ALL HOLIDAYS SHOULD BE THIS EASY
The Torah commands, You shall dwell in sukkot for seven days (Leviticus 23:42). From this verse, the Talmud derives that One should dwell in the sukkah in the same manner that he normally dwells in his home the rest of the year."
The Torah commands, You shall dwell in sukkot for seven days (Leviticus 23:42). From this verse, the Talmud derives that One should dwell in the sukkah in the same manner that he normally dwells in his home the rest of the year." This means that, granted the obvious change of scenery, when one relocates to his sukkah for the holiday he is supposed to function as he always does in his home. The mitzvah of dwelling in a sukkah is defined as normal living. The Torah is teaching us to recline in our easy chairs - while gazing up through the mesh of woven bamboo. The Torah tells us to sip that second cup of coffee - while the canvas walls of the sukkah flap in the wind all around us.
Rabbi Chaim Friedlander, the late mashgiach (spiritual guide) of the Ponovezh Yeshiva in Israel, explains that the nature of this commandment - a law proscribing go about your everyday business and enjoy yourself - is most unique, and uniquely Jewish. Normally, when we think of serving G-d, we think of giving things away, whether it be sacrifice, giving money to tzedakah, or performing some action that involves relinquishing what is ours for the sake of a higher purpose. But the holiday of Sukkot requires that we do the opposite. Eating and relaxing, actions that appear self-indulging, are part and parcel of this mitzvah.
Maimonides, in his classic code of Jewish law, records the following law regarding korbanot, the offerings brought in the Temple. Two of the many categories of Temple sacrifices brought by Jews are shelamim ("peace" offerings) and olah/olot ("ascension" offering(s)). In both cases, the animal is brought to the Temple, slaughtered, and then transferred to the flames of the altar for a certain period of time. Shelamim, for one, are burned (cooked, essentially) and then parts of the meat are distributed to the Kohanim (priests) on duty in the Temple. The Kohanim eat the meat. In fact, if they do not eat the meat of the shelamim offering, the obligation of bringing that sacrifice has not been fulfilled. Hence, their eating is integral to the whole mitzvah of bringing a shelamim. An olah, by contrast, is entirely consumed by the flames of the altar; as implied by its name, the smoke of a smoldering olah ascends heavenward, carrying away the meat in a dark column of carbon dioxide, until hardly anything remains below. Nobody may eat its meat - even if he has an affinity for charcoal.
A non-Jew can also bring olot to the Temple. However, he cannot bring shelamim. In fact, the Talmud rules that even if a non-Jew designates an animal as a shelamim offering, it is treated as an olah and burned fully on the altar. In explaining this law, Rabbi Friedlander teaches that there is a fundamental difference between the gentile and the Jewish conception of "serving G-d". The belief of the world at large is that serving G-d must involve self-sacrifice. Intuitively, it makes sense that the only way to grow close to G-d, who is other-worldly, is to divorce oneself from this world as completely as possible by shedding the physical.
But this runs counter to the concept of the shelamim offering. By eating the shelamim as lunch, the Kohen (priest) participates in a mitzvah - and, by definition, grows closer to Hashem. The mitzvah to bring a shelamim and have it eaten represents the Jewish view of growing closer to Hashem: The physical actions a person does can and must be imbued with holiness to the same extent as the moments of self-sacrifice and physical restraint that a person may exhibit in his life. Because he is eating the meat of the shelamim with intention to fulfill one of Hashem's commandments, his eating, an action that is otherwise the epitome of physicality, is elevated to a service of Hashem. But this idea is not intuitive. In fact, if we think for a moment, we can quickly see that almost all of the things that we intuitively associate with holiness involve separation from physicality, often to an extreme. It took Hashem's Torah to teach the world that even physicality can be transformed for a higher purpose. So, when a non-Jew states that he is offering a "shelamim", we automatically edit his statement to read an "olah," because the shelamim is a concept unique to Torah and those who live by its principles.
Much of the mitzvah of sukkah likewise involves eating, drinking, and doing otherwise mundane activities, the kind of things that we don't naturally associate with Torah and mitzvot. But if we simply realize that we are eating, drinking, and doing whatever else we do in the sukkah for the purpose of fulfilling a mitzvah, as part of our service of Hashem, those actions are transformed to the status of a mitzvah. Discussing Torah topics at the table is one obvious and important way to enrich our meals in the sukkah, but in the sense that learning Torah is a separate mitzvah which is binding in a myriad different situations, it is an external attachment to the meal in the sukkah. The truth is that the whole meal itself can be elevated, because as we savor the aroma of our plump chicken, for example, if we simply meditate on the fact that "I'm enjoying this food as part of the mitzvah of dwelling in a sukkah," the enjoyment indeed becomes part of the mitzvah. Similarly, when we lay our heads on the pillow outside for a nap, the statement, "I'm sleeping here to fulfill the mitzvah of sukkah" designates our snooze as just that - a mitzvah.
On the surface, a day of fasting seems to be more appropriate than seven days of feasting for reaching higher spiritual heights. But if we bear in mind that our feasting is in fulfillment of a mitzvah, the seven days of Sukkot can serve as an equally great opportunity to elevate ourselves, not despite, but specifically because of their physical indulgence.
Yosef Rodbell, a third-generation Atlantan and graduate of Yeshiva Atlanta, is a senior at Yeshiva University in New York.
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