Judaism: Reaching for the Stars
Summary by Channie Koplowitz Stein
In giving the criteria for building a kosher succah, the Gemarrah says that while we must put schach (branches etc.) on top of the succah, it must not be so thick that it totally obscures the sky and the stars. The Mishnah continues: Even if the stars are not seen, the succah is kosher.
Hebrew is a fascinating language that reveals wisdom in each letter and in each word. The four lettered Hebrew word k-o-ch-(a)-v, star, can be divided in half to create two numerical values, twenty-two and twenty-six. Twenty-two represents the letters of the Hebrew alphabet in which the holy Torah was written, while twenty-six represents the name of God.
These two must be seen “within it”, within the person sitting in the succah, within the Jew, explains Rav Schorr in Halekach Vehalebuv. And Rabbi Schorr takes this idea one step further. Hashem wants us to be a segulah, a treasure, for him, as He states in the Torah. Rabbi Schorr focuses on segulah as the vocalization symbol segul, formed by three dots. The two upper dots represent Hashem and the Torah. But they must come down and enter your soul, represented by the third dot.
The lesson of that law, to see the stars within, is that we must each see and recognize our own greatness, that Hashem has imparted to each of us a share in His greatness from on high. Hashem believes in us, embraces us, and shines His light through us.
If we do not recognize our great potential, says Rabbi Pincus, we are limiting our spiritual growth by building a ceiling through which the light cannot penetrate over our heads.
Here we now get a disagreement between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai. While both agree that night stars should be visible, they appear to be conflicted over “the stars of the sun”. Beit Shammai concludes that a succah in which you cannot see the stars of the sun is invalid, while Beit Hillel concludes that it is still valid.
Along these lines, the Tallelei Chaim, Chaim Hacohen Hachalban, presents the controversy between Rashi and Rambam. Rashi believes that the “stars of the sun” means that we must see the rays of the sun within the succah, while Rambam posits that we must be able to see the large emerging stars that appear and are already visible while the sun is still out.
In either case, the light must be able to enter the succah through the schach.
The stars represent the light of Godliness, and Rashi posits that we must let that light into what would otherwise be a dark succah, that Hashem is shining that light upon us. Rambam, on the other hand, takes the position that we are in the darkness of this world, but must look up and out of this darkness to the light of Godliness above, that we must take the initiative and look upward to our Creator.
The succah represents our home in the physical world, continues Hachalban. The world has tremendous power, and we could easily be lost in its allure. Hashem contracted Himself so that we are able to exist in this world. The schach represents the separation between the physical world and the total Godliness of the spiritual world.
The solid ceiling of a home implies total separation, while the thinner schach covering allows for the connection between the two worlds. The succah represents us, and our challenge is to maintain a connection between the physical world in which our bodies exist and the spiritual world for which our souls yearn.
How can we do this? We can look to the “stars” of Jewish existence as our role models, to our teachers and righteous people. We must look beyond our homes to see the spiritual potential within each of us. We must not live constantly with a solid ceiling above us, blocking out the Divine light; rather we must always be open to the great spiritual stars that illuminate our lives even while we are still within a concrete and physical world.
To illustrate this point, the Sifsei Chaim, Rabbi Chaim Friedlander, draws on the hypothetical case of a ben sorer umoreh, a rebellious son. While the Ramban explains that this son is to be put to death on the potential of the great sins he will do in the future, the Sifsei Chaim, sees in these laws a lesson for us. This rebellious son is described as one who does not listen to his parent’s voice and is a glutton and a drunkard. Is that so terrible?
Ramban tells us that he is held accountable for not living a life of holiness and of cleaving to Hakodosh Boruch Hu. In other words, he is a person so involved with the physical world that he has no vision of anything greater, beyond himself; he has no vision of the stars beyond his limited four walls and has no spiritual aspirations.
We need the desire to go beyond ourselves. If we do not reach our goal, explains Rav Dessler, it is not because we are incapable of improvement, but because we have lost faith in ourselves and in our ability to reach the stars.
The Torah gives us examples of contrasting individuals, explains Chazal. Noach began as a righteous man, a man who walked with God. But, after the flood, he became a man of the earth. For whatever reason (and many reasons can be given), Noach lost his vision and no longer walked with God always beside him.
In contrast, Moshe is first described as an ish mitzri, an Egyptian, not a very spiritual human being. But he searched for God throughout his life, and at his death, Hashem Himself calls him an ish Elokhim, a man of God.
As the sage called the Sabba of Kelm explains, it all lies in our vision and in our striving to reach the stars.
We are called upon to be continuously moving, going, striving to achieve our mission and actualizing the vision of our spiritual selves so that it is in synch with our physical selves, so that our heavenly name corresponds to our earthly name, and Hashem can refer to us by calling our name twice, as He called to the great Avraham Avraham, Moshe Moshe and Shmuel Shmuel writes Rabbi Frand in An Offer You Can’t Refuse. And how are we to move in the right direction?
Rabbi Wolbe in Aleh Shor cites the verse from Isaiah, “The House of Jacob, come let us walk in the light of Hashem.” Rabbi Wolbe laments that we have lost the will to walk in the light of Hashem, instead immersing ourselves in the physical moment. We settle for the Kodak moment and the thrill of the latest technology instead of striving to reach beyond, to the spiritual heights symbolized by the stars.
The light of the sun must enter our succah, but it cannot be so overwhelming that it blinds us, writes the Tallelei Chaim. Rashi states that we cannot limit ourselves so fully that that no light enters the succah of the physical world. The rays must be able to penetrate the schach. We must achieve a balance between the spiritual and the practical. Our spiritual vision must be achievable and practical, for we still live in a physical body in a physical world.
The only criteria that either impede us or impel us toward our spiritual goal, as so many of the Baalei Mussar point out, is the strength of our desire. Rabbi Wolbe wants us to ask ourselves what is your core desire. Do you envision yourself as a person of total truth and integrity, or as a person committed to chesed, to performing acts of loving kindness, or as a teacher of Torah? Then follow that vision of yourself. If you have enough passion to this calling, Hashem will help you achieve your goal.
So the Tallelei Chaim urges us to move out of the comfort zone of our permanent homes into the succah where the schach will provide comfortable shade under Hashem’s personal hand, while still allowing us glimpses into the bright light of holiness that exists both in the darkness of the world and in the daylight.
The succah experience can bring us back to the faith and hope our nation’s youth had as we followed Hashem in the wilderness, the faith and hope of children who believe in the possible and for whom no ceiling limits them. The succah embraces us, and the schach lets our vision fly to the heavens and bring Hashem’s support to achieve our goals.