There is a discussion in the Gemara about whether or not it is permissible to use a stolen lulav and etrog set, whether or not you can do a mitzva via immoral actions. This concept, of a stolen lulav, is used as a prime example of a mitzva habaa baveira, the category of a mitzva which is done by means of an aveira, a deed which the Sages say gets no merit.
Yet, this same holiday, when the righteous and common people alike would never dream of stealing their set of four species is the one where so many people inadvertently sin against their fellow man to in attempt to fulfill another one of the holiday’s mitzvot. Both, however, are immoral and repugnant.
Growing up in suburban USA, everyone built their sukkot on their own drive ways and back yards, so this was something that never was a topic that came up for me. Living in Israel, however, real estate is at a premium and people live a little closer together, many in apartments without yards. Because of the halachic obligation to build a sukka under the open sky, even those with porches often cannot build their sukkot there. And for other people, porches don’t have enough room to host their large families.
And so, from around Rosh Hashana time until after Sukkot, these bustling corridors become even more cramped, as wooden and fabric temporary dwellings pop up in every conceivable space. Like a little village, these huts that we live in for a week definitely remind us of the transient and probably packed camp sites of the Israelites in their 40 years in the dessert.
Much effort is made to enhance this mitzva. Grocery stores, hardware stores, craft stores and street corners alike are prepared with twinkling lights, tinsel, and posters. Children bring home miles of paper chains, dioramas, and wall hangings made in school. Anything goes, and all is encouraged. Noy sukka, beautifying the sukka, is encouraged. We want to show God how glad we are to serve Him, how we want to do more than the bare minimum, and make this mitzva special.
In our eagerness to make our sukkas, to have the best sukka our family can manage, a sukka in which it will be pleasant to spend our seven day holiday, we sometimes inadvertently end up with a sukka equivalent of the stolen lulav. A sukka that is done with aveirot, a mitzva that our Sages say isn’t counted. (Forget about the hammering and drilling at all hours of the night, the gezel shayna, stealing of sleep that occurs.)
I will admit that I have not always been so aware. But having a good friend that is a wheelchair user has made me very aware of the sinful sukkas popping up all over.
When you build your sukka, are you taking others into consideration? Are you just thinking about your family’s enjoyment, or also how your mitzva may be harming another?
I went to visit my friend Chana Oshira Block, only to see that the one wheelchair accessible entrance to her building is blocked by the conglomeration of sukkot that popped up over the past few days. The builders left space nearby. Just barely wide enough to walk through. According to Chana Oshira “There is a sukka right outside my apartment, sitting very very close to the wall between the sidewalk and parking lot, literally the exact width of my wheelchair, so that I can’t get by without scraping my hands, and that is before they secured the fabric walls in place. Once they secure the walls, I probably won’t be able to get by at all.”
What kind of mitzva are you really doing if you effectively trap a wheelchair user at home for nearly a month because of your desire of a larger and better sukka?
As Hillel the Wise said ‘De’alayich sani, lichavrecha al tavid’. What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow man. This is the essence of our Torah.
Try to think about how you would feel if you were the one trapped at home because of others sukkas. Or if not trapped, forced to go on long detours, often endangering yourself in the street, to be able to pass by the numerous obstacles blocking the sidewalk. This is a problem year round in Jerusalem, unfortunately, but the problem is exacerbated the month of Tishrei. This constitutes the sin of onah, causing others to suffer. The sin of gezel zman, stealing time, is definitely applicable here as well. One who builds such a sukka is standing idly by while others get hurt. You’re ruining other people’s simchat yom tov. The list of aveirot go on and on.
Chana Oshira points out that “A sin between man and man can’t be forgiven by God unless you first obtain forgiveness from the person you’ve harmed. But unless you’re sitting outside the entire time scouting out wheelchair users that are being blocked by your sukka, you can’t possibly even know the extent of the harm you’ve done, let alone apologize for it and ask for forgiveness. This is particularly egregious in the month of Tishrei when we’re supposed to be focused on improving ourselves and doing better.”
And if you don’t remember the wheelchair users, or think they don’t live near you (that’s not a reason to make your place inaccessible!) these blocked paths don’t just hurt wheelchair users but also parents pushing strollers, and other people with mobility devices.
If you’re making a sukka to serve God, don’t do it in a way that hurts others. Make sure your sukka leaves room for people to pass by without getting injured, and don’t block any curb drops either. Then you can truly merit to do this mitzva in a way that glorifies it.