“I’m Dreaming of a Warm Sukkot”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

The joyous festival of Sukkot, which begins Monday evening, October 1, expresses the idea of the unity of the Jewish People in a particularly profound manner.

According to tradition, the etrog, the citron fruit, has a wonderful taste and a pleasant smell. The rabbis say that these attributes represent Jews who are filled with Torah learning and have many good deeds to their credit. The myrtle, the hadas, is a leaf that has a pleasant smell but no taste. The myrtle represents Jews who engage in Torah learning, but have few good deeds. The willow, the aravah leaf, has a pleasant taste but no smell. It represents Jews who have good deeds, but no Torah learning. And finally, the lulav, the palm branch, has no taste and no smell. It represents Jews who are void of learning and of good deeds.

On Sukkot we bind all four species together, and make the blessing over the lulav. Binding and blessing the species together symbolically represents that all Jews are necessary for the community to be whole. The fact that we make the blessing specifically over the lulav, represents that we need to place special emphasis on those who need it most–Jews who are void of good deeds and of Torah learning.

A similar theme is found in the Torah portion (Exodus 30:34) that describes the manufacture of the incense that is brought in the Tabernacle and the Temple. All the ingredients necessary for compounding the incense are pleasant smelling, with the exception of chelbanah, galbanum. But without chelbanah the entire incense is invalid, and may not be offered as a sweet savior unto G-d.

And so it is on Yom Kippur, that we pronounce the statement before Kol Nidre: “Anu mah’tir’im l’hit’pal’lel im ha’ah’var’yanim,”–we are permitted to pray with those who are sinful. This statement implies that without the sinners, the Jewish People are not complete, and without all the Jews together we do not have the necessary power to evince G-d’s ultimate mercies.

The theme of unity is reflected in the Sukkah itself. The mere physical presence of the Sukkah promotes unity–the family joins together for meals in an exotic outdoor location, exposed to the elements. The raucous celebrations of the festival also reflects unity–singing and dancing with the Torah in public thoroughfares on Simchat Torah. It is a festival of coming together of all Jews. It underscores what the psalmist says so beautifully in psalm 127: “Im Hashem lo yiv’neh bay’it, shav am’looh vonav bo,” Unless G-d builds the house, its builders toil on it in vain. “Im Hashem lo yish’mor eer, shav shah’kad sho’mer,” Unless the Lord guards the city, the watchman watches in vain. We are truly dependent upon G-d, and real security is undoubtedly in heavenly hands.

In closing, I’d like to share with you one of my earliest childhood memories regarding Sukkot.

It was in the early 1950s. As a child, I would always look forward to helping the Koidenover Rebbe build his Sukkah in the backyard of his shtiebel (little synagogue) in the East Bronx. For me, it was always exciting to place the last bamboo poles on top, and create the walls out of torn curtains from the Holy ark and the worn velvet table covers adorned with large Jewish stars.

But my father, Moshe Buchwald, of blessed memory, who worked first as a sign painter and then as a jeweler, but was a true artist at heart, recoiled at the sight of the drab curtains and torn cloths, and decided to take matters into his own hands. So, one year, he shopped around in every bargain store looking for decorations. But the only decorations he could find were those used to celebrate the birth of “the little Jewish boy from Bethlehem.”

You can imagine the surprise of the Hasidic Rebbe and his family when they walked into the Sukkah on the first night of the holiday and found flashing lights, tinsel, large gold and silver balls adorning their Sukkah.

Now Jewish law states that once the Sukkah ornaments are up they are considered “muktsah,” and may not be touched until the end of the holiday. So the Chassidim of Honeywell Avenue and East 179th Street had eight days to get used to the unique decorations. And I believe they actually did. Nevertheless, the next year, the Rebbe’s family made certain that no one put up any “unauthorized” decorations.

Chag Samayach.

May you be blessed.