Decorating the sukkah (Photo/Courtesy Hazon)
Decorating the sukkah (Photo/Courtesy Hazon)

Don’t cram Judaism into one day a year — come back for Sukkot

The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.

There is a famous story set in New York City about an apartment dweller who builds his sukkah on the fire escape right outside his kitchen window.

When meal time comes, he climbs out his window to eat in the sukkah. Of course, his landlord is furious and hauls him into housing court to demand that the obstruction be removed immediately.

The judge, a fellow named Shapiro, is stern with the tenant. He rules, “You’ve got seven days to get this down.”

Why does Sukkot come just after Yom Kippur?

The Midrash explains the connection between the two holidays, with a wonderful image from the ancient sports arena in Rome. Two athletes are locked in a wrestling match and keep knocking each other over. How do we find out who won?

The Midrash is certainly not going to answer, “Look at the scoreboard.” That would be too simple. Instead, it gives the answer to keep watching after the match. A short time later, one of the wrestlers will come forth crowned with a wreath, the traditional prize at the ancient Olympic Games. That shows him to be the winner.

The Midrash applied this analogy to Judaism.

During the High Holidays, each of us wrestles against our own yetzer hara, our evil inclination. We struggle against sin, indifference, and insensitivity, resolving to be better. Sometimes, we overcome these weaknesses, but sometimes, they get the better of us and wrestle us into submission against our better judgment.

When it is all over, how do we know whether we have won?

A short time after the High Holidays, on Sukkot, the victorious Jew enters the synagogue, crowned with a different kind of “wreath,” one composed of the three species (palm frond, myrtle branch and willow branch) that make up the lulav. The lulav, the wreath, is our victor’s crown. Therefore, if we celebrate Sukkot, then we have won the battle by continuing Jewish practices into the new year.

By actively choosing to continue practicing your traditions, you have joined an ancient and special winning team.

If you’re now cozied up in your Sukkah, the J. newspaper and its wealth of Torah wisdom in hand, then “mazel tov!” You’re a true champion of tradition!

‘Why is an etrog a beautiful fruit?’

The Talmud asks this question (Sukkah 35a) and then answers it: Because it grows on the tree and draws nourishment for an entire year.

So, if we want to become beautiful human beings in spirit, we must emulate the etrog, drawing nourishment from the Torah, the tree of Jewish life, throughout the entire year.

Judaism should not be compressed into one day… Its richness and joy and sanctity should suffuse all our days.

There is a famous story in the Talmud of the non-Jew who came to Hillel, asking him: “Teach me the whole Torah while I stand on regel achat — one foot.”

Hillel said: “What is hateful unto you, do not do to others,” then added, “The rest is commentary. Now go and learn!”

Regel can mean foot. But it can also mean holiday.

There are Jews who want the whole Torah al regel achat, on one holiday — Yom Kippur. Like Max.

The story of Max and his rabbi

Rabbi Landau is standing near the synagogue exit, shaking hands as his congregation leaves. But as Max departs, the rabbi pulls him aside and says, “Max, I think you need to join the Army of God!”

“But I’m already in God’s Army, rabbi,” replies Max.

“So how come I don’t see you in shul except on Yom Kippur?” asks the rabbi.

“Because I’m in the Secret Service,” Max whispers.

It’s wonderful to be in God’s Secret Service. Celebrating Yom Kippur is a great start, for sure.

But Judaism should not be compressed into one day, then abandoned for the rest of the year. Its richness and joy and sanctity should suffuse all our days.

We must follow Hillel who tells us, “zil g’mor,” now go and learn more. Do more. Be that etrog. Be that wrestler crowned with the wreath.

That is what you have done. You are celebrating Sukkot. May you continue this winning streak of living Jewishly throughout the year.

Rabbi Dov Greenberg
Rabbi Dov Greenberg

Rabbi Dov Greenberg leads Stanford Chabad and lectures across the world.