Forty years in the sukka

Forty years of living in sukkot were a lesson in what this world really is. They woke up every day to see flimsy walls blowing in the wind.

Rabbi Avigdor Miller ,

Rav Avigdor Miller
Rav Avigdor Miller
Courtesyr

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When Hakodosh Boruch Hu gave Am Yisrael the command to leave their homes every year for seven days and move into the sukka, He introduced it in a most unusual way:

כל האזרח בישראל ישבו בסוכות — Every ezrach - it means every established citizen - in Yisrael must dwell in sukkot (Vayikra 23:42).

Now, the word ezrach is a peculiar way of describing those who are commanded to live in the sukka. No other mitzvah is described like that. We’re not told that an ezrach should pick up the Four Species, the daled minim, or that an ezrach should wear tefillin or keep Shabbat. It’s only here that the Torah chooses to use this unusual word: “Every ezrach should make the sukka his home for seven days.

Now, if we’re going to try to understand why this one mitzvah is depicted in such a manner, we should first make an attempt to discover what it is that we are trying to accomplish when we move into the sukka; why is the ezrach commanded in this mitzvah altogether?

The Secret Is On The Surface

We won’t have to search far to find the answer because when it comes to the mitzvah of sukka the Torah tells us the reason straight away: כל האזרח בישראל ישבו בסוכות — Every ezrach in Yisrael must dwell in sukkot, למען ידעו דרתיכם כי בסכות הושבתי את בני ישראל בהוציאי אותם מארץ מצרים – in order that your generations will know that I caused the Children of Israel to dwell in sukkot when I took them out of Mitzrayim.

It’s an open verse, possuk – we’re trying to remind ourselves of the forty years we spent in tents in the wilderness.

Isn’t it a pity that people only look at the fanciful explanations and that’s all. They’re interested in high level things, mystic secrets – but to hear something with some meat on it, something that talks to them at their stage in life? No, they think it’s too simple for their sophisticated minds.

But the truth is that ein mikra yotzei mi’yedei pshuto, the simple meaning of the words is the real one, and therefore we should pay attention to the plain meaning of these words: “You should dwell in sukkot in order that you should know that I caused Bnei Yisrael to dwell in sukkot.” Not to remember that “they dwelt in sukkot;” but rather הושבתי – that “I caused them to dwell in sukkot!”

It means “I purposefully seated them in sukkot for forty years when I took them out of the land of Mitzrayim.”

Forty Years on the Move

Now, we think according to what we learned in chumash when we were little children, that the entire episode of the desert sojourn, Dor Hamidbar, was nothing but a punishment because of the meraglim; the spies spoke slanderously, lashon hara, about Eretz Yisrael and the people cried and therefore Am Yisrael was sentenced to wander around in the wilderness for forty years.

And while it is certainly not false to think so, it’s absolutely not the whole story. Because even if the nation now had to wait forty years before coming into Eretz Yisrael, we could have lived at least with some sense of permanence in the wilderness; Hakodosh Boruch Hu could have kept us in one place and we would have built proper homes. For forty years we could have lived in one place overlooking Eretz Yisrael, seeing the land every day and mourning for our great sin that prevented us from entering the land. That would have been a punishment! So why is it that Hakodosh Boruch Hu made us wander from place to place for all these years living in portable flimsy tents?

The answer is that Hakodosh Boruch Hu had a plan that He had foreseen from the beginning. And the plan was that there had to be a hakdamah, a preparation, to Eretz Yisrael.

Preparing for Luxury

I’ll explain that. Eretz Yisrael was going to be a new kind of existence – an existence of luxury. It was a land flowing with milk and honey and all good things; a land of v’achalta v’savata, of eating to satiation, and a place where lo sechsar kol bah, where nothing would be lacking. And most of all, it was a land of בתים מלאים כל טוב – homes filled with all good things (Devarim 6:11). They were going to move into ready made houses; resplendent homes made of stone that were filled with all good things.

ובתים טובים תבנה – “You’ll build beautiful homes (ibid. 8:12) when you come into the land,” said Hashem. It means that they would try to make their homes even nicer than they found them. That’s human nature – even the poorest person tries to make his home beautiful. And why shouldn’t he? It's his place! And so they all got busy “building beautiful homes.” וישבת – and then they moved into those nice homes. It was a dream come true after so many years of wandering and living in tents. They would be living the good life in Eretz Yisrael!

Hashem Wants Happy Jews

And Hashem wanted that! He wanted us to be on the land kiyemei hashamayim al ha’aretz, forever and ever, enjoying His gifts. There’s no greater success than serving Hashem בשמחה ובטוב לבב מרוב כל – in great happiness because of the abundance of all good things that He provides you (Devarim 28:47). The greatest form of avodat Hashem is when you’re living in a nice home and you’re enjoying life and you’re serving Hashem in the midst of this happiness.

Like I always say, to do teshuva while you’re eating watermelon or ice cream is the best kind of teshuva. The Chovos Halevavos says that.

And so, when they would enter Eretz Yisrael they would be given an opportunity to achieve more than any other situation could afford them. To live in strong and secure homes filled with all good things and to become more and more grateful to Hakodosh Boruch Hu in the midst of luxury. They would sing to Hashem all their days; shout in happiness to Him, that’s the highest form of avodat Hashem.

The Land and The Landlord

At yet, at the same, as great of an opportunity luxury and convenience may be, the Torah tells us that there’s a very great peril in living this kind of existence. ובתים טובים תבנה –You’ll build homes, וישבת – and then you will dwell in those those nice homes, ושכחת את השם – and you’ll forget about Hashem.

You’ll forget Hashem?! That’s impossible! They never forgot Hashem in Eretz Yisrael! But it means, you won’t think about Him as the Landlord; as the One who owns this home that you’re living in. You’ll forget that He is the One who gave it to you. Certainly you’ll daven every day. And you’ll say kriyat shema and you’ll mention yetziat Mitzrayim. Certainly!

But it’s possible to do all these things, and still to forget that you’re living in Somebody else’s home; that you’re only a visitor passing through this world.

The Very Long Hallway

Now, the Torah is not against making houses. It’s not against beautifying your home either. But it’s against forgetting that it’s only temporary.

Build batim tovim, yes! V’yashavta, and dwell in them, yes! But don’t fulfill the end of that possuk, ושכחת את השם, forgetting Hashem. Don’t forget that you’re only a visitor passing through this world and that sooner or later – hopefully later – you’ll be going back to Hashem.

Some people get nervous when they hear such talk; that we’re only visiting temporarily and we’ll have to leave, they’re not interested in such talk. But it’s the truth – it’s the most important truth you’ll ever know: העולם הזה דומה לפרוזדור בפני העולם הבא - This world resembles a corridor, a hallway, that is leading you into the palace of the Next World. (Avos 4:16). We’re walking down a hallway; that’s all this world is. It’s a long hallway and we want it to last as long as possible, but it’s only a hallway after all.

Bricks Are Dangerous

Now, such to acquire such an attitude is easier said than done! It’s not easy to live in בתים מלאים כל טוב, in strong houses filled with all good things, and to remember that it’s only temporary. It’s not easy to live in a house made of brick that seems like it will last forever and to always remember that it won’t.

And so, as much as Hashem wanted to give Am Yisrael the great opportunity to serve Him “with a happy mind because of the abundance of all good things that He provides,” He couldn’t just suddenly plunge the people into such a test without some preface.

To be prepared for success at living such a lifestyle you need a big hakdamah. And the hakdamah was going to be בסכות הושבתי את בני ישראל בהוציאי אותם מארץ מצרים – for forty years the Am Yisrael would live in sukkot. Before they could come into Eretz Yisrael and move into the beautiful stone houses that Hashem had prepared for them, they would need to spend forty years learning mussar. And so, Hakodosh Boruch Hu sat them in tents for forty years – they didn’t only learn mussar; they lived it.

Every Day Moving Day

For forty years they had the opposite of Eretz Yisrael! They didn’t have “homes filled with all good things” – they didn’t have any homes at all! They sat under roofs that were made of cloth – maybe branches or planks of wood – that couldn’t protect them much. The walls were pretty flimsy too – they certainly weren’t walls of brick. Who’s going to waste effort building a brick house if the next minute he might have to pack up and move on?

That’s how they lived – every day they had to be on the alert, maybe they’d hear the sound of the trumpets that would summon them to pull up the stakes of their tents and start moving. They never had any kind of security in the midbar that they would remain in one place for longer than a day. It's true, in some places they remained for many many days but every day they were in trepidation. Every minute the trumpet might sound and say: “Get moving!”

You understand what a disturbance that is for a normal feeling of security in this world?! Let’s say you move into a home but you know that at any moment you might be summoned to leave, with you and your family, and never come back. You wouldn’t do anything! You won’t try to make any repairs, nothing. Any minute, you might get a notice to move out! And even if you lived there fifty years, you never had a minute of menucha, of permanence.

The Forty Year Mussar Seder

And that was Hakodosh Boruch Hu’s plan from the beginning; Am Yisrael would spend forty years of training, preparing for the day when they would finally come into Eretz Yisrael. The forty years of living in sukkot were intended as a lesson in what Olam Hazeh really is. They woke up every morning to see flimsy walls blowing in the wind and they fell asleep every night looking at a flimsy roof made out of almost nothing.

And they were being reminded all the time that this world is a very flimsy world. It was a forty year experience of understanding that this world is only temporary, that we’re only passing through.

So now when they came into the walled cities and stone houses of Eretz Yisrael they were ready! They said, “We’ll have houses filled with all good things but we’ll be on guard not to deceive ourselves. We’re prepared for this test.” And they moved into these big beautiful houses of stone with humility: “Ahhh,” they said. “Boruch Atah Hashem. It’s not ours. You give it to me for seventy years, maybe a hundred years, but after that I’ll be leaving this flimsy world and enter into the real world.”

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