Mitsvot come in all shapes and sizes and cater for each of our faculties. There are precepts designed for the hand and for the eye, for the heart and for the brain, for one’s ears and for one’s tongue. But the mitsva of succa, uniquely envelops our whole body.
Not only that. It embraces the entire body of the family in one thrust. Parents and children, dispersed the rest of the year throughout all the rooms of the house (what’s mealtime!) are brought together under the protective, if fragile, roof of the backyard succa. (Moreover the accompanying Succot mitsva of arba’a minim – lulav, etrog, hadasim and aravot – can be said to symbolise the nuclear family!)
It should not surprise us, therefore, when we peruse the halakhot, the various detailed regulations regarding how a succa is made, if we discover educational lessons for life embracing parents and children.
Firstly, a basic law of succa-construction states that we must first build the walls and only afterwards lay the sekhakh (covering) on the roof. Were one to just secure four poles in the earth and then rest laurel-leaves, palm-fronds or bamboo on top, it is invalid and will have to be re-laid when the walls are completed.
So it is in life. Particularly in the I-want-it-now society in which we live, there are those who wish to rest on their laurels without growth, without striving upwards by utilising the building-blocks of life. It is tempting to try to take short-cuts in our children’s Jewish learning. Many will arrive at bar/bat mitsva being expected to take on the mitsvot of an adult Jew, lay the roof, as it were, to the ‘walls’ of their basic Jewish learning only to discover that those walls aren’t there and still need to be constructed!
On the other hand: as long as one has built walls of ten tefakhim (about a metre) or more, even if they doesn’t reach up to the sekhakh, a unique halachic principle of gud asik regards the walls as virtually complete (a similar principle is applied in eruv-construction) as long as they are directly aligned with the roof.
So it is in education: provided we have done our level best to lay the foundations for ourselves and for our children, even if we haven’t been able to scale the heights we would have liked, we needn’t worry. If we stay focussed and aligned, the gaps will somehow miraculously be plugged.
Similarly, when we strive to do a mitsva and we’re prevented from completing it due to some unexpected hitchbeyond our control, a principle of makhashava k’ma’aseh –“the thought equals the deed” – kicks in. Gud asik again. G-D will “consider it done”.
A very well-known rule of succa is that there ought to be more shade than natural light, more substance than air, in the sekhakh, otherwise more needs to be added. At the same time there should be sufficient airholes to enable the stars to twinkle at us when we sit inside at night.
It sometimes happens at moments in our children’s lives and even in our own, that there is more ‘hot air’ than substance; the computer-games, the partying, the sport becomes primary and personal growth becomes secondary. Or there is more shadow than light: we allow the stresses and strains of life to overwhelm us and neglect to scent the roses. If so, we need to work at getting our inner succas in order!
And yet it is important that we glimpse the stars. A Jew ought to positively glow with sweet inspiration when learning Torah, not merely go through the motions. We need to be inspired when we learn; to seek out, whether as adults or as children, those areas of Torah learning that speak to our hearts and our minds so that our neshamot (souls) will twinkle like the stars in the sky.
Finally, there is a halakha that while tree-branches and evergreen leaves are ideally suited for sekhakh, this only applies if they are detached from the tree. One is precluded from building a succa under a tree or growing plant. The clear lesson here is that our Torah has to be not only learned but earned! We cannot rely upon the fact that our father, grandfather, great-grandfather were ilium, luminaries steeped in Torah, in order to get by. We cannot simply shelter under the shade of trees of past generations. Instead we have to chart our own paths, discover our own coral reefs in the ocean of Torah. Yes we may utilise our ancestors’ branches but they must be detached for our use – we must invest in our own sekhakh, discover and unleash our own potential and earn our own good reputations.
If we do this, then the Torah with which we dance at the conclusion of Succot will continue to be an ets chaim, a tree of inspirational life for us ongoing. And the succas which envelop us now in a physical sense will continue to embrace us in a spiritual sense all year long!