Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Sukkot (Hasidism)

Sukkah as Knowledge/Consciousness

Hasidic teaching views all the festivals not only as “holidays,” in the sense of times for rejoicing and having a good time, nor their mitzvot as arbitrary expressions of the divine will, nor merely as “commemorations” of events long past. Rather, they are first and foremost landmarks along a lifelong path to spiritual wholeness. Thus Sukkot, notwithstanding its almost rustic atmosphere, with its crude festive hut and the four kinds of branches carried about the synagogue, is seen as providing the concluding note to the intense inner work and high solemnity of the Days of Awe, a festival when one receives those spiritual contents enabling one to carry the sublime messages received during those days into the year. Thusly, the following teaching of R. Nahum of Chernobol explains the mitzvah of dwelling in the sukkah in terms of receiving da’at—religious knowledge or consciousness. From Meor Einayim, Haazinu, s.v. lema’an yed’u doroteikhem:

“That your generations may know [that I caused the Israelites to dwell in booths when I took them out of the land of Egypt” [Lev 23:43]. For the sukkah (festive hut) represents the attribute of da’at (knowledge/consciousness). By way of analogy: When a person eats and drinks he apprehends the taste of the food and knows it; but when he does not eat, he nevertheless derives enjoyment from seeing that food. And our Sages said [Yoma 18b], “One cannot compare one who has bread in his basket, to one who does not have bread in his basket,” for he derives benefit even from the seeing. And when he does not eat nor see, he does not apprehend anything.

There are various levels of knowledge or consciousness. Most significantly for the religious life: there is intellectual, objective, factual knowledge or cognition of a given thing; then there is concrete, experiential knowledge, knowledge of a higher, more all-encompassing kind; and then, there is also complete lack of knowledge. The da’at conveyed by means of the sukkah is seen as belonging to the second type, perhaps because the mitzvah of sukkah is a total experience, traditionally interpreted as an expression of complete and utter trust and faith in God. As another Hasidic teacher (R. Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev?) once said: The Sukkah is the only mitzvah which a person can enters into with his entire body. It does not require any cognitive act, but simply the physical act of being within the sukkah, within a certain physical environment. Interestingly, the word da’at used here is the same as that used in the Bible for sexual intimacy—concrete, bodily knowing. The point made here, surely, is that dwelling in the sukkah operates on the deeper, pre-conscious levels of the personality, thereby conveying a certain kind of pre-cognitive knowledge.

Similarly, there are things in the Torah whose nature a [particular] person may apprehend in his mind, literally; and there are those that he does not apprehend, but he sees that it is written before him thus, but he does not comprehend the reason for the thing. But if he neither knows nor sees, then he has nothing. But the person needs to bring the knowledge into himself. And there is the mitzvah of eating and drinking in the sukkah, which is matter of real apprehension, as in the verse, “and they saw God, and they ate and drank” [Exod 24:11]. For overt comprehension is called eating and drinking. In that one comprehends and knows a thing just as one knows the taste of the thing that one is eating. And this is the matter of “that your generations may know”—that they bring the knowledge into themselves.

But there is also a level of apprehension that is beyond this, in which one is unable to enter within, to understand and to comprehend the thing, and is this the secret of apprehension of a thing standing before one….

There is a hint here of yet other levels of spiritual apprehension, beyond the mind, beyond “head knowledge.” Our own age, disgruntled with some of the results of centuries of Enlightenment rationality, seeks a kind of knowledge beyond the cognitive or factual. In Torah, too, there are different types of knowledge: there is halakhah, which is objective, capable of systematization, sharply defined; and there is the knowledge conveyed by Kabbalah and Hasidut, which is more suggestive, intuitive, intended to open up mind and the heart, to knowledge that by its nature cannot be fully conveyed in words. R. Nahum seems to allude here to a third level of knowledge: transcendent, beyond all thought processes—and it is on this level that one may, perhaps, apprehend the Divine in those ways that occur in mystic rapture or in prophecy, that transcend the ordinary ken of of human experiences.

To return to our subject. The secret of the Sukkah is the secret of da’at, specifically, ”that your generations may know.” And this is by means of the Torah, as stated. And there is Written Torah and Oral Torah, which is the secret of the higher yod, and the lower yod. And the man who is attached to them both and connects them is the secret of vav, which [together] is aleph: [whose form is shaped of] yod above, yod below, and a vav in the middle [connecting the two: thus: א]. And therefore man must behave in accordance with both Torahs. And this is the aspect of da’at, [by whose means?] the Oral Torah may interpret the Written Torah clearly. And that which we do not understand of its interpretation, we in any event know that which is written, as explained above, regarding the aspect of these two kinds of apprehension being present in each person in this manner. But above twenty ells [about 10 meters; an allusion to the maximum height of the sukkah, that height “beyond which the eye does not master”], which is above the two torahs, which are the aspect of the two yods, a person cannot comprehend or perceive at all, and it is not called da’at at all.

Therefore the sukkah has three walls, which is the secret of the letter Bet [which has three sides, thus: ב]. And similarly the Torah begins with the letter bet. For if the Torah were to begin with aleph, it would be impossible to receive the great clarity; therefore it was embodied in bet, and thereafter the alephs in the Torah were revealed by means of the bet, so that one might understand and comprehend…

The letter aleph here symbolizes the connection of heaven and earth, written Torah and its human comprehension in Oral Torah, by man himself. In its very form, the letter aleph joins these disparate elements, but is not itself a vessel, a complete form that may contain them. The letter bet, by contrast, represents a home, a vessel, boundaries that define a given space, while leaving one side open. Such, precisely, is the form of the sukkah: a space defined by a minimum of three walls, and covered with skhakh, the thatched covering that is at once protective and porous, open to the heavens. Thus, to receive da’at, which is potentially unlimited, one first needs a vessel to contain it.

* * * * *

To conclude, some food for thought, in the form of aspects of the laws of Sukkot that seem pregnant with symbolic meaning. For the reader’s reflection:

1) On both Sukkot and Pesah, the mitzvah is focused on the act of eating: in the one, on the nature of the food itself (hametz and matzah); in the other, on the locus of the act of eating. What is the connection between them? (And note that the Talmud draws a parallel between “the 15th and 15th”—i.e., the requirement to eat matzah specifically on Seder night, and to partake of a certain quantity of bread in the Sukkah on the first night, whereas thereafter such eating is somehow optional)

2) The creation of a kind of “sacred space” in the sukkah out of nothing, and which has no lasting holiness. What is the significance of “space” on Sukkot?

3) The two central mitzvot of Sukkot combine very minimal basic requirements with options for maximal, all-embracing involvement in the mitzvah. Sukkah: one must eat a bit of bread in the sukkah on the first night—but, ideally, one lives therein all seven days, eating, drinking, sleeping, “hanging out” with ones friends, studying Torah, and not even drinking water outside the sukkah. Lulav: once one has held the Four Kinds in one’s hands for a moment on the first day one has fulfilled the Torah’s requirement; in its normative performance, one takes them all seven days, holding them throughout the Hallel hymns, shaking them to the six points of space at the appropriate points. But the pious men of Jerusalem of old would hold them in their hands all day long, while walking in the street, throughout the synagogue service, while visiting the sick and comforting the mourners, placing it in a visible place while eating, and “sending it home,” significantly, only when they sat down in the Study House to concentrate on Torah learning.

4) The “wavings” of the Lulav take place specifically at the words of greatest thanksgiving and of the most urgent, poignant prayer: “Give thanks to the Lord for He is good” and “Please, O Lord, save us.” Why?


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