In the Gemora (Avoda Zara 3) there is an agada about an event which has not yet happened. One day, in the future, when it becomes clear how beneficial the mitzvos are for our welfare in this world and the next, the nations of the world will go and complain to G-d: “You never gave us the same chance you gave the Jews! You never gave us all the mitzvos!” “All right,” G-d will say, “I’ll give you an easy mitzva: to dwell in a sukka during Sukkos.” For this is not an expensive, or difficult, mitzva, compared to Shabbos observance, for example.
So the people of the world will enthusiastically build sukkos on top of their roofs, and move into them at Sukkos. Then G-d will cause the sun to burn down strongly, until it becomes unbearably hot in the sukkos, whereupon everyone will leave his sukka with disgust, kicking the wall in temper as he leaves. G-d will laugh at this, the Gemora says. Rabbi Yitzchak said: “There is no laughter in Heaven except on that day.”
Many questions leap to mind. What did the people do wrong? You are allowed to leave a sukka if staying in it causes serious discomfort. The answer is given in the Gemara: What they did wrong was not in leaving their sukka, but in kicking it as they left. Many questions still remain. We may be puzzled over the Divine sense of humor. And we may ask: why did G-d give the people an apparently easy mitzva, and then make it difficult for them?
Let me try and give an answer to some of these questions. The sukka symbolizes “golus”, our exile. A kosher sukka is, by its nature, a temporary dwelling. It is exposed to the cold. While we are having our meals, bees buzz around the honey and the wine, and a spider may come down from the roof into our soup. At night we have to bring the chairs into the house because of the rain.
This temporariness of the sukka symbolizes our temporary status in our society, our feeling of not belonging. We lack a place we can really call home.
Many have complimented the Jewish people for being multi-lingual, indeed there hardly exists a Jew who speaks but one language. This may not be so positive; it probably represents the wandering Jew, who was never afforded the luxury of getting through life with just one language. The reaction of many of us to this is to assimilate. By adopting the customs and mannerisms of my neighbors, they think, we will finally become one with them and be able to settle down.
But besides for the fact that historically this has not worked, I would like to suggest, that this feeling of strangeness, of not belonging, is a positive thing, which we should accept, as being part of our purpose. Why are we dispersed all over the world? If it were simply a question of golus, of exile from the Land of Israel, we could all be living together in Afghanistan, let us say, or Buffalo. A reason for our dispersion is given in a Gemora in Pesachim 87: “Le-harbos gerim be-Yisroel”, which can be interpreted as meaning that our dispersion will bring about, not necessarily many converts to Judaism, but at least some awareness among Gentiles of Jewish values (or of the Noachide laws). In this way we fulfill our mission to be a “light to the nations”. (MAHARAL)
But we cannot do this if we assimilate! We can only fulfill this mission if we remain distinctive in dress and behavior. Of course, we must not go to extremes, to the extent of causing ill feeling with our neighbors. But we must maintain our distinctiveness. And they will respect us for it!
In the Bible it is recorded that when Abraham was negotiating with the children of Heth to buy the cave of Machpelah in which to bury his wife Sarah, he said to them: “I am a stranger and a sojourner with you,” and they answered: “You are a mighty prince among us!” (Gen. 23: 4,6) He humbly admitted his status as an outsider, and his neighbors showed that they nevertheless respected him.
Recently the Nobel Peace Prize was won by a Jew, Elie Wiesel, a survivor of the Holocaust. I do not know very much about Mr. Wiesel, except that he goes to synagogue and his sons go to yeshiva. The point here is that he has gained his fame, and his honor, by emphasizing his distinctiveness as a Jew. On a previous occasion, when he was honored by the President at the White House, he used the occasion to give the President mussar (a talking-to) (concerning the Bitburg Cemetery incident). Most of us would be overawed by a minor official, let alone the President! It seems to me that the Nobel Prize is usually won by an activist of some sort. Wiesel speaks and writes, he is a conscience to the world. In this respect he has fulfilled the purpose of the Jew.
I read in a newspaper recently of an occasion when Mr. Moshe Reichman, the billionaire philanthropist and observant Jew who lives in Toronto, flew to New York to open Battery Park . The Governor rode in his limousine to the airport to pick him up. A reporter asked the Governor why he should do this, since he hardly ever meets visitors at the airport. His answer has stayed in my memory: “If Mr. Reichman can allow himself considerable financial inconvenience by closing down all his operations every Sabbath (3:00 every Friday) surely I can inconvenience myself slightly to the extent of meeting him once at the airport!”
Our sukka symbolize our status as “strangers and sojourners”. It is a public demonstrations of this. With all that they imply, they are anything but quick, easy, mitzvos to perform. This is something that the nations of the world don’t realize, and that is perhaps why G-d will be laughing at them.
This drasha was given on Sukkot, 5747 (1986), and transcribed from memory by Jeffery Zucker