In the Land of Israel Sukkot is Complete

Immediately following the transformative intensity and spiritual cleansing of Yom Kippur, Israel begins preparing for the weeklong festival of Sukkot. These preparations involve an active reengagement with nature, building temporary outdoor huts (sukkot) to move into for seven days and obtaining palm branches, myrtles, willows and citron fruits, paying special attention and care to the details of each.

Although the power of the days spanning from Rosh HaShanah to Yom Kippur create the necessary mindset for atonement, self-improvement and growth, these days also deplete our sense of spontaneity and joy, causing life to be experienced as somewhat rigid and unnatural. Sukkot – “the festival of our joy” – then forces us to reconnect with nature in such a way that infuses us with vitality and a childlike appreciation for life.

“The festival of Sukkot is a holy day whose joy and splendor we can feel only when we live in our beloved land, crowned with clear, turquoise skies pleasing to the eye and a pure, temperate, healing air, which together remind us of the hand of G-D, which brought us to the good and pleasant land of the Carmel, which renews in us strength, life and the hope that Israel will once again flourish upon its open spaces.” (Rabbi Avraham Yitzḥak HaKohen Kook in Kol BeHadar)

The festival of Sukkot takes on an entirely different dimension when celebrated on our native soil. Jews returning to Eretz Yisrael can note the astonishing contrast between the holiday’s observance in the Diaspora and its performance in our homeland. The atmosphere in Jerusalem is one of great anticipation where people everywhere prepare for the weeklong celebration. Many are outside with their families and neighbors building their own unique brand of sukkah. On nearly every corner, children sell the four species with a wide variety of citron fruits to choose from.

Seeing all of the different citrons causes us to appreciate Israel’s current situation in comparison to stories of Jewish life in foreign lands – generations ago – where Jews were sometimes unable to obtain etrogim at all. In such cases a person would not be held liable for neglecting to perform the mitzvah as it was above and beyond anything he could practically do. But during those difficult years, the commandment of taking an etrog on Sukkot never disappeared. As soon as citrons could again be procured, the Jews of that region were once again obligated to perform the mitzvah.

This is comparable to the Torah commandment to live in the Land of Israel. The moment that the mitzvah returns to our hands, it once again becomes our sacred duty to fulfill. When the Hebrew Nation was broken and scattered throughout the world, it was often physically impossible for us to return to our borders and we were not held accountable for neglecting the commandment. But now that there is a sovereign Jewish state over portions of our homeland, Diaspora Jews are left without any excuse for not returning to their true home in Eretz Yisrael.

The central idea of the sukkah is trust in the Kadosh Barukh Hu. The sukkah (whose flimsy construction makes it appear outwardly unfit even to be called a dwelling) is our tower of strength, sheltering us from danger on these sacred days. We must realize that it is not through the flimsy walls but through HaShem’s protection that the sukkah becomes our shield. Our Torah decrees that during these days this structure shall be our dwelling, teaching us that true security lies in our trusting HaShem and knowing that no evil will befall us if we sincerely and wholeheartedly perform His Divine Will.

While some may offer seemingly rational justifications for remaining in the exile and ignoring the mitzvah to live in Eretz Yisrael (see Ketubot 110b, Rambam Hilkhot Melakhim 5:12Hilkhot Ishut 13:19, Ramban’s supplement to the Rambam’s Sefer HaMitzvot 4, Shulḥan Arukh Even HaEzer 75:6), these excuses stem from not understanding the core message of Sukkot – that Israel should trust in HaShem and follow His commandments, no matter how seemingly difficult or overwhelming. The mitzvot are the finite vehicles through which we manifest the Divine Ideal and fully express our true inner selves in this world. And although moving home to Israel can be both challenging and frightening, it is also a thrilling adventure that infuses life with meaning and higher purpose. Aliyah remains one of our most central mitzvot as only through our dwelling in Eretz Yisrael can we succeed in living up to our national mission of ushering in an era of total peace and bringing all of Creation to a greater awareness of HaShem as the essence and context of our lives.


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Yom Kippur: Appreciating the Infinite

On Yom Kippur, we attain a glimpse of our lives, our choices and our relationships to HaShem from a Divine perspective that grants us a more holistic view of the larger story in which we participate.

When we experience something positive in our lives, we generally praise the Kadosh Barukh Hu by saying, “Blessed is He Who is good and does good.” When faced with a negative occurrence, however, we say, “Blessed is He Who is a true Judge.” Our Sages teach that in the future we will say “Blessed is He Who is good and does good” even regarding the tribulations we experience. When we look back and see the entire story from a Divine perspective, we realize that every seemingly negative situation – both in our personal lives and in our collective national life – has actually contributed to HaShem’s plan for bringing all of Creation towards a Divine goal of total good. We will ultimately understand how every perceived misfortune and disaster that befell us was actually a necessary point on the road to the future goal in which all humankind will joyfully connect to their deepest and truest selves through the vehicle of a Hebrew Kingdom and Temple in Jerusalem.

This higher understanding of how even the seemingly negative is actually a necessary component of the greater ultimate positive also holds true for every transgression an individual commits. Although we possess the free choice to do other than that which the Torah instructs, we are unable to actually oppose HaShem’s Will or undermine His plan. Even our transgressions are ultimately recycled back into the Divine plan and contribute to the goal towards which history is always moving.

While this could potentially be misinterpreted as a license to sin, it must be clarified and understood that transgressions actually create a feeling of distance from HaShem, causing alienation and spiritual anguish, sometimes even manifesting as physical ailments. But when one sincerely regrets his wrongdoings and resolves never to repeat them, he is forgiven and even his past sins are then put towards future good.

Yom Kippur is a day of spiritual recharge and transformation when the light of the World-to-Come is figuratively shining into our world, turning our darkest deeds from the past into light. By plugging ourselves into the expanded consciousness of Yom Kippur through the proper acts, thoughts and tefillot prescribed for the day, we can receive – and be transformed by – the day’s all encompassing light.

Yom Kippur is essentially a mikvah in time. According to Torah Law, when a person immerses in a mikvah — a purifying ritual bath — there can be absolutely nothing between his skin and the water. The mikvah’s waters represent G-D’s Divine Oneness and when one enters into a mikvah, he is essentially immersing himself back into that all encompassing Oneness, simulating the experience of existing within the greater infinite Whole we call HaShem. In the mikvah, we become one with the waters, completely absorbed, submerged and surrounded. By immersing our bodies in the water, we express our desire to experience our souls merging back into the Oneness of HaShem. We acknowledge that He is our context and essence and that nothing at all can ever separate us from Him.

We exist within HaShem in a similar sense to the existence of an idea within the mind of its thinker. A major difference between our relationship to G-D and that of an idea to its thinker, however, is that a thought has no free choice whereas we essentially do. Yet at the same time any choice we make still remains within the context of HaShem and His plan for this world. While, from our limited human perspectives, we enjoy freedom of choice, the Kadosh Barukh Hu still remains in absolute control. We are free to disobey and to do other than His Will but we are not able to oppose that Will or undermine His plan. And while a person could understandably wonder what difference our choices actually make, the truth is that our real choice is whether to become HaShem’s conscious partner or His unconscious tool.

We can choose to consciously do G-D’s Will and actively contribute to His plan in a way that brings us to experience the ecstasy of our unity within Him. Or we can choose to oppose His Will and through our own choices unknowingly fulfill His plan. While the first choice empowers us to live superhuman lives, the second option denies us the awareness of our inseparable connection to HaShem and instead causes us to feel estranged from our Divine Source.

The purpose of a mitzvah is to manifest HaShem’s Ideal and express our true inner selves as unique sparks of the Divine in this world. Transgressions, on the other hand, promote illusions of separateness that create painful feelings of alienation and anguish. We can only actively choose to disobey G-D’s Will when we mistakenly believe that we exist separate from Him. The erroneous belief that each of us exists as an independent entity separate from one another is itself the true punishment an offender suffers as it causes him to feel isolated from other people, estranged from his inner self and disconnected from the context and essence of his very existence.

The awareness of HaShem as the infinite Whole in which we all exist allows us to appreciate not only His Divine Oneness but also our special relationship to Him. And although we can theoretically choose do other than His Will, the glimpse of the Divine perspective we receive on Yom Kippur strengthens and inspires us to cleave to His Torah and its statutes as the healthiest and most natural means for expressing our inner selves and fulfilling our purpose of manifesting His Ideal.