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The Sukkah Paradox

The Sukkah Paradox


For eight days I abandon the comforts of home and move into a backyard hut, a temporary shelter called a sukkah. My Sukkah is buffeted by wind and chilled by the cold, yet as I sit inside, I am happy. I lift my eyes and behold the panorama of heavenly stars, clearly visible through the foliage, and I reflect on the simple pleasures of life.

The simple sukkah inspires a sense of nostalgia of ancestors in the shtetel, who made do with less. A simple wooden hut and a covering of straw sufficed for a large family. Down comforters and running water were unheard-of luxuries. Yet they were happy. Content to make do with their lot. They knew how to count their blessings.

The dwelling is simple, but the mitzvah is beautified I sit in the sukkah and breath in the sweet scent of pine mingled with the rich aroma of bamboo and I contemplate a time when less was actually enough... It is then that I notice the gleaming candlesticks and fine china that adorn my simple table, the colorful decorations and beautiful lights that decorate my simple sukkah, as per our sages' instruction to beautify the sukkah with our finest wares.1 They are an incongruous sight. They don't seem to belong!

The message of the sukkah is to be content with less. How does my fine china fit in?

This is the sukkah's paradox and its two-fold message. In our dwelling places and material pursuits we contend ourselves with less. In our mitzvot and spiritual aspirations we always strive for the best.

Where Is G‑d?

The Torah exhorts us, "and you shall know that G‑d is the L-rd, in the heaven above and in the earth below" (Duetornomy 4:39). The Torah is exceedingly economical with its words. Every word is calculated, every letter is meticulous. Why then does the Torah point out that the heavens are above and earth is below? Are we not already familiar with their locations?

Chassidic master Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk (1787-1859)offered the following insight.2 To know G‑d we must first embrace G‑d and to do that we must suspend our ego. Before we can contemplate G‑d we must make space for G‑d in the confines of our minds. G‑d cannot fill my mind if it is already filled with selfish thoughts. How do we purify our minds?

By two simple steps: Heaven — above. Earth — below.

Heaven Above, Earth Below

The Talmud (Ethics of the Fathers, 4:1) teaches that to be content with our lot is to be truly wealthy. In simple words, those who are content, lack for nothing. Those who continually seek, lack for everything. Our sages taught, "He who has one hundred coins desires two hundred; he who has two hundred, desires four hundred."3

Following this logic an inverse pattern emerges. Every time you double your wealth your net-worth shrinks by a factor of two. When you have one-hundred dollars you lack only one-hundred dollars. When you acquire two-hundred dollars your needs instantly double.

The wealthier you are, the more you desire. The more you desire, the more you lack. The more you lack, the more impoverished you are. Who then is truly wealthy? Those who are content with their lot.

Only in Material Affairs

Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (founder of Chabad Chassidiosm, 1745-1812) explained, however, that the value of contentment espoused by the Ethics must only be applied to matters of materialism. In matters of Torah and spirituality we must aspire for greatness and never be content with mediocrity.

In matters of holiness we seek to ascend ever higher. To study another chapter of Torah, to finance another charitable cause or to take on another invigorating challenge.

Above and Below

This is why the Torah specifies that heavens are above and earth is below.

In earthly, material matters we fix our gaze on those below us; we look to those, who have less than us, and learn to be grateful for our lot. In heavenly spiritual matters we fix our gaze on those above us, to those, who have accomplished more than us and seek to emulate them.

"And you must know that G‑d is the L-rd." Where is G‑d? "In the heavens above and on earth below." G‑d can be found in the heavenly gaze that is directed above and in the earthly gaze that is directed below.

When we relinquish our desire to amass more wealth, to build a larger house and to drive a fancier car, we will have made room for G‑d. When we dedicate ourselves to matters of Torah and spirituality with unerring devotion, we will have found G‑d.

The Sukkah

This is the message of the Sukkah Paradox. The dwelling is simple, but the mitzvah is beautified.

During Sukkot we relinquish our plush furniture and comfortable homes. The vacuum left by the lack of material comforts makes room for G‑d. This empty space is filled with G‑dliness when we enhance our mitzvot with glory and beauty.

Talmud, Sukkot, 28b.
Related by Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, former Chief rabbi of Israel, at a lecture in Jerusalem, in the Spring of 2006.
Midrash Rabbah, Kohelet 1:13.
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow is spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Tefilah in London, Ontario, and a frequent contributor to The Judaism Website— He has lectured extensively on a variety of Jewish topics, and his articles have appeared in many print and online publications. For more on Rabbi Gurkow and his writings, visit
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Mark R Reston, VA November 26, 2010

backpack life Years ago, I was intrigued by the idea of owning only what I can carry in a backpack. I came very close to it (if not to count a few boxes of personal papers someone kept for me). It was an incredibly liberating experience. In those days I traveled much, worked little, and lived on a few dollars a day. Material minimalism felt very natural, not a struggle. Reply

Anonymous thornhill, Ontario September 26, 2007

Rabbi you are an incredible writer, you have an amazing talent and you have given me a very lengthy meditation that I will take alot of my self-control till I understand what you are telling me.

The first time I read this article I concluded with a question on this essay. I misinterpret the essay to think something that you were in fact not saying nor implying. I thought that in this essay you are attempting to ekove a motivation in us to say for example, I do not need this car to be me. But materiality can be used to be bring so much good in to this world. For example, with a hundred thousand dollars, we have the ability to create more good than most people accomplish in their whole life. And so I concluded with a question.

I then read this article a second time and realised that I saw something I did not see the first time I glanced the article. You are telling us that money is only one of the many important things in this world. That is, you are telling us, work to make money, however, get rid of the stress. Don’t over focus on making money, don’t call yourself a bad person, enjoy spending time with your family and make your family more important than your want to make money. We all want these things but we also want our luzuries, what do we do, there is a problem we need a solution. That is where the meditation comes in, for example during prayer, or during our personal studies, to discover that we can actually live in a world where with work you can find in your being that “ You shall know that G-d is the L-rd, in the heaven above and in the earth below" (Duetornomy 4:39). This is a powerful lesson that we will take for granted unless we think about it, maybe it is more than what we understand. Through learning about this verse we can actually get rid of our want for money and this is a very real thing, something that you can not believe until you have experienced it. What is my money and how much good can it bring about? Now I’m going to take a leap forward to the practical action that meditating on this verse can bring about.

When we give money to people that help people for example, we are in effect helping thousands of people, we are putting light into thousands of people, this is something that is truly awe inspiring. Not withstanding the fact that G-d created the world from nothing. Reply

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