There are many unique aspects of the mitzvot of Sukkot, but one that has always piqued my interest is the concept of “mitztaer patur min ha’sukkah,” that one who experiences distress is exempt from sitting in the sukkah. I always found this halacha rather perplexing and even somewhat ironic. After all, isn’t the whole point of sitting in the sukkah that we should be uncomfortable? Isn’t the whole point of the sukkah that we are leaving the secure comfortable confines of our home and moving to an uncomfortable setting? To my knowledge, the concept of “mitztaer patur” from a mitzvah is unique to the Torah obligation of sukkah. There is a principle of “b’makom tza’ar lo gazru rabannan,” that in cases of distress, a Rabbinical decree may not apply, but an exemption from a Torah obligation based on “tza’ar” is unusual. It seems that we are required to be uncomfortable, but not in distress, when we sit in a sukkah. Why is the mitzvah of sukkah so unique in this regard?
The classic approach to deal with this exemption is that Tosafot explains that the mitzvah is to live in the sukkah as if we are living in our homes. If our roof blew off our homes and rain poured into our homes, we likely would leave our homes. Similarly, we should be allowed to leave our sukkot if it rains in them. Rav Yosef Salant, in his sefer Be’er Yosef, provides a different explanation for this exemption. He suggests that we are required to reenact the manner in which God protected us in the desert. The ananei hakavod, the Clouds of Glory, protected us in the desert. It wasn’t too hot or too cold in the desert. We were exposed to the elements in the desert and yet, through the protection of God, we felt comfortable. When we live in the sukkah on Sukkot, we reenact the kindness of God while we were in the desert. However, if we are suffering in the sukkah, then we are exempt because our suffering would negate a most essential positive characteristic of the sukkah of reliving God’s abundant kindness of protecting us and providing comfort to us in the desert while we were exposed to the elements.
Perhaps there is another way to understand this exemption, specifically in the context of the mitzvah of sukkah. What’s unique about this exemption is that it is so subjective. The threshold for what makes me “suffer” in the sukkah is different for different people. Maybe the challenge of Sukkot and specifically the sukkah is how we relate to the exemption of suffering in the sukkah as a model for how we relate to the concept of suffering in general in our lives.
The great Rav Shmelke of Nikolsburg visited the immortal Maggid of Mezerich, the great teacher of Hasidim. He said to him, “Rabbi, I never understood one passage in the Talmud that I wish you would explain to me: mevarchim al ha’ra’ah k’shem she’mevarchim al hatovah– that one must bless God for the evil and suffering that befall him even as he must bless Him for the goodness to which he receives. How are we to understand that?” The Maggid replied, “I will not answer you but if you will go to the study hall you will find my student Zusya. Ask him and he will explain it.” Now, Rav Shmelke knew that Rav Zusya was a renowned baal yisurin, one who had endured enormous pain of all kinds from the very day he was born. He was a man of incredible poverty, his body wracked with sickness and disease of all kinds, and he was always the recipient of anti-semitic cruelties. Everything that wrong seemed to happen to him. And so Rav Shmelke asked Rav Zusya the question, whereupon, in reply, Rav Zusya laughed and said, “You came to the wrong person! You see, I never in my life experience suffering, so I don’t know how to answer your question. You had better go to a person who had suffered at least occasionally in his life!” So Rav Shmelke learned something very important about accepting suffering with love, about an attitude that maybe sometimes what we think is mitztaer may not necessarily be mitztaer.
At the end of the day, the holiday of Sukkot can easily present us with conflicting emotions: simcha, joy at experiencing God in the sukkah, and feelings of tza’ar, a lack of comfort and distress at sitting in the sukkah. And maybe this conflict which is often so inherent in the very nature of this holiday may present us with the following question. When do we feel pain and when do we experience suffering? How much of it is real and how much of it is subjective and can be overcome?
As an extreme, students of the Baal Shem Tov would eat in the sukkah in the rain, seemingly against the simple reading of the Gemara. But for them, the happiness of the mitzvah was so overpowering that they didn’t feel the distress of the rain. They were like Rav Zusya. They didn’t know the meaning of tza’ar when it comes to Sukkot.
Maybe we are not that extreme. We go inside our homes when it rains, but maybe we learn to live with minor types of tza’ar which are subjective. And maybe the sukkah is a paradigm for our lives. We just went through a Yom Kippur when we didn’t eat, drink, or bathe, a day when we stood all day in prayer, a “mitztaer”-type experience. And yet, the Gemara tells us that there was no happier day than Yom Kippur! We were able to be in a state of extreme happiness even without basic material pleasures because we forgot about the tza’ar. Then we move to Sukkot when we learn that mitztaer is exempt, and we learn that it’s all a matter of perspective. We learn that in life, there are anxieties and struggles and stresses and annoyances like the sukkah, but it’s all a matter of perspective.
In 1973, Rav Yisrael Meir Lau was in Ichilov hospital and a soldier heavily bandaged on his head with a sheet covering his body chin down asked him what time it was and if he could still put on tefillin today, and if the answer was yes, could Rav Lau just put on his shel yad. Rav Lau assisted him and the boy fell back asleep. Rav Lau later found out this boy’s story. Second Lieutenant Yehuda had been on the border of Egypt in the Yom Kippur war, and he and several officers sat in a command car waiting for orders near the Suez canal. Suddenly a Chabad car with a sukkah pulled up nearby. It was Hoshana Rabbah and they asked the officers if they wanted to eat or drink in a sukkah and shake the lulav. At first they demurred – they weren’t religious anyway, they said – but they were encouraged by the Chabadnikim, so they came. A minute later, while sitting in the sukkah, there was a whistle of a missile, a large boom, and the car they had just been sitting in moments ago was completely decimated. Yehuda asked the Chabadnik, “Would you call that a miracle?” The Chabadnik said, “What would you call it?” and Yehuda agreed. He felt he should take on something as a thank you to Hashem for saving his life and the Chabad man suggested putting on tefillin every day. He told him that he would get a pair sent to him in the army after Chag. Yehuda put on tefillin religiously every day for several days, but then a few days later he was injured with shrapnel in his spine and sent to the hospital. The first thing he asked when he woke up when he saw Rav Lau was to put on tefillin because he didn’t want to miss a day. For second Lieutenant Yehuda, despite the pain of his injury, happiness was all about putting on tefillin that day. It’s simply a matter of perspective.
Maybe if we try to spend more time focusing on the happiness in our lives, on all that is good, maybe we’ll become a little more like Rav Zusya, like second lieutenant Yehuda and maybe we will feel less tza’ar in our lives. Maybe, then, we will live lives when we feel that we are always obligated in the mitzvah of sukkah.