By Rabbi Yonason Goldson
A famous story, probably apocryphal but possibly true, recounts the origins of a shul in Poland named for its founder, Reb Itzele of Cracow. Reb Itzele was a poor peasant who dreamed recurrently of a great fortune that lay buried beneath a certain bridge in the city of Vienna. Night after night the same vision came into Reb Itzele’s head while he slept. Eventually, he could bear it no longer.
With no money to pay his way, Reb Itzele set out on foot to make the long journey to Vienna, hitching rides on the back of carts when he could, but mostly walking, begging for food, sleeping by the roadside when he could not find a barn or stable in which to spend the night.
Finally arriving in Vienna, Reb Itzele wandered the busy streets of the city until he recognized the bridge he had seen in his dream. But what then? People were coming and going constantly. He, a poor peasant from Poland, could hardly begin digging up the earth in the middle of a great cosmopolitan city.
A policeman noticed the poor man loitering under the bridge and accosted him. Disconcerted, Reb Itzele blurted out his whole story. The policeman’s eyes widened in disbelief. “You truly are a fool,” the officer laughed, “to travel half way across Europe because of a dream. Well, let me tell you: I, too, have had a dream. I dreamed there was a treasure hidden beneath the house of a poor Jew in Cracow. But do you think I would travel all that way to look for the house of someone named Itzele just because of a dream? Off with you, now, and be grateful that I don’t arrest you.”
Back went Reb Itzele to his house, where he tore up the floorboards and uncovered a great treasure, which he used to build the shul that bore his name.
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The moral, obviously, is that we often have right under our feet the very thing we go off searching the world to find.
But the story has a second, more subtle message: sometimes we may have to search the world over in order to discover what we have had all along. Perhaps that is why the great chassidic masters exiled themselves in the days of their youth. And perhaps that is why the Master of the World has exiled our ethereal souls to this world of spiritual darkness, so that we must find our own way back to the light of His Divine presence.
Finally, perhaps this is why the Torah commands us to exile ourselves for seven days a year, abandoning the comfort and familiarity of our homes for the austerity of the sukkah. Paradoxically, this little hut that affords scant protection from the elements enables us to remember how HaShem protected our ancestors in the desert with the anani haKovod, the clouds of glory, and that it is His hand alone that protects us still.
THE GIFT OF SERVITUDE
Wheras the Talmud refers to the Passover Festival by its familiar name, Chag HaPesach, the sages identified the other festivals by descriptive names of their own design. Shavuos they called Atzeres – literally cessation: lacking any distinguishing positive commandments, Shavuos is characterized primarily by the forbidden categories of work common to all Torah holidays. Sukkos they called HeChag – The Festival – implying that this holiday somehow includes or completes the other two.1 And although Sukkos does indeed conclude the cycle of the Shalosh Regalim, the three Pilgrim Festivals, the sages’ reference to it as The Festival appears the diminish somewhat the stature of Pesach and Shavuos. What did the sages intend for us to understand?
Citing Rabbi Elazar HaKappar, the Mishna identifies the three character traits considered most destructive, through which a person a person may forfeit his portion in the World to Come.2 These are kinah (jealousy), ta’avah (lust), and kovod (craving honor). With characteristic penetrating brilliance, the Sfas Emes explains that the three festivals provide the tikkun, or antidote, for these three flaws.3
On Pesach, we celebrate our redemption from slavery at the hands of the Egyptians. A slave lives without either possessions or self-determination. He owns nothing and enjoys no benefit from his efforts. He toils without rest, without thanks, and without reward.
But there are many contemporary forms of slavery. An alcoholic is a slave to his drinking. A smoker is a slave to nicotine. A workaholic is a slave to his business. For many in the modern world, freedom is merely an opportunity to exchange one kind of slavery for another.
Consequently, the freedom we celebrate on Pesach is the freedom to choose our own master. By entering freely into the service of the Almighty, the Jew affirms that everything he does and everything he has is for the sake of the Master of the Universe. And if the Master grants different servants different tools and resources to perform their respective duties, what cause for jealousy is there in that? Ultimately, everything belongs to the One Master before whom we are all in equal service.
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Having confronted jealousy, man must address an even more dangerous impulse. Desire. Even one who has gained control over his attraction to material acquisitions may still grapple with the internal longings for pleasure and gratification. Although desire cannot be quantified, the human obsession with food, with power, or with physical intimacy may become so overwhelming that it leads men into irrational acts of self-destruction.
The Festival of Shavuos adjures us to stop! By re-experiencing the giving of the Torah at Sinai, we reorient ourselves to the true purpose of freedom and the enduring satisfaction of spiritual achievement that can never be equaled by the transient pleasure of physical indulgence.
THE GIFT OF EXILE
The cycle of holidays concludes with Sukkos, which addresses the final stumbling block of the human psyche: the longing for recognition and honor. Having subdued our physical and spiritual impulses and inclinations, we expect acknowledgment of what we have achieved. We measure ourselves against our fellow Jews and, inflating our own sense of value, we resent others for not according us the credit we believe that we deserve. At best, our arrogance may tarnish our successes. At worst, it may lead us astray and cause us to undo all that we have done.
The solution is exile. We move out of our homes, abandoning the material comforts of freedom and symbolically taking up residence in the shadow of the Sh’chinah, to dwell in the Divine Presence as our ancestors did at the foot of Sinai and in the desert. The leaves and branches of the s’chach above our heads provide only the most superficial representation of a real roof and scarcely a modicum of shelter. Merely by raising our eyes can we recall that only by the grace of G-d are we protected from the elements and the outside world. By implanting this humbling reflection to echo in our memories when we move back into our homes, Sukkos enables us to conquer our craving for honor and thereby preserve the material and spiritual accomplishments of Pesach and Shavuos. In this way, it is truly HeChag – The Festival.
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It would appear that together, Pesach, Shavuos, and Sukkos provide all the psychological and spiritual reinforcement to offset the influence of jealousy, lust, and honor. However, human experience suggests that 15 days scattered across half the year are hardly adequate in our battle against the yeitzer hara. How can we guarantee that the lessons of the three Festivals will not be forgotten?
Our sages teach us that anyone who properly recites Ashrei three times a day is assured of a place in the World to Come.4 With its central theme expressed in the verse, You open Your hand and fulfill the desire (ratzon) of every living thing, King David’s 145th Psalm extols the limitless mercy through which HaShem responds to the desire of all the living. By contemplating the message of Ashrei, that HaShem provides us with our every wish and need, we remain focused on the ultimate purpose of our own lives.
But is it true?
The world is filled beyond imagination with unfulfilled desires. The ill who do not recover, the poor who are not sustained, the righteous who suffer a seemingly endless succession of broken hearts and broken dreams. Where in human experience do we find that HaShem fulfills the desire of every living thing?
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On the simplest level, HaShem has created a world containing more than sufficient resources to sustain all living things. Since the desires of all the living are primarily material, what the verse claims is ostensibly true: as a whole, the community of life on earth has enough to fulfill the desires of all.
However, the Sfas Emes explains that the Jewish people are different. In contrast to the rest of the world, HaShem has placed within each Jew “the will (ratzon) to know what to request.”5
Most creatures, including the majority of human beings, are driven by ta’aveh – desire resulting from physical or psychological impulse. But the nature of the Jewish neshoma is such that it is the source of ratzon – the will to know and carry out the Ultimate Will of the Creator. Only through knowledge and fulfillment of HaShem’s will is it possible for one to achieve deveikus – spiritual intimacy with the Almighty. It is for this, above all else, that the soul of the Jew yearns.
This, however, does not provide an answer to our original question. If we are never completely satisfied by the fulfillment of our physical desires, how many of us feel satiated in our quest for spiritual fulfillment? Even more so, how can the Psalmist claim that HaShem satisfies the spiritual desires of all the living?
THE GIFT OF DISCONTENT
Rabbi Akiva Tatz offers an intriguing insight into human nature. Most of us spend much, if not most, of our time wishing we were somewhere other than where we are. At work we long to be at home; at home we long for some kind of entertainment or recreation. We dream of travel to far away and exotic places, of experiencing the new and the unfamiliar.
When we actually have the opportunity to travel, however, we often grow homesick, disoriented, or ill at ease. We can’t stop our minds from wandering back home, from missing what we left behind and looking forward to our return.
Homesickness, says Rabbi Tatz, is a symptom of the neshoma in exile. Trapped in the physical reality of this world, the spiritual can find no rest and no consolation. The neshoma is like the daughter of a king who marries a commoner. No matter what he gives her, she is never satisfied, for the pleasures with which she grew up in the palace of the king exceed anything her new husband can imagine.6
So too the neshoma. No matter what it has in this world, it longs for the spiritual radiance that surrounded it in Olam HoEmes, the world of pure kedusha from which it came. Its perpetual longing to return home causes every human being, as a physical creature within whose body the neshoma resides, to feel restless, discontented, and far from where he belongs. We seek to quell these feelings by seeking satisfaction in travel to other places but, instead of satisfying the yearning of the neshoma, we feel even more unsettled and drawn to return to the place we think of as home.
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Nevertheless, as King David declares in Ashrei, HaShem’s greatness is unfathomable. If it were possible to find satisfaction and contentment in this world, what would become of the Jew and his neshoma? Despite the persistent, inescapable beckoning of our souls, the attractions of the material world distract us continuously from the purpose for which HaShem created us – to earn our eternal reward in this prozdor, this entryway, that precedes the World to Come. How much more easily would we forget the reason for our existence if we could rejoice in the fulfillment of our every desire?
This is the meaning imparted by Ashrei’s central verse and the great paradox of our world: by having placed within us a spiritual will that can never be satisfied and having thereby denied us all but the most fleeting temporal satisfaction, HaShem forces us to remain conscious of the only source of true satisfaction – the pleasure of the World to Come for those who have earned it through Torah and good deeds.
This, too, is the lesson the sages sought to teach by describing Sukkos as the quintessential festival. Whatever our accomplishments, whether physical or spiritual, and however much we strive for satisfaction and fulfillment, the world we live in is in fact little more than a sukkah, a temporary dwelling that bears only the faintest resemblance to our true home in the World to Come.
It is for this reason that the sages introduced King David’s most famous Psalm with the closing lines of his previous chapter: Ashrei yoshvei veisecho – Fortunate are those who live in Your house. The one who recognizes this world as HaShem’s house, constructed not as a place of comfort but as an antechamber in which to earn his ultimate reward in the World to Come – it is he and he alone who is truly fortunate.
- Rosh HaShanah 16a
- Avos 4:28
- Beginning of maamarim on Sukkos
- Brachos 4b
- End of Parshas Beshallach
- Mesillas Yesharim, Chapter 1
Originally published in the Jewish Observer, October 2008