Pay it Forward: Become a Supporter of the Work. Learn More
This article was previously published in 2016.
On the first day of Sukkot, the Right Column of Zeir Anpin begins to move towards Malchut to embrace her. This is the hidden meaning of the verse, "And His right side embraces me" (Song of Songs 2:6). Then everyone rejoices and all countenances shine. There is joy in pouring pure water on the altar, in Simchat Beit Hasho’evah. For all of Sukkot, the people should be happy with rejoicing in many different ways. This is brought about by the Right, for wherever the right side, namely Chasidim (Mercy), rests there has to be joy everywhere. Then there is joy with which to be happy.
~ Zohar, Pinchas
Sukkot is the time of Chasidim, a time of mercy, and of joy. Now that we have purified the Desire to Receive for the Self Alone by the work we have done on Rosh Hashanah, we can begin the building of a desire not for the Self Alone but rather for the Sake of Sharing, the aspect of ourselves that is closest to the attribute of the Creator. This is the purpose of Sukkot and it is the reason for all the many aspects of this rich and festive holiday. The instruments we use on Sukkot: The Sukkah itself, the four species that make up the connection with the Lulav and Etrog, the Water Libation Ceremony, are all part of the Creator’s plan to afford us the ability to construct a future of harmony.
The Lulav represents Chesed, mercy. It is held in the right hand, the right being the side of sharing, the Right Column. The numerical value of Lulav is 68, when we add the four days of preparation, we arrive at 72, the complete template of the Names of God, meaning that as we share we can draw the full force of Divine Light. We don’t put the Lulav down on its side, it always stands straight up, always drawing energy. This reminds us that wherever there is mercy, wherever there is sharing or kindness, in great ways or small ones, there is a constant flow of energy from the Upper Worlds into our world.
The Etrog represents a different energy. Oftentimes, people seek a beautiful Etrog because the Etrog represents the physical world of Malchut. It is the level of Kingdom; it is that which is for me. It is the vessel that holds all that brilliant Light.
When we pray in the Sukkah, we put the Lulav and the Etrog together, representing the unification of these two aspects, which is, after all, the purpose of Creation: The Lulav representing the sharing quality of the soul and the Etrog, the body, the receiver. We cannot do our work in a body without a soul, nor can the soul do its work without a body; together we have life. And yet in the manner of energy, the Lulav is stronger than the Etrog, just as the Creator's desire to share with us unending goodness is stronger than our desire to receive it.
Sukkot also gives us the Water Libation connection known as Simchat Beit Hasho’evah on the sixth day. During the time of the Temple, water was drawn from the well and poured on the altar of the Temple. Therefore, the nature of this connection is to draw and pour water. This connection, too, continues the theme of bringing into ourselves the force of mercy. It is said that one who witnesses this connection should do it with great joy, and that the simple observance would draw happiness and offer protection from the travails of life.
As we investigate each and every action we do in the Sukkah we come to see that this this window of time, combined with consciousness and technology, makes available for us the ability to draw the most Godlike part of ourselves into the fabric of our being, filling us with the capacity to be different than we were in the past. We may be vulnerable and raw after all the work of purifying our negativity in the preceding holidays, and now it is as though God is saying “I will make you a place with Me where you will always feel safe”.
The Bible tells us that when the children of Israel left Egypt they traveled from the city of Rameses to Sukkoth. Some say God provided His protection to the people with physical booths, hence Sukkot is named the festival of booths, while others say the people were surrounded by the Clouds of Glory: One under their feet, one above their head, four embraced them from each side, and one guided their way. We know kabbalistically that both are most likely true, as one represents what took place on a spiritual plain and the other is its physical manifestation.
On the 15th day of the month of Tishrei (Libra), the nation began the construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle). The Mishkan was to be the place where God committed to dwell here on Earth, to join with humanity. On Sukkot, we, too, make this commitment to dwell with God, to leave our home, the physical comforts that call to us, the Pharaoh that seeks to have us return to Rameses. The Sukkah is the place that will nourish us, and bring us to a place of energy for the entire year. It is like the belly of the leviathan, the whale, where Jonah was safely enwrapped for three days and three nights to be brought towards his destiny. In the Sukkah, we are bathed in Light to emerge stronger and more connected with our divine essence. It is not the shadow cast by an ordinary Sukkah that protects the body from the sun, but it is the shadow that casts protection over the soul.
The wisdom that surrounds the holiday of Sukkot is such a detailed technology— we could spend a whole year studying and preparing for it and we would still have more to learn. So for those of us who are not great scholars, who want to connect with the purest essence of the holiday, I believe that this lovely and poignant story can help us to remember what is really important.
There was once a very poor and simple hearted man who had a great desire to make a most powerful connection to Sukkot. He wanted to buy the most beautiful Etrog he could find, one that would emulate his love and appreciation for the Creator and all the gifts the Creator has bestowed on him and his family.
The only possession he had of any value was the Tefillin left to him by his late father. As the holiday was just beginning, he knew he would not need his Tefillin for another nine days, and he was certain that it would work out, and when the time came he would find a way to have the Tefillin he would need. So he sold his Tefillin and bought the most beautiful Etrog he could find.
When he told his wife about his new and sacred purchase, his wife became enraged, “How could you do this to our family?! We have so little to feed our children and you take the money from the sale of your Tefillin and you buy an Etrog?” With this, she threw the Etrog on the floor, and its perfect unblemished skin cracked, leaving it irreparably damaged.
Her husband, broken-hearted at the sight of his Etrog, considered the matter deeply. “I have no Tefillin,” he thought. “I have no Etrog, but I still have the love of the Creator, and the most important thing I can do to celebrate this love is to behave as the Creator does and show love and not anger to my wife.”
Within the physical Sukkah and the spiritual Sukkah that surrounds our soul at this time, the most important thing for us to keep in mind is a loving consciousness, for when we do, we embrace harmony with our fellow man, we grow the capacity of our heart to love people, and bring all of humanity under the protection of the Clouds of Glory.
As we enter the cosmic Sukkah, which swaths us all for the coming eight days, we can ask, "My Creator, I know that I have done so many things just for myself alone that I do not deserve mercy at all. I have fallen, I have tripped up; I am more in likeness to the Etrog than I am with the Lulav. And yet, I know that through your Sukkah, you have given me a great gift, so please grant me this energy so that I may be a stronger channel of your Light, caring for others as you care for me, now and for the year to come."