by Rabbi Yisrael Kaniel – October 14, 2016
On Pesach, we celebrate G-d’s forging us into a free and independent nation with no one to answer to except for Him. A couple months later, we celebrate G-d’s bequeathing us His own personally crafted constitution for life. And, as we begin our New Year, we confirm and fortify our recognition of G-d as Supreme Ruler and Master of the universe and all it contains. This is followed shortly by our self-contemplation and self-analysis of our deeds and thoughts, to recognize those that need correction and to resolve to improve our actions and attitudes. After we complete this series of special times of the year, we begin the holiday of Sukkot. During the extensive holiday of Sukkot, we leave our more comfortable and secure homes in which we reside the entire year and move in to relatively primitive huts, called sukkot, eating, drinking, reading and spending time there for the duration of the holiday.
We can gain a certain degree of insight into the holiday of Sukkot by examining a disturbing episode during our ancestors’ sojourn in the desert. We are told (Bamidbar 21:4-5), “They journeyed from Mount Hor by way of the Sea of Reeds to go around the land of Edom, and the spirit of the people grew short on the way. The people spoke against G-d and Moses: ‘Why did you bring us up from Egypt to die in this wilderness, for there is no food and there is no water, and our soul is disgusted with the insubstantial food?’”. Our ancestors in the desert became annoyed and complained about the journey and their shortage of food and drink, complaining specifically about themanna they received from heaven – a recurrent complaint on their part. In response to their complaining, we are informed (Bamidbar 21:6), “G-d sent the fiery serpents against the people and they bit the people; and a large multitude of Israel died.” G-d punished those who complained by sending snakes after them.
We find in Targum Yonatan ben Uziel that G-d admonished our ancestors for complaining about themanna He gave them from heaven in contrast to the snake who does not complain even though he must eat dust every single day of its life (Bereshit 3:14). Consequently, G-d sent the snakes that eat dust and do not complain to punish our ancestors who complained about the manna He gave them from heaven.
The great commentator known as the Alshich (1508 – 1593), on the other hand, offers a more acute insight into the aforementioned incident. He suggests that the people did not complain so much about themanna because of its taste. After all, our Sages noted that the manna tasted like anything a person wished it to (Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 75a). Their complaint was due to the fact that it would only come a day at a time – no sizable amount in advance. One feels more reassured to receive a salary monthly, bi-weekly or even weekly than one who gets paid by the day. Having to wonder each day if he is going to be paid can be a source of aggravation. The people, therefore, complained that they do not like having to get paid every single day. This made them too dependent. Every day they must wonder anew whether they will actually receive another day’s worth of food. Nerve-wracking! But G-d did this intentionally. Receiving much in advance tends to lead to a lack of connection between the Giver and His receiver, a relationship that G-d did not want. G-d wished to deal with us on a daily basis and He wanted us to need to deal with Him on a daily basis. Consequently, the manna came down one day’s supply at a time. It was actually this aspect of themanna that our ancestors found annoying that was actually the very cause of it’s happening in this way, the need for us to be connected and to feel dependent (see Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 76a). As King David writes (Tehillim 145:15), “The eyes of all look to You with hope; and You give them their food in the proper time.”
Similarly, many commentaries explain the difference between the curse of Adam and Chava and that of the snake. After the sin of Adam and Chava, G-d said (Bereshit 3:19), “By the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread”. Adam and his male descendants were burdened with the yoke of needing to toil for their sustenance. To Chava, G-d said (Bereshit 3:16), “In pain you shall bear children”. On the other hand, the snake is told (Bereshis 3:14), “Dust shall you eat all the days of your life.” Many ask as to the nature of this curse. Is this not a blessing for the snake? Dust is very plentiful. Consequently, the snake will never be wanting for food. The answer is, however, that the snake is relegated to an awful fate. Because Adam must toil for his living, he must stay connected with G-d, maintaining an ongoing relationship with Him. Every day he must work for a living, not knowing how successful he will be. This may be a curse, but it is a curse with a hidden blessing. Similarly, Chava and her female descendants are forced to endure the difficulties and pain of pregnancy and childbirth. Again, this may be a curse, but it is a curse with an accompanying blessing for, while pregnant, the woman is motivated to pray for her child’s welfare as well as her own. She must stay connected with G-d. The snake, however, being told, “You shall eat dust all the days of your life,” suffers the ultimate curse. He loses any relationship with G-d. He always has his dust. He will always have what to eat. Consequently, he loses the realization that his sustenance is actually G-d given and tends to forget his real dependency on G-d.
As a result, our ancestors, when complaining about their daily sustenance sent down from heaven by G-d Himself, are attacked by snakes. The people are admonished by the snakes who are really the ones who should be complaining since their sustenance is guaranteed, thereby obviating a relationship with G-d, while receiving sustenance at the Hands of G-d reinforces our relationship with Him. It is the snake, who knows what it means to have food constantly available and its consequences, who is the conduit of punishment for our ancestors for complaining for having to look to G-d for their daily sustenance.
In view of the above, a new light can be shed on our residing in relatively primitive huts, or sukkot, during the holiday of Sukkot. Our omni-benevolent G-d assists us year-round to have the means to live in relatively secure and comfortable homes, protected from the elements, allowing us as much comfort as possible. However, for one week in the year, after we have recognized G-d’s supremacy as Ruler of the universe and after analyzing our actions and thoughts, we are enjoined to set aside our usual secure and comfortable homes for less comfortable surroundings, more simple surroundings, where we are asked to make due with less, reinforcing our connection with G-d. In so doing, we are forced into appreciating the simple life wherein our “needs” are minimized and we are satisfied with less but our view to and connection with G-d is maximized and we are compelled to engage in it more and more.
As we sit in our sukkot, with the minimum of amenities, better appreciating and dealing with the world around us that our Creator produced for us, we learn better to connect with G-d through the various facets of His created world, fortifying our relationship with Him and our dependence upon Him as we turn our hearts to Him to help us in overcoming the obstacles that arise as we live the more simple life. As we shake the four species, the lulav and etrog, whereby we symbolize the various facets of creation and all corners of the earth being subjected to our Creator Whom we previously, on Rosh HaShana, declared as Supreme Ruler and to Whom, afterwards, on Yom Kippur, we subjugated our thoughts and behavior to His judgement, we additionally, alter our regular lifestyle to further enhance our relationship with G-d, learning to appreciate more the world that He created for us and increasing our dependence on Him in order to deal with this simpler lifestyle.
The author of this essay was once addressed by a younger individual who expressed the inclination to curtail the festive Sukkot meal in the hut (sukkah) on account of the presence of a number of flies and continue inside the regular year-round residence, to which the author reacted negatively. Flies, like other nuisances are a natural and common facet of the world that G-d created. As such, it is in keeping with the spirit of the very precept of the sukkah to seek to deal with this part of the more simple world that we resign ourselves to in order to greater connect with G-d rather than seek to protect ourselves in our own man-made residences that are further removed from our connection to G-d. Like the manna, where in contrast to our ancestors’ desire not to be dependent on a daily basis for G-d’s benevolence, G-d intentionally fashioned the situation so that this would enhance and fortify their understanding of our dependence upon Him, so too, this precept central to the holiday of Sukkot of leaving the comforts of our year-round residence for the surroundings of a relatively simple and primitive hut, the sukkah, is not something to be easily or cavalierly obviated but, rather, would appear to be intentionally designed to amplify our oneness and closeness with G-d and His creation and encourage our feeling of dependence on Him to help us deal with life as He fashioned it.
May it be that our temporary residences in our sukkot, that help in our appreciating the simple life that our Creator first fashioned for us and help in accentuating our connection and relationship with Him and increasing our feeling of dependence upon Him spill over into the rest of the year, fortifying and strengthening our relationship and connection with G-d year-round and may we truly understand for all the days of the year our true and irrevocable dependence on G-d, subjugating ourselves constantly to His guidance, for our own welfare and betterment and that of the world at large.