1. Accessing transcendent energy

On Shemini Atzeres1 we eat the Yom-Tov meal in the sukkah because of a calendrical doubt.2 That is to say, we sit in the sukkah accompanied only by the words, “Who sanctified us by His commandments,” but not by the continuation of the blessing, “...and commanded us to dwell in the sukkah.”3

All the blessings of this kind comprise two components: (a) “Who sanctified us by His commandments,” which is a general statement; (b) “and commanded us to [perform the particular mitzvah at hand].” That is to say, by commanding us to perform this particular mitzvah He sanctified us, making us a treasured nation, an am segulah, unto Himself.4

The concept of segulah transcends comprehension. This is reflected in the symbols called segol and segolta.5 The segol is a vowel sign appearing under a letter, with its two dots placed above a single dot; the segolta is a cantillation sign appearing over a letter, with a single dot placed above its two dots. The concept of segulah appears in them both.

In a certain Talmudic context, the Sages define the word segulah6 as either a sefer Torah, or a palm tree that yields dates. All Jews are therefore called by the name segulah, because it signifies something that bears fruit. This can happen either of two ways. Sometimes it happens in the manner suggested by the segolta, whose upper dot, representing that which is sensed by the essence of the soul,7 arouses the two dots, representing the intellect and the emotive attributes.8 And sometimes it happens in the manner suggested by the segol, whose lower dot, representing the Jewish spark deep within the heart, arouses the two dots, representing the intellect and the emotive attributes.

At any rate, on Shemini Atzeres we sit in the sukkah accompanied by the words, “Who sanctified us by His commandments,” for the sukkah signifies the [transcendent Divine light called] makkif. This particular makkif, however, must be known, for the Torah writes explicitly, “[You shall dwell in sukkos for seven days...], in order that your generations shall know9 that I caused the Children of Israel to dwell in sukkos when I brought them out of the Land of Egypt.”

In this entire episode the Torah is guiding us in our avodah.

The first thing to be done is to get out of one’s straits10 and bounds. In terms of avodah in general, these constitute the lifestyle that a person plans for himself. The particular straits and bounds grow out of the life situation in which he chooses to set himself up.

When a young man begins to build his aspirations into a future, all kinds of restraints and bounds impinge on the times set aside for study and congregational prayer. For this requirement he has no time, and as for that requirement, he hasn’t got the peace of mind to consider it at this point. The young man, after all, is busy; he is building his future, no less.

First of all, there has to be an Exodus from all these confinements and constrictions. His plans, for example, whatever they may be, must include fixed daily periods for Torah study. His prayers, too, should be attended to conscientiously, not by the impatient discharge of his formal obligations.11

2. Intervention from Above

After the Exodus from Egypt comes the Splitting of the Red Sea. As soon as a Jew begins to tackle the task of avodah, obstacles arise, each of them tough and formidable. It was the same when his forefathers were on their way out of Egypt: behind them was the enemy, before them lay the sea. And the Jew himself is in the wilderness.

The Splitting of the Red Sea was wrought from above. G‑d made a road there for the Children of Israel, just like a road on the dry land — except that there first had to be one man of self-sacrifice who was prepared to leap into the sea. That done, G‑d transformed it into dry land.

Immediately after the Exodus there had been a stopover at Rameses, and then G‑d “caused the Children of Israel to dwell in sukkos.” The route was Ramses, Sukkos, Eisam, and the Red Sea.

So, too, the “Exodus from Egypt” and the “Splitting of the Red Sea” are two pivotal points in a man’s life, and they are separated by three stations — first Ramses, which is connected to the last stage in the Exodus; then comes Sukkos; and then Eisam, which is connected to the first stage of the Splitting of the Red Sea. The middle stage, Sukkos, so named because G‑d “caused the Children of Israel to dwell in sukkos,” indicates something innovative. It is as if one were to say, the stages called Rameses and Eisam no doubt have spiritual significance of their own, but they are not miraculous; they both belong to the natural and gradated order of things, whereas Sukkos transcends that.

The Exodus from Egypt came as a revelation from above: “The King of the kings of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He, revealed Himself to them and redeemed them.” At the same time, the Divine intent was that created mortals should engage in their own avodah. Therefore, with the first utterance of the Ten Commandments, “I am the L-rd your G‑d Who brought you out of the Land of Egypt,”12 by giving the Torah G‑d empowered every Jew to get out of his own Egypt, out of his personal straits and bounds, through his own independent efforts at avodah.

Exodus by means of Divine revelation is hinted at in the name Ramses, whose two mystical interpretations are related.

1) The first three letters of the name רַעְמְסֵס mean “thunder,” and the numerical value of the other two letters comes to 120, which is the total number of possible combinations of the letters spelling the judgmental Divine Name Elokim. This alludes to the prosecuting voices in the Heavenly Court which are silenced by the thunderous force of Divine revelation.

2) The first two letters of the name רַעְמְסֵס mean “evil”; the other three letters are the root of the verb meaning “to melt” (as in the phrase כְּהִמֵּס דּוֹנַג — “as wax melts”).13 Hence: “Evil melts away.”

3. Anchoring Divine energy in the here and now

And as soon as the evil was nullified at that time, even if only temporarily, G‑d caused the people to dwell in sukkos. (This is hinted at in the verse, “The Children of Israel journeyed from Ramses to Sukkos.”14)

By way of analogy: A newborn infant is bathed and swaddled not only to protect him from uncleanliness from without, but also to straighten and strengthen his limbs — albeit temporarily, but this stands him in good stead throughout the time in which he grows to be a man. So, too, in avodah: When a person brings himself to the point at which he has freed himself from the constrictions of his own mindset, so that he is now disburdened of his former life-plans, the evil of his natural soul and the material and fleshly needs of his life become more refined.

It is now time for the next step — “And the Children of Israel journeyed... to Sukkos.” [The mitzvah of] sukkah is a makkif, a transcendent light, but it is a transcendent light that becomes integrated within oneself, just as swaddling an infant lends strength to his limbs even when he is a man.

This, then, is the inner meaning of the words, “I caused the Children of Israel to dwell in sukkos when I brought them out of the Land of Egypt.”

This verse likens dwelling in a sukkah to leaving Egypt. The Exodus, as we have said, was brought about by a revelation from Above, not as part of the natural and gradated order that characterizes an or pnimi, an immanent Divine light. Yet the first utterance of the Ten Commandments, “I am the L-rd your G‑d Who brought you out of the Land of Egypt,” empowered every Jew to get out of his own Egypt, out of his worldly straits and bounds, by his own efforts. In the same way, by causing the Children of Israel to dwell in sukkos, G‑d empowered their future descendants to “dwell in a sukkah” in the mystical sense of the phrase — to settle within the transcendent mode of Divine influence which is called makkif,15 in a way that will affect and be integrated within the immanent mode of Divine influence called pnimi.

4. Laws of the sukkah in body and soul

The fact that the makkif, the transcendent light, of the sukkah is thus related to the immanent light called or pnimi, is reflected in some of the halachic requirements of the sukkah: (a) There must be shade, which is provided by the roofing of s’chach; (b) the shade is interspersed with light, except that on the sukkah floor there must be more shade than light; (c) on the one hand the [s’chach] must partly obscure sunlight, but on the other hand it must admit rain, and without either of these conditions the sukkah is invalid; (d) the shade must result from the s’chach, not from the walls.

More generally, a sukkah must fulfill four conditions in order to be valid: (a) it must have walls (mechitzos — lit., “partitions”); (b) it must have a roofing of vegetation; (c) a person must know why he is sitting in a sukkah; (d) it must be a temporary dwelling.

Though the mitzvah of sukkah, being a makkif, transcends the realm of mortal understanding, it requires knowledge — “your generations shall know that I caused the Children of Israel to dwell in sukkos when I brought them out of the land of Egypt. Moreover, the word for “your generations” implies that this knowledge must permeate all the successive stages16 of your soul, including the intellect, the spiritual emotions, thought and speech. This requirement — knowledge — explains why the height of a sukkah is limited to twenty cubits, for it is only in such a case that a person is aware17 that he is dwelling in a sukkah.

And to understand the twenty cubits on another level: Daas (lit., “knowledge”) implies connection.18 A man’s life task is to see to it that the ten faculties of his divine soul should refine and uplift the ten faculties of his natural soul, which in essence spring from a lofty source. As explained in the teachings of Chassidus, this connection between the two sets of ten underlies the twenty cubits of the sukkah.

The blessing recited is leisheiv basukkah — “...And Who commanded us to dwell in the sukkah.” The verb leisheiv shares a common root with hisyashvus — “being settled.” This implies that the powerful and transcendent makkif- energy which the fulfillment of this commandment elicits should ultimately settle into its place within the individual’s pnimiyus and become internalized and integrated there. At this point, however, the energy is still at the primal stage of makkif, and not yet internalized in the stage called pnimi, which is the main focus of man’s labors. This is why the sukkah has to be temporary.

When, in the course of a Talmudic debate, Abbaye raises the question19 as whether a sukkah with walls of iron topped with s’chach is valid, Rava’s answer makes it clear that a sukkah is valid only if it is temporary. And the inner reason for this, as we have explained, is that a man’s avodah focuses on the realm of pnimi.

To be valid, the actual structure of the sukkah must satisfy two indispensable conditions: it must have walls and a vegetative roofing.

As we have said, the divine intent is that the makkif-energy should enter and affect a man’s innermost dimension, his pnimi. The orderly nature of avodah at the level of pnimi is therefore reflected in all the laws relating to the sukkah. For example, the walls must be in place before the s’chach.

The walls signify limitation: they separate that which is pnimi, and good, from whatever lies outside. This is the first stage in the construction of a sukkah and the first stage in a man’s avodah. (This is discussed at length in the maamar beginning VaYomer Moshe, Al Tira’u, dating from Shavuos, 5692 (1932).) Every individual must set himself bounds, relating to his actual fulfillment of the mitzvos, to his study schedule, and to the modification of his character. These bounds are the walls of his sukkah.

The construction of the walls is also regulated by laws relating to the orderly level of avodah at the level of pnimi. For example: construction of the walls begins from below and works its way upward, and on them the s’chach is laid; and if there is too big a space between the ground and the lower edge of the walls, the sukkah is invalid.

Construction begins on Motzaei Yom Kippur. As Chassidus expresses it, the solemn resolves that every man makes on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur constitute the material of which his sukkah walls are built. These are the walls on which his s’chach is laid.

Though the sukkah must be no more than a temporary dwelling, its walls must be strong enough to withstand a common wind. And though a common wind at sea is stronger than a common wind on land, sukkah walls that can withstand a common wind on land are valid even at sea.

So, too, in the realm of one’s personal avodah. At whichever auspicious time a man is aroused, whether by contriteness during the Days of Awe or by joy during Sukkos, the routine of his workaday life can later swallow up his genuinely uplifted state.

That workaday routine is the prevalent wind that he has to withstand. In the spirit of the promise that “the L-rd your G‑d will bless you in all that you do,”20 he has to take steps to see to his worldly needs. This, however, he must do in the manner defined by the Torah, so that his worldly affairs will not swallow up his earlier arousal, so that common worldly winds will not sweep away the bounds and partitions that he has set up in the spirit of the Torah.

5. Laws of the s’chach in body and soul

As was mentioned above, the s’chach that provides the shade must mix light and shade, and while providing shade from the sun, it must not obstruct the rain.

In other words, a sukkah must be covered yet visible, visible yet covered. And it is this very state that must produce the sukkah’s shade, which is the very opposite of light in two ways: light signifies revelation, and does not perceive itself as an entity existing in its own right,21 whereas shade signifies darkness, and does perceive itself as an entity existing in its own right.

Nevertheless, though light and shade are essentially opposites, the luminary — the sun — is the ultimate source of them both. Their dual difference lies only in the way they become manifest as a result of their joint cause: light becomes manifest as a direct result of the luminary itself, with no interception, whereas the shade becomes manifest only as a result of the light, and as the result of interception.

It is this shade, then, mingled with light, that constitutes the mitzvah of dwelling in the sukkah. However, there must be more shade than light, and not only in the roofing overhead, but specifically below, where people sit. Moreover, this dwelling must be a temporary one, though the walls that join that area with the s’chach must be able to withstand the challenge of a common wind. Furthermore, the people inside must know that the sukkah has the transcendent energy of a makkif that must be internalized and integrated within their lives.

The shade on the sukkah floor whose indirect cause is the luminary, and whose direct cause is its light, must also have a specific cause — and this is the s’chach that intercepts the light. To be valid, the s’chach must satisfy three main requirements: it must be vegetative, it must be disconnected from the ground, and it must not be susceptible to ritual impurity.22

All of these particular requirements have significance in the realm of one’s personal avodah. For a start, the performance of mitzvos elicits a revelation of light in all the worlds. Thus, when a Jew builds himself a sukkah down here, in the heavenly realms the Supernal Sukkah is built; when he sets up its walls, the walls of the Supernal Sukkah are set up; when he covers his sukkah with s’chach, the Supernal Sukkah is covered with s’chach; and when he dwells in his sukkah during the time that he is obliged to do so, all the appropriate spiritual lights and revelations are called forth in the Supernal Sukkah. Moreover, in addition to this, all the particular requirements of the sukkah have their parallels in the individual’s avodah as expressed in the faculties of his soul.

6. Stations in a spiritual itinerary

[Let us now proceed from Sukkos, which is the site named for the sukkos of our forefathers in the wilderness, and which represents the aspects of avodah discussed above.] From Sukkos the people journeyed on to Eisam, whose spelling (אֵתָם) suggests temimus,23 the kind of unqualified earnestness discussed in Chassidus. And from Eisam the people proceeded to the Splitting of the Sea. As was mentioned above, Ramses may be seen as a stage in the Exodus, and Eisam as a stage in the Splitting of the Sea.

[The stations in that trek can now be linked to the sequence of the current festivals.] Egypt: In the course of Ne’ilah, at the climax of Yom Kippur, a Jew gets out of his personal Egypt; he breaks free of the straits and bounds in which his soul has been trammeled. Ramses [see the two interpretations of the name in Section 2 on pp. 204-205 above]: The Shema Yisrael at the peak of Ne’ilah is the thunderous Divine revelation that silences the prosecuting voices in the Heavenly Court, and the following declaration of Havayah Hu HaElokim utterly melts away all evil. Sukkos: The various aspects of one’s divine service that are hinted at by this placename were enumerated above. Eisam: This signifies the artless innocence with which a Jew approaches the avodah of Simchas Torah. The Sea: And when he has worked through all these successive stages, he has the ability to split the Sea, to tear apart the frigidity of worldly life.

7. Voluntary vs. obligatory

On Shemini Atzeres we eat in the sukkah in the shade of “...Who sanctified us with His commandments” [though not in the shade of “And Who commanded us to dwell in the sukkah”24]. Sitting and eating in the shade of the sukkah on Shemini Atzeres brings to mind the superiority of a voluntary act over a mandatory one. Throughout the seven days of Sukkos one is obligated to dwell in the sukkah, and this is accompanied by the blessing, “…and Who commanded us to dwell in the sukkah,” which is not recited on Shemini Atzeres.

The superiority of a voluntary act lies in the fact that it sweetens the fulfillment of a mandatory obligation. Davenen is obligatory; reciting Tehillim after davenen is optional. Yet this recitation adds flavor to one’s fulfillment of the obligation. In the same way, sitting in the sukkah on Shemini Atzeres adds flavor and stature to all one’s activities during the festival’s preceding seven days, that is, to all the spiritual lights whose downflow was elicited by the makkifim of the sukkah. In these terms we can understand the statement in Chassidus that Shemini Atzeres is the season of “klitah, the time at which one absorbs and integrates the forthcoming spiritual energy.

Just as we are commanded to fulfill the mitzvos and thereby all kinds of Supernal lights and revelations are called forth (as in the above example of the Supernal Sukkah which is built when a Jew builds his sukkah here below), the Supernal lights are themselves commanded to be elicited and revealed, each in its appropriate season.

Shemini Atzeres is the season at which the downward flow of spiritual energy is absorbed and integrated. Though it is bestowed from above, much depends on the avodah of the mortal recipient below, just as the enlightenment offered by a mashpia is absorbed only to the extent that the recipient disciple is eager to accept it.


Mitzvos in thought, speech and action25

The mitzvos of which one may say “Who sanctified us” but not “Who commanded us” relate more to thought than to speech. Every mitzvah comprises thought, speech and action. The action is the actual performance, the speech is the blessing recited over its performance, and the thought is the devout intent26 that accompanies the performance.

The actual performance is the body of the mitzvah; the devout intent is its soul (as in the popular saying, that a mitzvah without kavanah is like a body without a soul);27 and the intermediary that joins the body and soul of the mitzvah is the blessing recited over its performance.

On Shemini Atzeres, when one does not recite a blessing for dwelling in the sukkah, the intent and the deed are closer to each other than they would be through the intermediacy of speech. (For any intermediary, though serving to join, nevertheless intercepts, whereas when two entities come together directly, without any intermediary, there is no interception whatsoever, and, indeed, their closeness is more complete.) Thus, such a situation better enables a positive thought to exert actual influence on a deed.

On Shemini Atzeres, therefore, one should do one’s utmost to think good thoughts and happy thoughts. And may G‑d fulfill them with actual good, with the kind of material good that created mortals vested in bodies understand to be material good, and in great abundance, too — but let it be the kind of good that can be readily transformed into vessels for Elokus!