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Sukkos Fun Times

Let’s start with a little quiz: What time of the year is it when men with the physique and physical shape of an inflated water raft, dress up in clothing that at one time (possibly a summer zman during second year Bais Medrash) vaguely hinted at fitting them – neon green T-shirt with the falafel stains imbedded in it and the tight dark brown pants with the ever-growing split – and commence activities that put smiles on the faces of chiropractors around the world? No, although doing the Kazatzka at your nephew’s Bar Mitzvah is not entirely a bad guess! How about the ritual of building the Succah on Motzei Yom Kippur, when fathers and sons join together, bond, coordinate and interact with each other, amidst the cacophonous yelps of delight, waves of good cheer, and groans of bruised shins and slipped discs. The smart ones have a blueprint that they follow each year which allows them to finish their construction quickly and easily, or they just have their kids and neighbors put the whole thing up. The real smart ones give that same blueprint to those same kids and neighbors and have them put it up – and even before the Kreplach are fully digested, Voila’, the succah is up and it’s time for a nap! The rest of us, however, toil on in blissful ignorance, banging and knocking, yet never quite understanding how the store could sell this screw together with this beam – when it quite obviously doesn’t fit! It’s pretty much the same story every year: We put up the succah – it falls down! We vow not to do this again next year, and then we put it up again! For the real “handy” ones (myself included), it falls down again, many “priceless” decorations are ruined – we hire somebody to put it up properly! If, after all this, it still falls, then we go to a hotel for Yom Tov!

The beauty of this period of time is that, throughout it all, we’re implacably happy, ebullient and cheerful, we feel an inner peace and serenity coupled with the joy of preparing for, and celebrating Yom Tov. The holy days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are past us, we feel assured of forgiveness from on high, and we’re feeling good about ourselves. We’re happy and we show it, and it’s a good thing, because the Torah charges us with a special Mitzvah of Simcha during this most auspicious of Yomim Tovim. The Possuk states “Vehoyisa ach someach”, and the great Rambam tells us, “Even though we are commanded to be happy by all the Moadim, on Sukkos there is a special added Mitzvah of Simchah.” There is no greater period of sustained simcha amongst Bnei Yisroel, than during the holiday of Sukkos, greater even than Purim and the month of Adar.

Which leads us to a bit of a problem – actually, it’s a rather large immutable problem. When a person is in a good mood, having happy experiences, and in general, smugly content with his life, he automatically takes on extra baggage – namely a pesky, little mischief-maker called the Yetzer Horah. The purpose of the Yetzer Horah is to channel all the simcha and happiness that a person is experiencing into action that is not befitting, causing him to become unruly and careless in his behavior, and eventually, sinful. This is a daily battle that goes on within every person and the greater the stakes, the harder the Yetzer Horah tries in his effort to effect evil. Likewise, warns the Sefer Hachinuch, on Sukkos, when the level of happiness is of monumental proportions, “the Yetzer Horah is so prevalent, that it’s impossible for a person to avoid sin!” Once again, I’ll repeat that, “impossible for a person to avoid sin!” What we have here is a classic catch-22: We are commanded to be extremely happy even though we are undoubtedly going to sin, yet we cannot allow ourselves to not be happy for that itself is a sin! On top of that, the Yom Tov of Sukkos is referred to in the Medrash, as “Rishon L’cheshbon Avonos” – which means, it is the time of the year when a person’s sins begin to be taken into account, for Yom Kippur has just passed and with it, went all the sins of the previous year. Sukkos, then, is the start of a new account. With this in mind, one would think that he must tread ultra-carefully so as to avoid any temptation of sin, which could start this new ledger off on the wrong foot. Yet, not only are we not ultra-careful, we are intoxicated with happiness, feeling happy and secure and commanded to act in such a way, even though we know full well, that it will bring about transgressions. How is this possible and how can these two extremes reconcile with each other?

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When a person makes a siyum, he says “We rise early and they rise early, we toil and they toil, we run and they run, etc.” What we’re doing is defining the differences between Torah Jews and gentiles – we rise early in the morning to learn Torah while they rise early for insignificant activities. We toil for spiritual reward and they toil for naught, we run to a better existence while they run down the road to emptiness. This is a most telling statement and one that should – must – be a pattern for which Jews live their lives. The same is true regarding all aspects of life including pleasure and recreational activities, where the Jewish train of thought is encapsulated in the saying of Chazal, “Shinah B’shabbos Ta’anug” – “Shinah” meaning learning, which on Shabbos, as on every other day, is a pure pleasure. The nations of the world, however, have a wholly different idea of what it means to have fun. For instance, after a long day at work, the typical American will get together with a couple of his buddies at the local bar, kick back and have few drinks, discuss and probably wager on the local sports team, have a few more drinks and tell nasty stories about the boss behind his back – elect a designated driver – come home and fall asleep in front of the television. This is their idea of fun and relaxation – and that’s just the upstanding ones! A Torah Jew, on the other hand, will come home and learn with his children, daven Mincha and Ma’ariv with a minyan, go to a shiur or learn with a chavrusah and generally devote time to his family. This is true pleasure that comes from following the precepts of the Torah and living a happy life the way Hashem wants us to.

The sefer Me’am Loaz explains that this is the type of simcha and joy that a Jew should experience on Sukkos. The Posuk says “Vehayisa Ach Sameach.” The word “Ach” generally is used to exclude and restrict, and on Sukkos, although we are commanded to be as joyful and exhilirated as possible, this is not a carte blanche’ for unrestrained behavior, pandemonious bedlam, lackadaisical indifference for moral and social values and disorderly anarchy – all in the name of “celebration”! (For further reference, see Marde Gras, Woodstock, Times Square on New Year’s eve, etc. Need I say more?!) At the apex of happiness, we must still act in accordance with Halachah, proper moral etiquette and a healthy respect for other people, their property and the law in general. Not to mention one’s own self-respect and the feelings of one’s own family. (For further reference on this also, see “drunkard at family get-together”!)

This, then, is our goal of achieving pure happiness during this most wonderful and blissful time of the year. We celebrate our good fortune with Hashem and the rest of Klal Yisroel – not in spite of them, and our simcha will then grow and last us through the year.


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