From the time of Rosh Chodesh Elul through Yom Kippur, a forty day period, we are called to look into ourselves. It is a time of personal reflection, thinking about what have we done this past year. Where are places that we can improve. What happened to us in our lives, both the positive and negative. This feeling culminates in Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, three days of intense prayer. Calling out those sins that we might have committed. Praying for ourselves, our families and the world around us. Requesting at the end of Yom Kippur that we all should be sealed in the book of life, while the words of Uneta Tokef linger still in the back our minds.
And immediately after the intensity of Yom Kippur, we start preparing for Sukkot. We go outdoors to build our sukkot. We have to remember to order a lulav and etrog. And at the edge of our mind we’re thinking about the singing and dancing that will happen in only a few short days, on Simchat Torah.
Even though this happens every year, I think it’s a bit jarring. During the Days of Atonement we are at our most vulnerable; The intensity is palpable. And then have have to switch gears to Succot, without really having the time to readjust to the world, to get out of the mindset of the High Holy Days.
But if we take a closer look at the laws related to Sukkot, it seems that the holiday itself it there to help us readjust to being active in the community. There are two main mitzvot of Sukkot. Taking the Arba Minim (the Lulav, Etrog, Hadasim, and Aravot), and sitting in a Sukkah. We can see these two commandments working together to bridge the gap between the individual and the community.
In the laws of Lulav and Etrog (658), the Shulchan Aruch says:
A person does not fulfil his obligation on the first day of Yom Tov with the Lulav that he borrowed from a friend…Even if one’s fellow said, “The lulav will be yours until you have fulfilled your obligation with it and after that it will be mine, as it was originally,” the recipient does not fulfill his obligation by taking hold of that lulav, as it is nevertheless like a borrowed lulav. However, if one’s fellow gave one the lulav as a gift, he is permitted to take hold of it for the fulfillment of his obligation.
Not only do the 4 species have to belong to you, according to one opinion they represent the different limbs that make up a person . When the Sefer HaChinuch, a 13th century Spanish book that lists and explores the 613 Torah commandments (mitzvot) , (#285) discusses the mitzvah of lulav it explains that the :
“Etrog refers to the heart, the place of understanding and wisdom. Lulav refers to the backbone, uprightness. Myrtle corresponds to the eyes, enlightenment. Willow represents the lips, the service of the lips (prayer).”
Not only does that lulav have to be yours, in such a way that you can’t just lend it out. The Lulav is the representation of the individual. You are using yourself to connect with God on a deeper level.
The Sukkah on the other hand is an external mitzvah. It is made outside. We are forced to sit in public places. Everyone around us can hear what is going on. The entrance might be easy to enter, more so than our house are. The law even sees that sukkah as something that is more public. A person can fulfill the mitzvah of sitting in the sukkah no matter if they own it or not. In Tractate Sukkah (27b) it says:
Even though a person cannot exempt himself from his obligation of the four species on the first day of sukkot with a borrowed lulav and etrog, he may exempt himself from his obligation of sitting in a sukkah by using his friend’s sukkah. The basis of this is the verse that says “every citizen of Israel shall sit in Sukkot”. This teaches us that all of Israel is fit to sit in one sukkah.
The verse “every citizen of Israel shall sit in a sukkah is also the source of the law that informs although there is a minimum size a sukkah must be, there is no maximum size of a sukkah. Theoretically, the gemara explains, there should be a sukkah that can fit all the Jewish People as one.
In practice such a sukkah would be difficult to build, but the idea of including others in our sukkah is preserved in the curious custom of Ushpizen.
The idea of Ushpizen comes from the Zohar, and is that each night we invite one of our forefathers and great leaders of Bible into our sukkah (today some have taken a custom of inviting the foremothers and female Biblical leaders as well).
The Zohar, as well as other texts seem to learn from this that it should not only be a custom of welcoming in spiritual guests, but rather a person has an obligation to bring in physical people as well, “In order for a person to truly merit in the act of welcoming in the spiritual guests, it is a mitzvah to invite 7 physical people, one each night of the holiday” (Zohar, Emor 103-104). There are additional texts that say that it specifically the poor and needy of the community should be the ones invited to share our sukkah . this is a holiday that the entire community, no matter what someone’s status is, should be celebrating. It is the responsibility of those with a sukkah to look outside of themselves, outside of their individual unit and reach out to the people that are living around them.
The laws of Succot help us reintegrate into the world after the intensity of the High Holidays. The mitzvah of the 4 species highlights the individual, and encourages continued introspection, while the mitzvah of sukkah forces us to go outside of ourselves, outside of our walls, to go out of your way to notice who needs an invitation. Together these mitzvot help us in our transition so that we are able to fully celebrate and dance with the Torah on Simchat Torah. The seven days of Sukkot is the period that helps us transition from being in the world of the individual to the world of the community, Together our community will dance in greeting of the rest of the year, And I pray that we can maintain this communal unity throughout the coming year.