The Lights of the Succah
by Yechezkel Gold
"And the Harvest Festival at the turn of the year" (Exodus 34) is
commonly called Sukkoth, the Festival of Booths. Closely following Rosh
Hashana and Yom Kippur, the Days of Awe and Judgment, Sukkoth is also
known as "the Time of our Rejoicing".
Year after year follows the same pattern, yet each year is a spiritual
harvest of something wondrous, joyous and new.
As I enter my sixth decade, I find myself amazed that the cycle of
annual holidays continues to bring increased spiritual delight, vigor,
fascination and insight. As I bring more thought to them each year, as
my learning and life experience accumulate, the holidays bestow
disproportionately more upon me.
The Book of Ecclesiastes, traditionally read on the Sabbath of
Succoth, exclaims: "all channels lead to the sea, and the sea is not
Who would think that merely sitting in the Succah could be such an
Even in Jerusalem, balmy at this time of year, the Succah does not quite
deceive us. Sitting at table ensconced within the four walls and
beneath the canopy of the schach, our eyes tell us that we are indoors. Our other
senses, though, tell us otherwise. We are - almost - outdoors! In
America or Europe the cold nip in the air is often unmistakable. The
resulting confusion finally resolves into integration of indoors and
out. You and I are in the Succah!
Spiritually too, the Succah integrates the mystical realms with physical
reality. Like the Holy Temple which joined spiritual and material, so
that even physical materials became holy, the Succah brings inside and
outside together. In fact, the Holy Temple was called the Succah of
David. This harmony among all dimensions of reality is achieved after
the atonement of Yom Kippur.
Just sitting in the Succah in the right frame of mind brings these
mellow spiritual harmonies. It is so simple, it seems unearned and
almost unreal. We wonder that it should be so.
This wonder and the sense of freely bestowed, unearned tranquillity
sitting in the Succah are part of the Succah experience, too. The
Succah embraces us, as Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, who lived some two hundred years ago, taught. The
halachically mandated two full walls are like the arm’s two larger
members. With the third wall a minimum of one hand’s breadth in length,
the Succah is like a hand embracing us. God values our merits, but more
fundamentally, He loves us and gives us a “hug” just for ourselves. The
sages taught that we enter Succoth with the conviction that God has
forgiven us our faults and errors. Though by right we can not reverse
the past, God overlooked our transgressions and gave his full atonement,
only because He loves us. We need only sit in the Succah to receive his
Accepting that God loves us for our very selves truly touches the heart,
especially as we wonder and feel His love is unearned. This love means that
we can change our focus to a higher, gladder reality. Sukkoth is the Time of
The Succah brings us a higher, happier state. The entire Divine plan
surrounds us from all sides, centering benevolently on His people. It
is a frame of mind in which our thoughts and actions and all the events
of our lives and our people are imbued with deeper, eternal
significance. History, personal as well as national, is regarded through a new and spiritual scrim.
Getting to this frame of mind means leaving our accustomed tense
over-involvement in personal affairs that block our seeing the
exquisite, sublime Divine light and its reflection in our life stories.
It means attaining greater openness and objectively to view our lives
and their events in a more spiritual, less self-centered perspective.
We leave our homes and take up residence in the freshness under the
schach and within the tranquillity of the Succah which enable us to see
ourselves in a new light.
The Succah is a holy, sublime world. Sitting in a physical Succah is
the first step in integrating the mystical realms with our material
world. But we must also get there in our minds. We must learn to make
the connections between supernal reality and the events of this world.
Generally, these connections are called Torah. Torah is God’s plan for
the world, revealing the Divine Light in the things and events of the
mundane realm. But Torah, too, needs manifest connection to God and to
the world. Otherwise, it might seem like only a profound, intricate
rulebook. How do we make those connections? How do we see God in Torah
and how does that lead us to see God in our lives?
The Sh'ma Yisroel, the six word verse expressing our supreme faith,
encapsulates the three-stage process. Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi
taught that the six words divide into three groupings. The first two
words, Sh'ma Yisroel, "Hear, O Israel!" directly address us and bring
encounter with the Divine. This overwhelms us, bringing us entirely out
The next two words translate as "Hashem (the Name of God) is our God". When
we say "our God" we have come back to ourselves somewhat. "Our God"
means how we, our souls, perceive God. These are our deepest and most
refined hopes and ideals. It means God as He can be manifest in our
lives. This fervent hope and ideal is the essence of Torah.
The third stage corresponds to actualizing the ideal. "God is one"
means rendering the God of our souls the God of the world, as Rashi
comments on this verse.
The first stage corresponds to the high holy days, the Days of Awe and
Judgment that take us entirely out of ourselves. The second stage
corresponds to Sukkoth which like Torah integrates sublime encounter
with the Divine with engagement in the practical world. Sh'mini Atzeret
- Simchat Torah corresponds to the third stage, really living the Torah
How does direct encounter with the Divine become integrated with Torah?
How do we connect overwhelming, inspiring mystical experience with
Torah’s rules and rituals? The morning blessing recited before saying of
the Sh'ma provides an answer. We say there: "... for the sake of our
fathers who confidently trusted You and to whom You taught the rules of
life to act according to Your will wholeheartedly, so favor us and teach
us." Our fathers confidently trusted God, and He taught them the
dictates of life, Torah. To glimpse the truth of Torah one must
confidently trust in God.
To become entirely engrossed in the encounter with God and disengage
from over involvement in practical matters requires great confidence and
trust to overcome our excessive fear of this world. Too often, we find
ourselves glancing at our watches during prayer and worrying about our
obligations as we study Torah. We do not trust God enough to become
When we do trust Him quite fully, atonement and equanimity result. From
this tranquil, open objectivity and confident trust in God emerge the
soul's true ideals: Torah, readiness to approach life integrated with
spirituality and ethics.
This blissful state is the world of Torah. Poring intently into its
concepts to discover their inner truth and contemplating its depths, the
individual enters a glad realm of exquisite beauty, inspiring, awesome
heights and profound sweetness.
The faint hearted might remonstrate that this realm scarcely intersects
with reality as they know it. Though they may even have glimpsed
tranquil, confident trust in God, they can not integrate it with
practicality. Actually, Torah itself brings these two realms together as
a harmonious whole. The problem is to internalize the Torah perspective
so it doesn't contradict one's inner sense of reality.
Another of God's commandments related to Sukkoth addresses this
problem. We take four plant species and wave them in all six
directions, commencing from touching them to the chest at the heart,
extending them outward and then bringing back to the heart. These four
species are the lulav (palm branch), citron, myrtle branch and willow
branch, and are collectively known as the lulav after the largest and
most prominent among them. Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi considers
waving the lulav in the Succah the choicest way to fulfil this
The Midrash tells us that these four species symbolize four primary human
limbs. Lulav represents the spine, citron the heart, myrtle leaves the
eyes and willow leaves the lips. Accordingly, waving the lulav means
taking a symbolic man and extending him to each dimension of our life.
Why do we wave a symbolic man if we are human ourselves? The answer is
that these four species represent the ideal human which we can become,
the human fully integrating the soul's inspiring encounter with the
Divine with practicality. This ideal human, buried in our hearts, can
emerge and be extended to each dimension of our life. As well, this
ideal human can be internalized and become our true selves.
We wave the lulav in the Succah so the Divine light and love embracing
us comes into our heart. When it does, living according to Torah seems
a privilege and becomes a personally chosen must, replacing the feeling
of impracticality and reluctant obligation we had earlier.
Internalizing the light of the Succah is compared to eating. Indeed, we
recite the benediction for the commandment of Succah only when we set
ourselves to eat (bread or some dish made from the five grains.)
Analogously, the mystical sources inform us that the soul's food is
Torah. By dealing trustingly, openly and attentively with the realm of
Torah, Succah and lulav, we make it part of us.
Succoth lasts but seven days. We immerse ourselves in this lofty,
exclusive reality for a week at the beginning of the year, and
afterwards we leave the Succah and re-enter the realm of practicality,
internally transformed. The verse in Psalms (90) asks God: " Satiate us
in the morning with Your kindness and we will praise and rejoice
throughout all our days." The word yom usually denotes a day but in
scripture often denotes a year. Succoth is in the morning of the year.
If we satiate ourselves with the love and kindness of the Divine embrace
in the Succah, the transformation will last during the whole year.
This light is part of the harvest of meaning and spirituality choice
gathered this year by the Succah. What will next year's harvest be
from the September 2002 Edition of the Jewish Magazine