe and Succos.

A leading teacher of Mussar, Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, in his Michtav MeEliyahu, links the holidays of Tishrei to the preceding months of Tammuz, Av, and Elul, going even beyond the casual connection of the Midrash. He observes that during the three week period beginning with the Seventeenth of Tammuz and culminating on Tishah B'Av, we experience a sustained period of progressive yiush of deep despair.

This is due not only to our recollection of churban, our reliving of the destruction of Jerusalem, but also because we develop a sense of despair about the world and the society in which we live. We are insecure for good cause as we realize that the seeds of destruction that deprived us of our homeland and brought us into exile are still very real and current. This yiush, however, is not one of unrelieved anguish, for it actually leads us to the period of comfort which follows closely on the heel of Tishah B'Av.

Despair of the world means the shattering of illusions and a re-examination of our reliance upon man. The recognition of reality, of the futility of so much of man's pursuits and illusory success, brings one to a rejections of these illusions --- Olam Hazeh, this transitory world, hence the beginning of renewal --- or what Torah calls teshuvah.

The sequence and progression now becomes more logical. The period of nechamah, of comfort, follows that of yiush ... followed in turn by Elul, the month of repentance ... climaxed by Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Succos, the festival of simchah, is the ultimate destination of this journey --- to serve G-d with joy --- and authentic happiness, distilled from the awe and reverence of the Yomim Noraim, built upon the foundation of teshuvah, provoked and initiated by the seeds of nechamah, which in turn were planted and nurtured by the yiush of Tammuz and Av!

This thesis opens avenues of thought which shed new light on the concept and character of Succos. Man instinctively seeks security. Strength is usually equated with security, might with majesty and power, and these in turn are considered to be guarantors of peace. This indeed has ever been the basic philosophy and policy of governments as well as individuals, who also seek security through material means and rely upon physical measures for protection --- be they walls, locks, or alarm systems.

The State of Israel is no exception to this world-view, just as individual Jews (including Torah Jews, unfortunately) are no different from the society at large. It is interesting to note how certain writers and commentators lament the de-spiritualization of the Jewish experience, bemoaning the fact that Israel's traditional faith and trust in G-d had been replaced by trust in military hardware. Strange how the world expects us to be different and unique, unfortunately a classic case of favorable but frustrated expectations. Erik Erikson has written that he detected among Israelis "a certain sadness over the necessity to reenter historical actuality by means of military methods" --- a most perceptive observation and hopefully correct, for we should be unique and different in our nationhood and statehood!


Here then is the Jewish problem --- how to define strength and power, not only how to use it. To know the answer is to know wisdom --- chochmah. The Sefarim teach us that the letters of chochmah also spell ma koach, "What is strength?" and koach ma, "What is strength's purpose?" Indeed, what is true strength, and to what avail is strength of man and his arsenals? In Koheles (2:26), which we read for excellent and valid reasons on Succos, Shlomo HaMelech states: "For to the man that is good in His sight He gives wisdom and knowledge and joy, but to the sinner He gives the task to gather and accumulate."

A sinner is one who has missed the mark. He labors under the delusion that amassing and accumulating, be it wealth or weapons, will grant hem safety and security. The man favored by G-d, who places his faith and trust in the Almighty, is granted three precious gifts --- wisdom, knowledge, and happiness. The man who knows where strength lies possesses true chochmah and is therefore blessed with simchah. The words of Koheles are an amazing reflection of that which indicated above. The Jew who has experienced the shock of self-recognition, beginning with his shattered illusions of the Three Weeks, who began to grope his way back to sanity in Elul and found himself in Tishrei through the Almighty, now logically and reasonably comes home in Succos sensing security under the protective s'chach of the Shechinah.

The succah is not well-built nor sturdy, physically; but neither is man and the world he lives in. The succah does not protect us too well from the elements, but man has always been vulnerable to nature and its furies. What the Jew does realize in the succah is that peace, both in body and mind, is to be found in the knowledge that strength is not in our exclusive province, nor is security in our power, but both are under the protective shield of the Guardian of Israel.

The selection from Psalms that we read from Rosh Chodesh Elul to the end of Succos becomes perhaps somewhat clearer in the light of all that has been written. "In the day of trouble he will hide me in his succah" --- a succah not a house. The phrase in Ma'ariv that we recite every Shabbes and Yom Tov evening should also become more meaningful! "Spread over us the Succah of thy peace --- not a house of peace, but a succah, for a house would be misleading. It could delude one into thinking that the walls and doors are our security. The succah creates no such illusions, for we know that we are frail and vulnerable, and yet secure and strong if we but merit the concern and protection of the Almighty.


The Maharal of Prague in his commentary on Mesechta Sanhedrin discusses why all other royal "houses" are so designated, while that of David and Moshiach is called a succah. "Every kingdom is called a house so as to indicate its power and strength, akin to that of a house which is stable and strong. The Kingdom of David, however, is referred to as a succah, for this kingdom is a divine one, unlike all others; therefore, it is called a succah to indicate that it is protected and sheltered from on high." The words of Maharal illuminate the words of the prophet and answer the question we posed at the beginning of this essay.

When the prophet speaks of "The fallen succah of David," he reveals to us, and hopefully to the leaders of the State of Israel as well, that our protection and our security is guaranteed only from on high, and that an umbrella of jets may well prove to be a mirage unless it is supplemented by s'chach. Peace in the Holy Land is illusory unless it be a succas shalom --- a tabernacle of peace. All this we can appreciate when we ourselves dwell for seven days in succos, read Koheles, and experience the simchah that is the harvest fruit of Tishrei, but which was actually planted in the months of Av and Elul.

A Chassidic Rebbe once said that the mitzvah of succah is the only one which we can enter into with our body. Every mitzvah needs heart in its observance, but unfortunately it is often lacking, for we do our mitzvos by rote. The mitzvah of succah is one where we are sure of the presence of the heart, at least physically. We all have the unfortunate tendency of listening to other people's opinions, following the values dictated by our environment, and being influenced by the world-view of a society that has wandered so very far away from the basic tenets of Torah. On Succos we can hopefully find that our heart is not wanting, as we sit in the succah with our total being. With our hearts to guide us, rather than our ears, we may yet be granted a vision of greatness, one that will alter our perspective for the entire year.

Rabbi Ralph Pelcowitz is the rabbi emeritus of Congregation Knesseth Israel in Far Rockaway, N.Y.


©1998, Agudath Israel of America