Dusting Off Our Physical Inclinations

My family has recently moved into our new home in Passaic, NJ. This was a home that required much updating. Not surprisingly, the timeframe for this effort extended well beyond the expected end date and we moved in last month with much of the work still uncompleted. Our belongings quickly became covered in dust, with even more powder being created as the sawing, spackling, sanding, and painting continued inside and outside the house for many additional weeks. Despite our best cleaning efforts, we have literally been eating dust for some time.

The idea of eating dust is far from appealing, no doubt. But it has given me a new perspective on the oldest curse in world history, a lesson that ties in well with the upcoming holidays of Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret.

Or Hachaim discusses the curse that Hashem directed towards the snake after it had convinced Eve to partake from the Tree of Life (see Genesis 3).  He writes (Ibid, 14) that the sequence had produced a number of negative outcomes for Eve and Adam. One primary outcome was their expulsion from the Garden of Eden, which resulted in them losing the special connection with Hashem that they had enjoyed there. For this, the snake was cursed that all food would now taste as dust. He had deprived Adam and Eve any future enjoyment of the fruits of the Garden of Eden, consequently he would not receive pleasure from the food that he consumed. 

In a certain sense, Sukkot is also designed to reduce our physical pleasure, or at least our attention to it. While we are not are asked to consume dust or anything similar, we are instructed to leave the comfort of our homes and enter into a small, unfurnished hut which cannot possibly offer the same levels of protection, privacy and comfort to which we are typically accustomed.

Many reasons are given for this directive. One particular idea emerges from a seemingly perplexing midrash.

Why do we make the sukkah (shortly) after Yom Kippur? Since we find the Holy One, blessed be He, sitting (in judgment) on Rosh Hashana before the entire world, and on Yom Kippur He signs the judgment, perhaps the Jews’ judgment that year was to be exiled. Therefore, we … “exile ourselves” from our homes into the sukkah, and the Holy One, blessed be He, considers it as if we were exiled to Babylon. (Yalkut Shimoni, Emor)

The above statement is confounding on a number of counts. First, of all possible punishments which Hashem could inflict upon us for past misdeeds, why should we specifically concern ourselves with exile? Second, even if exile was in fact ordered, how can we assume that the relatively benign act of entering a sukkah would satisfy such a decree? Certainly, we would expect exile to be a much harsher experience than this!

In reality, there is a particular motivation to specifically fear a decree of exile more so than other punishments. Exile serves two primary functions. The first purpose, says Rabbi Chaim Freidlander (Sifsei Chaim, Vol. 1, p. 228ff), is for the land, to remove from it the presence of a sinful nation which fails to keep Hashem’s precepts. The second purpose is to instill within a complacent, arrogant nation a strong sense of humility.

Jeshurun became fat, and kicked. You have become fat, thick, and gross. Then he forsook Hashem who made him, and spurned the Rock of his salvation… They sacrificed to powerless spirits, not to Hashem… You ignored the Mighty One that fathered you, and have forgotten Hashem who formed you. (Deuteronomy 32:15, 17-18)

It was largely because of their arrogance that the Jewish people acted with such indifference towards Hashem. They did not need Him – or so they thought – so they did not heed him. Instead they looked to pagan deities to help unburden themselves of their religious shackles. Eventually, their wanton sinfulness could no longer be tolerated, and the Jewish nation suffered the fate of exile.

How does this concept of exile tie specifically into this time of year? As we transition out of the seriousness of the High Holidays, our thoughts quickly move to the festive days of Sukkot, the festival of gathering, in which we celebrate the new harvest. Because of our great sense of happiness, celebrating the fruits or our hard labor, we are prone to feelings of arrogance and self-reliance. “And you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth’.” (Deuteronomy 8:17)

The enormous sense of accomplishment which accompanies the harvest is likely to awaken a strong degree of pride. This, the Torah tells us, is a primary factor in loosening our sense of dependence and allegiance towards Hashem. It is for this reason that we are commanded at this time to leave our comfortable, secure surroundings and enter a sukkah. There we are to remain for seven days, living directly under Hashem’s protection.

So long as a person remains in his regular abode, it is difficult for him to feel a sense of humility and submission. These feelings come much more readily when one is forced from his home. As Maimonides (Teshuva, 2:4) writes, “Exile atones because it causes man to become more humble and subdued.”

Instead of channeling our joy back within ourselves, as a means of taking excessive pride for our accomplishments, we are reminded to focus on Hashem, our true provider. Such remembrance will not only keep us humble, but will allow us to achieve the highest degrees of happiness and contentment (the sukkah is referred to as a “sukkas shalom” (sukkah of peace) because it was provided in the merit of Aharon HaKohein, the ultimate pursuer of peace. This was most appropriate considering the peace that a sukkah is designed to engender)

While we are certainly supposed to indulge in luscious delicacies befitting a yom tov (and not consume anything that resembles dust), we must do so in a context that allows us to appreciate the Source of the goodness that we enjoy. Once we have achieved that level of joyful appreciation, we can transition to the climax of our Tishrei experience, Shemini Atzeret, in which the focus shifts exclusively to the special relationship that we enjoy with our Maker, making it a true festival of joy.