Ra’anana Community Kollel
Rabbi Dovid Orlofsky
Some years ago on Shabbos Chol HaMoed I was walking home from shul with a friend from my neighborhood. We were involved in a deep discussion, probably a mystical Torah thought about Succos or perhaps we were arguing which bakery had better potato borekas, but something totally engrossing. So rather than stand outside my front door, I, of course, invited him in to make kiddush in my succah. Like most husbands, he was loath to do so. Husbands don’t mind keeping their families waiting hours while they shmooze with their chaverim, as long as they remain standing. This way they can convince themselves that the conversation is only taking a few minutes.
Eventually his hunger and exhaustion got the better of him and we sat down in the succah for a piece of cake. I observed him looking around, no doubt admiring the many beautiful decorations that my children had diligently spent hours picking out from the children selling them door-to-door. I’m just kidding, of course! My children make all the decorations themselves, except for the customary Israeli decorations of tinsel and garland and holly and the picture of the funny old Rebbe in the red bekesha. Luckily, no one seems to have told them what these things were being sold for in America!
“They’re really beautiful and creative,” I offered helpfully as he continued staring all around him. “You put decorations up in your succah?” he asked. Evidently he held that you shouldn’t have decorations in your succah. “Of course! What would Succos be without succah decorations?” “But they look ridiculous!” he countered. “The succah is supposed to be like your house. Would you hang these things up in your house?”
Now the truth is that he stumbled onto a sensitive point. You see, when we came to Israel fourteen years ago, we basically did our apartment up in standard Israeli rental apartment motif. Bare balata floors, walls that are whitewashed with a special paint that comes off when it comes in contact with clothing, the light bulb hanging from the black electrical cord, a few broken trissim - you know the look, of course. Eventually we decided we needed to give the apartment a more personal and homey touch, so we bought these large white paper balls to cover the light bulbs. We were really proud of these paper light covers and admiringly pointed them out to anyone who would listen. We finally stopped when one of my talmidim said, “It looks great Rebbe, just like a college dorm room. All you need is a beanbag chair.”
So to tell you the truth, we probably would hang succah decorations up in our house. The only problem is that when they fall off the wall, the tape usually pulls some of the plaster off with it. I know this from the many times my children have hung party streamers on the walls for various surprise birthday parties that have driven many a small child to tears when everyone jumps out of the dark and screams at them “surprise!” But other than that, I probably wouldn’t have much of an objection.
“To tell you the truth, I kind of like them” I said. Undaunted, he delivered his coup de grace. “Look at those paper chains” he said. “Nobody would hang paper chains in their house.”
That was of course too much for me. I threatened that if he kept up that sort of talk I would send him home to his wife and children. Paper chains, indeed! Paper chains are Succos, as much as honey cake is Rosh Hashanah and cheesecake is Shavuos. Does it matter if you like honey cake? Of course not! You are going to eat it because it is Rosh Hashanah. And every child over the age of two has a recipe for honey cake, and they have to make theirs even if the recipe says to add enough alcohol that the whole thing will catch fire. Even when they insist that when it says to add a cup of coffee, it doesn’t mean a cup of prepared coffee but rather coffee beans (preferably not ground). And however it comes out you will eat it, because it’s Rosh Hashanah and that’s a honey cake and that’s all there is to it.
Today kids can’t even be expected to cut up colored construction paper like I did as a kid. They sell special paper chain papers precut to the exact size. Children make four to five miles of paper chains for a succah that seats two (leaning over). How can anyone besmirch the sacred paper chain?
Perhaps what we should do in order to protect ourselves from these spurious attacks is to develop a deeper understanding into the significance of paper chains on Succos.
Let me begin by stating the obvious; there is a relationship between Yom Kippur and Succos. The Torah calls the first day of Succos, Yom HaRishon, the first day, instead of the fifteenth day as the Torah usually does because, the Chazal explain, it is considered the first day you can sin. You have been so busy in between Yom Kippur and Succos buying your arba minim, building your succah, shopping and cooking and preparing (and of course, making paper chains) that you haven’t had a chance to sin. Granted many of us feel that if you budget your time correctly you can make time for everything, but I don’t think the Chazal are discussing time management. Rather the power of Yom Kippur is catapulting us through this time with a certain power that can prevent us from sinning.
What was the power of Yom Kippur? On Yom Kippur the Kohain Gadol performed the Avodah in the Bais HaMikdash that culminated with him entering into the kodesh hakedoshim. This was, of course, a powerful experience, not only for the Kohain Gadol personally, but for all of Klal Yisrael. As their shaliach, their personal representative, he took all of Klal Yisrael with him when he went into the kodesh hakedoshim. It is hard for us to imagine what such an experience was like, but we must try.
The kodesh hakedoshim in the mishkan was a room ten amos long by ten amos wide. Inside was the aron hakadosh with the badim, the poles on either side, that were ten amos long. They filled the length of the room. The Kohain Gadol needed to stand in between the poles in order to set down the pan of coals and pour the incense upon them. But if the poles went the whole length of the room on either side of the aron, they would block his path. How then did the Kohain Gadol get in between the poles?
The Chazal tell us that the aron took up no room. This was not, of course, something that took place in order to solve a problem for the Kohain Gadol; rather it revealed the nature of the kodesh hakedoshim. It was a place where there was no place. The regular rules that apply to the outside world, the world that you and I live in and exist, didn’t apply to the kodesh hakedoshim. It was a place unbound by physical limitations.
Of course, if you wanted to get there, you first had to follow a careful and exacting process, one that if you made a mistake you had to start all over again. But if you did everything that you were supposed to, then you could reach a place beyond place - a place of infinity. It was the interface of shamayim and aretz, where heaven and earth meet.
Rabi Zev Leff, the Rav of Moshav Matisyahu explains the process with a brilliant mashal. There was a person locked in a prison cell who dreamed of once again being free, walking in the wide world instead of being cramped in his ten by twelve cell. One day he noticed that there was an air vent in his cell. With his spoon, he managed to pry off the cover and sure enough there was a ventilation shaft. He hoisted himself up into the shaft and began crawling through in search of his freedom. As he crawled, the shaft became narrower and narrower, and soon he had difficulty moving. “What have I done?” he thought to himself. I thought that if I escaped I would have more space, but compared to this, my cell was roomy”. Of course, if he would just continue, he would reach the end of the shaft and with it his freedom, beyond all the limitations of the prison that held him. So too, Rav Leff explained, the Kohain Gadol goes through a process on Yom Kippur that grows more and more restrictive as the process progresses. But eventually he reaches the kodesh hakedoshim and will be free of all physical limitations.
The kodesh hakedoshim! Today we can only imagine the experience. And yet, as the Mishna in Kelim tells us, there are ten levels of holiness, the kodesh hakedoshim being the tenth and holiest level of all. In time, the ten levels of holiness are represented by the aseres yimei teshuvah, the ten days of repentance. Each day we move to a holier and holier level until we, too, reach on Yom Kippur, on our own level, the kodesh hakedoshim.
On Yom Kippur we move beyond physical limitations. We don’t eat or drink, we stand as much as we can, dressed in white, freeing ourselves of selfish desires and petty ill-feelings, until the Chazal tell us that the angels themselves stand and wonder, “who are these people who think that they’re angels?” We have moved beyond the normal physical limitations.
But, of course, we aren’t angels. We can’t live without physicality. Our challenge is to take the physicality and reach the angelic levels we attained on Yom Kippur in our everyday life, to break through the limitations imposed on us by simple physical things and make them holy.
We say a full Hallel every day of Sukkos. Every day we recite the passuk “Ani avdecha ben amisecha, pitachta limaosairai” ”I am a slave, the son of a handmaiden, open up my bonds”. A slave wants to be free; free from work, free from his master’s service. He needs to be locked up in chains to make sure that he doesn’t escape. But a slave who has been born into slavery doesn’t know anything else. If his master is good and kind, then he will serve him honestly and well. He tells his master “I don’t need to be locked up. I can serve you better if you free me”. That is what we say to Hashem: We are slaves of slaves. Our great-grandparents have served You and their great-grandparents before them. We aren’t going anywhere; we want to serve You. Free us from the chains that limit us. Then we can serve you all the more.
We leave shul on Yom Kippur and enter into a flurry of activity. We have tasted the kodosh hakedoshim; we know what it is to be beyond all limitations: pitachta limoseirei, You freed me from my bonds. We want to shatter the shackles that limit us in this world so that we can live in the kodesh hakedoshim.
Then we leave our homes and enter into a quasi-physical existence, the succah. We have walls, but no roof; Hashem’s shechinah will be our roof. We celebrate non-stop for seven days. When we had a Bais HaMikdash, Klal Yisrael would go to the Har HaBayis every night for the Simchas Bais Hashoeva. The festivities would continue into the next day. In fact, the gemera is troubled how, with all the non-stop action, not to mention davening and learning, the people found time to sleep? The gemara answers, that people would just manage to steal a few winks on their friends’ shoulders. Then they were up again, celebrating and serving Hashem with all their might, living beyond the rules of normal physical existence. They were breaking the chains of physicality that limit us in this world.
Perhaps those innocuous paper chains have more significance than we realize. Perhaps those paper chains are surrounding us because we need to break out of them. In that case, baruch Hashem, they’re only made out of paper! They’re easier to break through than what the Mesillas Yesharim, at the end of the first perek, calls, the “iron walls of physicality,” which we need to smash in order to reach HaKadosh Boruch Hu.
When Succos is over and we reenter our homes for Shemini Atzeres, the paper chains stay outside in the Succah. Perhaps it’s not merely a decorating statement; after all, we still have our paper balls! Rather, I believe, it might be telling us that we have been successful. As we reach the end of our twenty-two days of holiness from Rosh Hashanah to Shemini Atzeres, we have managed to take the spiritual freedom we attained on Yom Kippur into the succah and, finally, into the normal everyday home that we live in. The world still looks physical, but the chains that bind us to them have been shattered.
May we all merit a year of spiritual freedom from the limitations of the world around us and merit a year of spiritual greatness for ourselves, our families and all the Jewish people.