Natural, Unnatural, and Supernatural: Commentary on Sukkot 5783
By Rabbi Jonah Rank, President and Rosh Yeshivah of Hebrew Seminary

         Some 700 years ago, a young rabbi named Ya’akov HaLevi Moelin visited his father the morning after Yom Kippur and was shocked to discover him at a construction site in the Rhineland. Ya’akov’s father, Rabbi Mosheh Moelin, was assembling his sukkah with little time to go before the onset of Shabbat, which—accompanied by its traditional prohibition of building during the sabbath[1]—would soon put an end to Mosheh’s Friday morning activity.
Ya’akov brooded over his father’s inadequate time management skills. How could he imagine finishing building the whole sukkah alone in a single morning, especially when he must prepare for Shabbat? Soon, a crowd gathered and joined Ya’akov in vocalizing their estimation that Rabbi Mosheh was a man of poor judgment.
The senior Rabbi Moelin finally offered his defense: “הואיל ואתא מצוה לידך לא תחמץ” (“When a mitzvah comes to your hand, don’t let it spoil”).
Rabbi Ya’akov must have realized there was some wisdom in his father’s unorthodox approach to sukkah-building. Regardless of whether this sukkah by the Rhine was completed before Shabbat, Rabbi Ya’akov would later rule:

מיד לאחר יום כפור יעסוק כל אדם לעשות סוכתו משום שנשלמו ימי תשובה ויום ראשון שנכנס לחטא ח״ו יקדים את עצמו לאתחולי במצוה כדי לקיים ילכו מחיל אל חיל.

Immediately after Yom Kippur, every person should become preoccupied with making their sukkah because, once the Days of Repentance have ended [at the conclusion of Yom Kippur], what if, on the first day [of being sin-free], someone accidentally enters the realm of sin—God forbid!? [Rather,] one should face one’s self forward and begin a mitzvah, so as to fulfill [the hope of Psalm 84:8], that “[one who finds strength in God] shall go from strength to strength.”[2]

        Rabbi Mosheh’s sukkah-building zeal passed onto his son but went largely unmatched for centuries. But in 16th century Kraków, a new Rabbi Mosheh, with the last name Isserles, came along and bested the Moelin family’s sukkah assembly speed, writing in his דרכי משה (Darkhey Mosheh, “The Ways of Mosheh”), “דמצוה להתחיל בעשיית הסוכה מיד במוצאי י״ה” (“that it is a mitzvah to make the sukkah immediately in the evening following Yom Kippur”).[3] It is unclear if Rabbi Isserles would even break his fast before he would lay out the poles, drapes, and vegetation that would compose his sukkah. He felt the urgency of this holiday.
The ecstasy of Sukkot—this festival that our prayerbooks lovingly call “זמן שמחתנו” (zeman simchatenu, “the Season of our Joy”) during the Amidah prayer—goes back to time immemorial. When Rabbi Ya’akov ben Asher, a 13th–14th century mystic of Western Europe, authored his ארבעה טורים (Arba’ah Turim, “Four Pillars”), he attempted to trace the origins of the otherworldliness of the experience of sitting in a sukkah:

בסוכות תשבו שבעת ימים וגו’ למען ידעו דורותיכם כי בסוכות הושבתי את בני ישראל בהוציאי אותם וגו’ תלה הכתוב מצות סוכה ביציאת מצרים… לפי שהוא דבר שראינו בעינינו ובאזנינו שמענו ואין אדם יכול להכחישנו והיא המורה על אמיתת מציאות הבורא יתעלה שהוא ברא הכל לרצונו והוא אשר לו הכח והממשלה.

[God said in Leviticus 23:42–43,] “In sukkot you shall sit for seven days… so that your generations may know that in sukkot I settled the children of Israel when I released them [from Egypt].” The Scripture attached the mitzvah of [dwelling in] a sukkah to the exodus from Egypt… since it is a matter that we saw with our eyes and heard with our ears, and there is no person who can deny this. Thus, this [memory] projets the truth of the realness of the supernal Creator who created all for God’s sake, to whom all power and dominion belong.

The modern reader may rightfully critique that ben Asher appears to have linked our testimony of God’s greatness to an event that required sight or hearing—an obstacle to those who are, respectively, blind and/or Deaf. But ben Asher draws on further senses as he continues to explain the uniqueness of Sukkot:

ואע”פ שיצאנו ממצרים בחדש ניסן לא צונו לעשות סוכה באותו הזמן לפי שהוא ימות הקיץ ודרך כל אדם לעשות סוכה לצל ולא היתה ניכרת עשייתנו בהם… ולכן צוה אותנו שנעשה בחדש השביעי שהוא זמן הגשמים ודרך כל אדם לצאת מסוכתו ולישב בביתו ואנחנו יוצאין מן הבית לישב בסוכה בזה יראה לכל שמצות המלך היא עלינו לעשותה.

So, even though we left in Egypt in the [warm] month of Nisan, [God] did not command us to make a sukkah at that time [of the year]—because that [season] is summery days, and the [natural] way of people is to make a sukkah for the sake of shade, so our making [a sukkah at that time] went unnoted… Therefore, [God] commanded us to make [a sukkah] in the seventh month [of the biblical calendar, in the month of Tishrey], which is a time of rains, when the [natural] way of people is to exit their sukkah and to dwell in their home. But we exit our home and sit in the sukkah. Through this, it becomes evident to all that it is incumbent upon us to perform this mitzvah from our Ruler.[4]

For ben Asher, the universal proof of God’s existence is not solely the mythical memory of our God freeing our ancestors from Egypt. Rather, we prove God’s majesty through our patience and sense of touch. Underneath cloudy autumnal skies, wind lightly caresses our skin and hair, and raindrops prod us to a higher consciousness. We have committed our corporeal beings to the Supernatural. By making this countercultural move into our little huts when most members of our species would deem the conditions too cold or wet, we go against nature. We opt to transcend nature and live unnaturally so we can test our senses and our faith at the same time.
Of course, sitting in the sukkah should never lead to total discomfort. About 1800 years ago, the Mishnah anonymously recorded the opinion that any amount of rain that would spoil a meal can drive us out of the sukkah and back into our permanent homes.[5] Still, on Sukkot, we try to withstand those smaller gusts of air and drizzles. If we can see in our mind’s eye the wilderness our ancestors wandered, hear the echoes of the voice that freed them from Egypt so many years ago, taste and smell our sustenance in the outdoors, and/or feel the fall weather embracing us—sitting in the sukkah becomes undoubtedly a multisensory experience. After the denial of the body’s needs during Yom Kippur, Sukkot invites us to immerse ourselves in a refreshingly and profoundly somatic mitzvah.
It is no wonder that, near the shores of the Rhine river, Rabbi Mosheh Moelin could hardly wait to move on past the selflessness of Yom Kippur and celebrate Sukkot with his whole heart, his whole soul, and his whole being.[6] Rabbi Mosheh Isserles could not wait until the morning; he picked up his working tools in the dark of night to get his whole self preoccupied with the encroaching holiday. It is never too early to move on to the next mitzvah. For the celebration of our truths, for the joy of our faithfulness, and for feeling at one with nature—even on a chilly evening—we can hardly wait.

[1] Mishnah, Shabbat 7:2.

[2] The whole story and the ruling appear in Sefer MaHaRYL (ספר מהרי״ל) (Jerusalem, 5738 A.M. [1977 or 1978 C.E.]), p. 50b.

[3] Darkhey Mosheh on Orach Chayyim (אורח חיים) 625. Emphasis my own.

[4] Arba’ah Turim, Orach Chayyim 625.

[5] Mishnah, Sukkah 2:9.

[6] Cf. Deuteronomy 6:5.