Dusting Off Our Physical Inclinations

My family has recently moved into our new home in Passaic, N.J. This was a home that required much updating. Not surprisingly, the time frame for this effort extended well beyond the expected end date, and we moved in last month with much of the work still uncompleted. Our belongings quickly became covered in dust, with even more powder created as the sawing, spackling, sanding and painting continued inside and outside the house for many additional weeks. Despite our best cleaning efforts, we have literally been eating dust for some time.

The idea of eating dust is far from appealing, no doubt. But it has given me a new perspective on the oldest curse in world history, a lesson that ties in well with the Yamim Tovim of Sukkos and Shemini Atzeres.

The Ohr Hachaim discusses the curse that Hashem placed on nachash after it convinced Chavah to eat from the Eitz Hadaas (see Bereishis 3). He writes (ibid. 14) that the episode produced a number of negative outcomes for Chavah and Adam. One primary outcome was their expulsion from Gan Eden, which resulted in their losing the special connection with Hashem that they had enjoyed there. For this, the nachash was cursed that all his food would taste like dust. He had deprived Adam and Chavah of any future enjoyment of the fruits of Gan Eden; consequently, he would not receive pleasure from the food he consumed.

In a certain sense, Sukkos is also designed to reduce our physical pleasure, or at least our attention to it. Although we are not asked to consume dust or anything similar, we are instructed to leave the comfort of our homes and enter a small, unfurnished hut that cannot possibly offer the same level of protection, privacy and comfort to which we are accustomed.

Many reasons are given for this directive. One particular idea emerges from a seemingly perplexing midrash.

“Why do we make the sukkah [shortly] after Yom Kippur? Since we find the Holy One, blessed be He, sitting [in judgment] on Rosh Hashanah before the entire world, and on Yom Kippur He signs the judgment, perhaps the Jews’ verdict that year was to be exiled. Therefore, we … ‘exile ourselves’ from our homes to the sukkah, and the Holy One, blessed be He, considers it as if we were exiled to Babylon” (Yalkut Shimoni, Emor).

This statement is confounding on a number of counts. First, of all possible punishments that Hashem could inflict upon us for past misdeeds, why should we specifically concern ourselves with exile? Second, even if exile were declared, how can we assume that the relatively benign “sacrifice” of entering a sukkah would satisfy such a decree? Certainly, we would expect exile to be a much harsher experience than this!

In reality, there is a particular motivation to fear a decree of exile over other punishments. Exile serves two primary functions. The first, says Harav Chaim Freidlander (Sifsei Chaim, Vol. I, pp. 228ff), is to release the Land from the presence of a sinful nation that fails to keep Hashem’s precepts. The second purpose is to instill in a complacent, arrogant nation a strong sense of humility.

“Yeshurun became fat and kicked. You have become fat, thick, and gross. Then he forsook Hashem who made him and spurned the Rock of his salvation… They sacrificed to powerless spirits, not to Hashem… You ignored the Mighty One Who fathered you, and have forgotten Hashem, Who formed you” (Devarim 32:15, 17–18).

It was largely because of their arrogance that the Jewish people acted with such indifference toward Hashem. They did not need Him — or so they thought — so they did not heed him. Instead, they looked to pagan deities to unburden themselves of their religious shackles. Eventually, their wanton sinfulness could no longer be tolerated, and they suffered the fate of exile.

How does the concept of exile tie into this time of year? As we transition out of the seriousness of the Yamim Nora’im, our thoughts quickly move to the festive days of Sukkos, the Chag Ha’asif, in which we celebrate the new harvest. Because of our great sense of happiness in celebrating the fruits of our hard labor, we are prone to feelings of arrogance and self-reliance. “And you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth’” (Devarim 8:17).

The enormous sense of accomplishment that accompanies the harvest is likely to awaken a strong degree of pride. This, the Torah tells us, is a primary factor in loosening our sense of dependence on and allegiance to Hashem. It is for this reason that we are commanded at this time to leave our comfortable, secure surroundings and enter a sukkah. There we are to remain for seven days, living directly under Hashem’s protection.

So long as a person remains in his abode, it is difficult for him to feel a sense of humility and submission. These feelings arise much more readily when one is forced from his home. As Rambam (Hilchos Teshuvah 2:4) writes, “Exile atones because it causes man to become more humble and subdued.”

Instead of channeling our joy back inside ourselves and taking excessive pride in our accomplishments, we are reminded to focus on Hashem, our true Provider. Such remembrance will not only keep us humble but will allow us to achieve the highest degree of contentment. (The sukkah is referred to as a “sukkas shalom” because it was provided in the merit of Aharon Hakohen, the ultimate pursuer of peace. This was most appropriate considering the peace that a sukkah is designed to engender.)

While we are certainly supposed to indulge in delicacies befitting a Yom Tov, we must do so in a context that enables us to appreciate the Source of the goodness that we enjoy. Once we have achieved that level of joyful appreciation, we can transition to the climax of our Tishrei experience, Shemini Atzeres, when the focus shifts exclusively to the special relationship we enjoy with our Creator, making it a true chag simchaseinu.


Rabbi Naphtali Hoff is president of Impactful Coaching and Consulting. He can be reached at info@impactfulcoaching.com.