It is not enough to just build the sukkah
Many people have asked me, "What does a rabbi do after Yom Kippur?"
Believe it or not, my favorite thing to do is build my sukkah. I am so eager to do it that I have a standing date with a friend who comes over at 10pm after break-fast to help me carry the wooden panels from our garage to our deck. And that is usually enough to drain the remaining adrenaline from my system so I can sleep, eat, and hydrate, then repeat.
Our sukkah construction relies heavily on the magic of plastic zip ties. They are not the prettiest but are somehow able to withstand city winds (which has not always been the case when I have used screws and nails).
While the technical requirements for sukkah construction include at least two-and-a-half walls and enough schach so there is more shade than sun, I personally think a sukkah is not complete without a few decorative paper chains. I have such a strong cellular memory of stapling and stringing up these colorful crafts year after year. We have in recent years learned to make them from more durable materials like glittery pipe cleaners and fluorescent duct tape so they too can endure the rain and wind.
Decorating your sukkah may seem a bit extra, given the tight turn around between Yom Kippur and Sukkot. A mere few days beneath a waxing moon. But in fact, making your sukkah festive and beautiful is actually perhaps just as important as building it to begin with (don't be misled by my use of zip ties).
I was inspired this year when Rabbi Mó and Rabbi Michelle took it upon themselves to form a little ad hoc KT committee to make sure the KT sukkah was better decorated. Their intuition is supported by Talmudic wisdom. We learn in masechet Shabbat (133b),
עֲשֵׂה לְפָנָיו סוּכָּה נָאָה, וְלוּלָב נָאֶה...
Make a beautiful sukkah and a beautiful lulav. A sukkah na'eh and a lulav na'eh.
It is not enough to just build the sukkah. But also, we are instructed to make it pretty so that we really want to dwell inside of it.
Sometimes I overlook the power of aesthetics and the importance of beautiful things. But not during Sukkot. Not when one of the core ritual objects is known by its biblical name Pri Eitz Hadar, the fruit of a beautiful tree. It may in fact not even have a scientific counterpart.
One of the explicit functions of mitzvot in general and ritual objects specifically is to remind us how important it is to take care to make things beautiful in this world. In the hurry to build a sukkah or buy a lulav we might lose track of why we are doing these mitzvot, or any mitzvot, to begin with. So the Talmud reminds us:
הִתְנָאֵה לְפָנָיו בְּמִצְוֹת:
Mitzvot are an opportunity to make ourselves (and our world) more beautiful.
עֲשֵׂה לְפָנָיו סוּכָּה נָאָה, וְלוּלָב נָאֶה, וְשׁוֹפָר נָאֶה,
צִיצִית נָאָה, סֵפֶר תּוֹרָה נָאֶה, וְכָתוּב בּוֹ לִשְׁמוֹ בִּדְיוֹ נָאֶה,
בְּקוּלְמוֹס נָאֶה, בְּלַבְלָר אוּמָּן, וְכוֹרְכוֹ בְּשִׁירָאִין נָאִין.
Make your sukkah beautiful, and your lulav beautiful and a beautiful shofar;
Make the fringes of your Tallit beautiful.
The parchment for the Torah should be beautiful and so should the ink you use to write it, even the quill and the silk you use to wrap the sefer Torah.
This is the practice of hiddur mitzvah. Of taking care to make do mitzvot in ways that elevate our sensory experience of the world. Rather than a burden, these practices are meant to bring beauty into our lives. Both for the sake of honoring the Holy One, and also for the sake of honoring ourselves with dignity and beauty.
הִתְנָאֵה לְפָנָיו בְּמִצְוֹת:
May you delight in the details of the natural world that are inherently beautiful. And invite your own practice of mitzvot to make yourself and your life more beautiful.
Moadim L'Simcha and Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Ari Lev
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