Build Your Sukkah

After the fast of Yom Kippur ended, Tzipah and I took a walk to buy some milk for our kids’ cereal the next morning. Truthfully, the walk was as much to get some fresh air as to buy the milk, because we walked to the furthest store from our home.
Since we live in a Jewish neighborhood, we were privileged to see the sights of the preparation for the next holiday on the calendar: Sukkot.
People were schlepping walls of their Sukkah, schach and outdoor tables, as they began construction on the temporary homes that Jews traditionally dwell in for the duration of the holiday. Leave it to the Jews, that as soon as one holiday is over – most people had only broken their Yom Kippur fast a few short hours earlier – we are getting ready for the next celebration.
This practice is, in fact, a time-honored tradition. In his well-known book, Minhagei Maharil, Rabbi Jacob Mölin (Germany, 1365-1427) writes that, “After the fast of Yom Kippur, one should immediately begin building one’s Sukkah, in order to go from one mitzvah (i.e. the fast of Yom Kippur) to another.” Although Rabbi Mölin is the source of much of the Ashkenazi customs, this particular practice seems to have been accepted by those of Sephardic descent as well.
Sukkot, like some other holidays, has more than one unique mitzvah to it. In addition to the construction of, and dwelling in, the Sukkah, there is also the mitzvah of the arba minim (“Four Species”) – the lulav (palm branch), etrog (citron), hadassim (myrtle) and the aravot (willow). So when Rabbi Mölin instructed us to “go from one mitzvah to another,” why did he specifically choose to stipulate the mitzvah of the Sukkah? Why not tell us to get involved in the mitzvah of the Four Species?
In order to understand why Rabbi Mölin specifically chose the mitzvah of Sukkah, let us briefly examine the unique nature of this biblical commandment. One of the things which is unique about a Sukkah, is that when one sits in it, it is one of the only commandments in the entire Torah that literally surrounds and encompasses a person’s entire body!
This idea of being literally surrounded by the mitzvah represents the concept that sometimes a person “compartmentalizes.” In other words, we often think that we only need to “act Jewish” at certain times of the day (i.e. prayer), or in certain places (i.e. synagogue), while at other times and places, one is free to do as one pleases.
Truthfully, however, Judaism is an all-encompassing religion. It is not just incumbent upon the rabbis and leaders to “act Jewish”; nor is it appropriate for us to express our Jewishness only at certain times or places. Judaism requires immersion. It is specifically through an immersive experience that one can experience the true richness of our heritage. People say that in order to learn a new language properly, you must immerse yourself in it; why should it be any different for a religion? Some people, shortly after their Bar or Bat Mitzvah, decided that Judaism does not contain what they need, and they have moved on to other spiritual pursuits. Yet how many things would you be willing to discard for the rest of your life, based on the understanding and maturity of a 13-year-old?
Dive in to Judaism. Immerse yourself in it. Attend a Torah class. Learn Hebrew. Try a mitzvah you’ve never done before. Surround yourself.
This is the message of the Sukkah: One must place one’s entire being into a mitzvah. In plain English, one must immerse one’s self into Judaism. And this is why we are told to build the Sukkah (as opposed to get involved in the lulav or etrog) immediately after the fast of Yom Kippur. Since we are cleansed after the fast, it is wholly appropriate to get involved in Judaism with every fiber of one’s being. This is most aptly indicated by the all-encompassing mitzvah of Sukkah.
So when the stars peek through the schach covering of your sukkah this holiday, consider immersing yourself in Judaism. Funny thing is that it’s not like diving off the deep end: One can immerse oneself into one particular mitzvah. Judaism is not an all-or-nothing religion. Just remember, that when you choose that particular mitzvah, make sure to make it a “sukkah” experience. Chag Sameach!