Sukkot 5777: Building it is Better than Being Inside

sukkah-5777Sunday 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.”  

This insight of the fourth rebbe of Ger identifies the initial inclination to do a mitzvah, and then the first steps to realize that ambition as “greater” than completing the sacred act itself. There is indeed something mysterious about the decision point when a person chooses a path, long before they reach their destination. Our mystics see this as the holiest stage of creation, when God expresses pure grace in deciding to create a world. And it is this same moment of decision that we try to cultivate in ourselves and in others—to savor the joy of “drawing water,” and not only the satisfaction of its consumption. Building the Sukkah may impart greater joy even than dwelling within it, even though the idea of the latter inspires the former.

This simple but profound insight also resonates with a statement found in Pirke Avot 4:2 that, “the reward for a mitzvah is the mitzvah.” It indicates that readying oneself to perform a mitzvah is itself a precious activity. After all the work of building a Sukkah, or learning a new skill such as leading high holiday services or chanting a text of Torah—finally getting to enjoy the performance is itself a reward. As much as I look forward to sitting in the JTS Sukkah, the fact that I have not built it diminishes the mitzvah for me. True, I am יוצא—I go out to sit there, and satisfy my obligation, but without the effort to build, my dwelling is devoid of the deep joy that attends the preparation.

One may not always have the opportunity both to prepare and to perform a mitzvah—sometimes performance will have to suffice. But part of what makes our school so precious is the effort that we devote to preparation—learning how to perform mitzvot, become more proficient, and preparing ourselves for careers as mitzvah coaches so that others may also enjoy a life of mitzvot. Each class, each hour of study, and each conversation with teachers and classmates is like the opening of a gate—as the gates of Torah are opened before us, the possibilities of a deeply satisfying Jewish life expand.

In Siddur Lev Shalem there is a wonderful new commentary to Pirke Avot written by Rabbi Gordon Tucker and Rabba Tamar Elad Appelbaum. On p.248 (itself a nifty number—רמ”ח אברים כנגד מצוות עשה), Tamar writes this comment to our Mishnah:

The Torah’s commandments are different gateways into human vitality, which are mapped out and placed at students’ disposal so that they might go through them and grow. Enter each gateway that opens for you. Flee from sin, because an aveirah pushes a person away from the open gateways toward impassable walls. Mitzvah and aveirah are two instructors in spiritual and moral topography, teaching one to identify openings and walls. Choose an open gateway, and distance yourself from the walls. Pursue and flee, for a student should be in constant motion. Our lives are constant journeys, and sin is when we stop journeying and seek to live within secure walls.

Although this text and commentary do not refer to Sukkot, the connection is quite clear. Secure walls are associated with stasis and sin. Open gates and temporary dwellings are associated with growth and dynamism. The Sukkah becomes a symbol of spiritual enrichment, but only if the Sukkah is itself a dynamic project—building and unbuilding, entering and exiting, planning and remembering. The Sukkah becomes a tool for teaching us that buildings are impermanent, that dwelling is temporary, but that the stages of yearning, planning and preparing are the most vital of all. Draw water in joy, and construct huts with affection—these things are impermanent, but the love that inspires them is forever.

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