Minutes of Torah

One of the hallmarks of the Sukkot holiday is its directive to beautify every aspect of this holiday and to be joyous throughout the experience. As we explore this mandate unique to this festival, we may derivatively learn something very interesting about Torah itself.

Many times, we look at the commandments and are overwhelmed by the sheer complexity of their fulfillment. It is with that backdrop that one approaches those associated with Sukkot — particularly the experience of sitting in a Sukkah.  Like other events associated with this holiday, this is to be performed in a state of joy. 

And to help ensure that you reach this state of happiness, we decorate and furnish the sukkah with a view towards making this an attractive, pleasant, and comfortable experience, even if it is only designed to last for a few days. The sukkah itself is full of sensory pleasures — the deliciousness of the meals we eat and the fine quality of the furnishings that we use to decorate the sukkah. While we don’t accept ‘seconds’ when it comes to the enjoyment of any festive occasion, on this holiday we go out of our way to use decorations that are unique to this day and are of first-rate quality.

And yet, even if you’ve designed and constructed a five-star sukkah, others do not have to ‘sit through’ the experience. For example, you would not be surprised to learn that those who are ill, or those who are traveling and can’t be expected to find or construct a sukkah as they travel, are categorically exempt from being in the sukkah over the festival.

However, there is a category of exempt persons which is unique to this commandment. Usually, the performance of a commandment is mandatory even if inconvenient. Discomfort or reasonable physical exertion do not exempt a person from performance. Yet, sitting in a sukkah can be skipped if uncomfortable conditions are involved. So, if it’s too hot or too cold in the sukkah, or if it’s buggy or smelly, we are no longer obligated to remain in the sukkah. Moving into the sukkah is supposed to be a manifestation of our joy, not of our distress.

But it’s not only the appearance, but as well, the feel of the lulav and etrog that is also paramount. There is a discussion in the Talmud as to which types of palm trees can be considered for use as a lulav, with the rabbis understandably excluding those of a prickly species of palm, or prickly stage of the tree’s growth. What is interesting is the proof text used to support the conclusion from the Book of Proverbs,

“its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace.”

Rashi explains, as the prickly palm tree is sharp and painful to hold, Torah — whose ways are pleasant, would not ask a person to do something that would be painful or harmful.

But another explanation, that is more expansive and appropriate to the holiday and its relationship to Torah, can be found when we the examine the verse following in Proverbs,

“It is a tree of life to all who hold on to it and those who support it are happy.”

The rabbis appear to be arguing that palm tree used for the lulav is of the same nature as the Torah, which is “a tree of life that one holds on to.” (If the quoted lines above sound familiar, we sing them in reverse order each Shabbat with the return of the Torah to the ark, “Etz chayyim hi …) The reason why we experience the Torah as a tree of life is because its ways are pleasant. The values and laws found in Torah are meant to engage not only our abstract moral principles, but also our sensory experience. We’re privileged to have a beautiful Torah and it’s our obligation to keep in mind that the beauty of the Torah is an essential, not an incidental, component of it.

Sukkot is a manifestation of the kind of joy and pleasure that should always also accompany our relationship with Torah. Torah should be something that we want to experience fully, that we want to hold. The experience associated with Sukkot should provide us with a template of how to maximize our positive associations with the Torah, and to acknowledge the mutually supportive relationship between aesthetic and moral beauty.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach!


Rav Julius Rabinowitz
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