Sukkot, Fantasy, and Delusion

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24 Sep 2012

In sukkot you should dwell for seven days. Every citizen of Yisrael should dwell in sukkot. (This is) so that your generation will know that I caused Bnai Yisrael to dwell in sukkot when I brought them forth from the Land of Egypt. I am Hashem your G-d. (Sefer Vayikra 23:42-43)

1. The sukkot commemorates the wilderness experience
In Sefer Vayikra, the Torah describes the commandment to dwell in sukkot during the celebration of Sukkot . The Torah explains that we are required to perform this commandment as a commemoration of the sojourn of our ancestors in the wilderness following their rescue from Egypt. The sukkot in which we live during the celebration of Sukkot recall the sukkot in which our ancestors dwelled during their travels.

The Sages dispute the meaning of the Torah’s reference to the sukkot of our ancestors. According to Rabbi Eliezer, the sukkot of our ancestors were the cloud that accompanied and protected our ancestors in the wilderness. According to Rabbi Akiva, our ancestors fashioned for themselves shelters similar to our sukkot and these flimsy shelters provided them with protection from the harsh elements of the wilderness’ environment. However, regardless of the specific nature of our ancestors’ sukkot, the meaning and significance of our observance is clear. Sefer HaChinuch explains that we live in sukkot to recall the wilderness experience of our ancestors. Our ancestors traveled through and survived the hostile environment of the wilderness. Hashem protected and sustained them and brought them to the Land of Israel. We celebrate the festival and live in our sukkot in order to recall our ancestors’ miraculous experience in the wilderness and, through recollection, we acknowledge Hashem and thank Him for his mercy and kindness.1

However, on the fifteenth of the seventh month when you gather the produce of the land you should observe a celebration for Hashem for seven days. The first day should be observed as a Sabbath and the eighth day should be observed as a Sabbath. (Sefer Vayikra 23:39)

2. Sukkot is a harvest festival
Rashbam suggests an alternative understanding of the mitzvah of dwelling in the sukkah. His analysis addresses two issues in the above passage. First, the passage indicates that the sukkot festival is to be observed in the fall. The events that the festival recalls were initiated with our redemption from Egypt in the springtime. At that time, Bnai Yisrael were redeemed from Egypt and entered the wilderness. Why is the commemoration of wilderness experience postponed to the fall? Second, the above passage relates the Sukkot festival to the conclusion of the harvest season with the in-gathering of the grain from the fields. What is the connection between Sukkot and the conclusion of the harvest season?

Rashbam’s response begins with a discussion of the feelings and attitudes evoked by the successful harvest. As the harvest season is concluded and the grain is gathered from the fields and stored away, a sense of accomplishment can be expected to emerge. However, this sense of accomplishment can evolve into a feeling of pride, exaggerated self-assurance, and unwarranted security. The harvest has been gathered and stored away for the season. We feel secure in the conviction that our material needs will be met. We will have food for our tables and grain for trade. We are proud that through our efforts, we have secured prosperity. We feel assured that we have the power to manipulate the forces of nature to fulfill our will and conform to our needs. The abundance of the harvest testifies to our conquest over our environment.

Lest you eat and be satiated and you will build good houses and dwell (therein). You will become haughty and forget Hashem your G-d that brought you out from the Land of Egypt, from the house of bondage… And you will say in your heart my strength and the power of my hand made for me this wealth. You should remember that Hashem your G-d , He gives you the power to create this wealth in order to fulfill the covenant that He vowed to your forefather as He (fulfills) today. (Sefer Devarim 8:12-18)

3. Unwarranted security leads to abandonment of Hashem and His Torah
Rashbam notes the Moshe warned that this very attitude leads to abandonment of Hashem. Moshe explained that if we adopt this inflated sense of self-reliance and mastery over our destiny, we will quickly forget that Hashem is the source of our success and accomplishments.

Rashbam suggests that it is at this moment of unrestrained self-satisfaction that we must remind ourselves of the wilderness experience. We recall that Hashem miraculously sustained our ancestors in the wilderness, and through this recollection, we will understand that the success of our harvest is not a consequence of our power to manipulate nature. It is an expression of Hashem’s omnipotence. This explains the observance of the festival at the end of the harvest season, in the springtime. It is at this time of the year that the message of the festival is most relevant – even imperative.2

Rashbam’s comments require some interpretation. He identifies an issue that the festival of Sukkot addresses – the unfounded sense of self-sufficiency and power that may be evoked by a successful harvest. He identifies the Torah’s means of addressing this issue – through recalling the miracles of the wilderness experience. However, he does not explicitly explain how this recollection corrects our misconceptions and faulty self-perception. Furthermore, Rashbam notes that this attitude of false self-sufficiency will lead to abandonment of Hashem and His Torah. Indeed, this concern was expressed by Moshe. But Rashbam does not explain how this overestimation of our own control over our fates affects a denial of Hashem.

And He afflicted you and He caused you hunger and He fed you the manna that you had not know and your ancestors had not known in order to make known to you that it is not on bread alone that man lives but on all brought forth by the word of Hashem man lives. (Sefer Devarim 8:3)

4. The desire for security and the delusions it induces
The above passage is from Moshe’s final address to the people. He discusses with them the meaning and significance of the wilderness experience. He explains that Hashem led the nation into the wilderness. He allowed them to experience suffering and hunger and then rescued them from starvation with the mun – manna. Moshe provides an enigmatic explanation for this process of suffering and salvation. Hashem did this in order to demonstrate to the people that humankind does not require bread to be sustained. Hashem can sustain humankind with anything brought forth by His word. What does Moshe mean? What is this lesson of the wilderness experience that he is attributing to Hashem?

Moshe seems to suggest that Hashem led Bnai Yisrael into the wilderness in order to place the nation in a completely helpless situation. He allowed the people to experience affliction and even severe hunger. He then rescued the nation from agony and starvation through providing all of the nation’s needs. Why did Hashem first afflict the nation and then rescue the people from the very suffering He had brought upon them? He did this in order to reduce the nation to a state of complete helplessness and despair. Then, through rescuing the people, He demonstrated their complete dependence on Hashem. In other words, Moshe seems to say that Hashem wished to strip from the people any sense of self-reliance and control over their own destiny. He wished to place the people in a situation in which they would be clearly and completely dependent on Hashem. Only when the nation fully recognized its absolute dependency on Hashem did He rescue the nation and provide for its needs.

This seems to be Moshe’s message. However, the message is completely amazing! Moshe is suggesting that Hashem deemed it necessary to demonstrate to the nation He rescued from Egypt that it is completely dependent upon Hashem. Moshe’s interpretation of the wilderness experience implies that the redeemed nation harbored a false sense of security and power. This seems absurd! These people were newly freed slaves. Certainly, slaves are well aware of their vulnerability and helplessness!

The conclusion that must be drawn from Moshe’s interpretation of Hashem’s actions is that even an oppressed and subjugated slave can easily overestimate his influence over his destiny and may not fully understand his actual vulnerability and dependence on Hashem. How can this be?

Apparently, human nature compels us to seek a sense of security. We need to feel that we have some safety and stability in our lives. We are incapable of living in constant fear and anxiety. Therefore, we strive to insulate ourselves from the forces that we feel threaten our safety and security. We attempt to assert control over any and every aspect of our environment and surroundings that we regard as significant to our safety and well-being. Even a slave is subject to this aspect of human nature. He knows that he is subject to the will of his master. Yet, he attempts to assert control wherever possible and to sustain whatever stability and security possible. More significantly, our need to feel safe and secure – to alleviate our fears and anxiety over the uncertainty of our destinies – seduces us into retreating into a fantasy in which we exaggerate our influence over our destinies.

5. The wilderness experience as an antidote to delusion
This conception of human nature resolves two of the questions posed above. First, Moshe’s interpretation of Hashem’s strategy can be understood. Even the slaves, rescued from a horrid life of persecution, did not fully appreciate their complete dependence upon Hashem. In the wilderness, Hashem stripped these freed slaves from every false and fantastic delusion of control and influence over their own fate. In the wilderness, they entered into a state in which it was impossible to maintain any vestige of such fantasies. Day-to-day survival was completely a consequence of Hashem’s miracles and kindness.

The pathway from personal accomplishment and success to rejection of Hashem also can be understood. If a lowly slave is susceptible to delusions of personal power and influence, then a successful, accomplished person is even more vulnerable to such fantasies. Success and personal accomplishment provide “evidence” of our power and influence over our destinies and environment. Our successes resonate with our need to perceive our lives as safe and secure. We imagine that these successes “prove” that we are indeed in-control of our fates and that we need not fear the future. We can care and provide for ourselves and meet any challenges that we may face. In our flight into a fantasy of control and security, we obscure our fundamental helplessness, vulnerability, and dependence upon Hashem.

6. The contrast between human perceptions and the reality described by the Torah
This discussion can be viewed from another perspective. The message of Moshe in his interpretation of the wilderness experience and in his warning to the people is that there is a fundamental conflict between our innate perceptions and the reality described by the Torah. We seek security and safety. We strive to create stability in our lives and delude ourselves into exaggerating the degree to which we control of our destinies. To the extent that we imagine that we control our destinies, we do not need Hashem. The Torah’s reality is quite different from our fantasies. In the Torah’s reality, humanity is frail and helpless. We are expected to act on our own behalf and to seek to better ourselves and our world. However, ultimately the success of our effort and strivings depends upon Hashem. A person who is scrupulously conscientious in regards to his health may fall victim to cancer. A city that carefully plans its neighborhoods, transportation system, and infrastructure can, in a moment, be devastated by an earthquake. Plagues and diseases can threaten thriving cities, states, and even nations. We certainly cannot prevent a meteor from striking the earth and destroying all life! Ultimately, we are dependent on Hashem. We are relatively minor players in the drama of human advancement. One of the fundamental objectives of the Torah is to help us abandon our delusion and see reality as described by the Torah. Rashbam is suggesting that the festival of Sukkot is one of the measures in the Torah designed to instill within us an accurate appraisal of reality and the limits of our influence over our fates.

How does Sukkot accomplish this? Possibly, Sukkot reminds us that even our ancestors – newly freed slaves – were victims of delusions of security. They required the experience of the wilderness – an experience of total reliance on Hashem – to correct their false perceptions. If these freed slaves were capable of nurturing fantasies of control over their destinies, then we certainly need to examine our attitudes and free ourselves of fantasy and delusion.

The foundation of foundations and the pillar of all wisdom is to know that there exists a primary existence that gives existence to all that existence and all that exists from the heavens to the earth and all between them only exists consequential to His absolute existence. (Maimonides, Moshe Torah, Hilchot Yesodai HaTorah 1:1)

7. Even our limited control over our destinies is only apparent
However, there is another possible explanation of the role of Sukkot in addressing our delusions of control. As explained above, human nature seeks security and this drive can encourage fantasies of control. However, to what extent do we ever have control or power over our destiny or environment? Is our control ever real or is it always merely imagined?

In order to consider this issue, it is helpful to begin with an analogy. Each weekday morning, I get into my car and I drive to school. I imagine that I arrive at school as a consequence of personal endeavor and effort. But let us consider the issue more carefully. I drive a car I neither designed nor constructed. It is fueled by gasoline I did not refine or bring to market. I travel on roads I did not build and which I do not maintain. Actually, my role in bringing myself to school is remarkably minor. I merely take advantage of the wisdom, work, and planning of so many others whom I do not even know! Without them, I would be walking to school. No, I would walk to the shore of Lake Washington and swim to Mercer Island!

The universe in which we live is Hashem’s creation. He fashioned it, brought it into existence, and sustains it every moment. My every accomplishment, every act, merely utilizes the resources, properties, and natural laws which are expressions of Hashem’s will. I only take advantage of the wonders He created and sustains. It is not accurate for me to describe my arrival at school as a consequence of my efforts and endeavors. Similarly, it is foolish for me to imagine that I am the source of any accomplishments; I am merely availing myself of the resources with which Hashem provides me.

In other words, although we are most aware of Hashem’s omnipotence when confronted with a miracle or a breach of the natural order, it is the created universe that is the most wondrous and consistent manifestation of His omnipotence. The miracle demonstrates that Hashem is the creator and sustainer of the universe and can therefore, suspend or abrogate its laws. However, once His omnipotence is demonstrated through miracles, then His universe provides constant testimony that He is its creator and sustainer.

The miracles of the wilderness demonstrated to the nation His omnipotence. Through this demonstration, they came to understand He is Creator and He sustains all existence. We are not the cause of our accomplishments. We merely avail ourselves of the resources He places before us. The celebration of Sukkot reminds us of the miracles of the wilderness and the lesson of Hashem’s omnipotence that they communicate.

1. Rav Aharon HaLevi, Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzvah 325.

2. Rabbeinu Shmuel ben Meir (Rashbam), Commentary on Sefer VaYikra 23:43.