Sunday was a day of frenzied construction for my friends and me on a farm in upstate NY. Thirty-two of us were gathering to celebrate the first days of Sukkot together, but that meant intense activity among the early arrivals to build and decorate our Sukkah. Ours is a rustic project—no metal, plastic or even milled lumber allowed, only tree limbs, twine and cornstalks for the walls. Fortunately we were able to store the biggest logs from last year under the barn, but even so, knotting all of the joints into walls, lifting them, cladding them with corn and covering them with birch required a sustained surge of energy.
The pay-off was tremendous, and we enjoyed our first dinner in the Sukkah before the rains arrived and soaked us thoroughly. By Tuesday we basked in the glorious combination of fall colors and summer sun that have bathed the Northeast this holiday, delighting in dappled light that slipped between green and golden leaves into our temporary home. Too soon it was Tuesday night, and cars were loaded for New York and Boston, leaving our glorious Sukkah empty for the rest of the week. How terribly sad! I am fortunate to have the beautiful JTS and Ansche Chesed Sukkot available for the rest of the festival, but in hindsight it seems insane to invest so much effort into building the Sukkah, only to abandon it a few days later.
There is another way to regard the matter, however. In Isaiah 12:3 we read, “Joyfully you shall draw water from the fountains of triumph,” ושאבתם מים בששון ממעיני הישועה. Rabbi Avraham Mordecai Alter of Gur, son of Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter, the “Sefat Emet,” connected this verse to the Sukkot custom of ניסוך המים, the water libation on the altar. Is it not strange, he asked, that the focus of joy in this verse is on the drawing of water, which is after all, only a preparation for the activity of pouring the water out on the altar? Why does the verse emphasize the joy of drawing water, and not the culminating act of pouring it out? His response indicates an entire worldview: ולמה תלה השמחה בשאיבה? מכאן שההכנה למצוה גדולה מהמצוה, “Why was the joy associated with the drawing of water? This shows that the preparation for a mitzvah is greater than is performing the mitzvah itself.” Continue reading