The weather last Sukkos was only one of the aspects of the chag which made it memorable. Over the first two days of Yom Tov, it rained so much that it was nearly impossible to eat. With every change in the level of precipitation came a new she’eilah: Was this the level of “mishetisrach hamikpah — the soup gets watered down” that meant it was permitted to eat in the house?
I stood in my sukkah, unsure what to do. Then, a torrent of rain came down on me; an amount which meant it was definitely OK to leave the sukkah. Breathing a sigh of relief, I gathered my family for Kiddush in the dining room.
But during the seudah, it began to bug me. I had felt relieved that I was no longer unsure whether or not I was allowed to eat inside, and that I could now go and enjoy my seudah in peace … which made me wonder: What was important to me here? Was it the food I was going to eat, or the mitzvah of sukkah?
My rebbi, Harav Shlomo Feivel Schustal, shlita, once told me that he remembers spending Sukkos, as a child, at the home of his grandfather, Harav Shmuel Ehrenfeld (the Mattersdorfer Rav, zt”l). That year, it rained almost the entire Sukkos, and they were not able to eat in the sukkah. But the Mattersdorfer Rav was not relieved that he could now eat inside, he said. Rather, “Men hut geshpirt di aveilus in shtub — you could feel the mourning in the house!”
Today, the idea that we would feel sad if we were halachically exempt from doing a mitzvah is kind of foreign to us. (Some would even mistakenly make the argument that such feelings are wrong.) We do care to do the mitzvos, and we are scrupulous in how we do them as never before. But still, we can tell there is something missing.
There is a similar (albeit very different) sentiment among the American populace, whose reaction to it indicates that they feel as though they are lacking something as well. The middle class — the cross-section of the country that most broadly represents the mood of the nation — has made itself clear in this election cycle. People feel as though they are missing out on the promise of America; that the American dream is slipping from their grasp. They cannot say exactly what it is they want; they just know they are not getting it.
So they turn their backs on the system, a system that has not served them well. And when someone comes along and makes that argument in economic terms, they are very receptive to it.
There is just one small problem. By every quantifiable measure, Americans are doing better financially than they ever were. And yet — they still do not feel that way.
And the reason they do not feel better off is precisely because they are better off. So many things which are taken for granted as being among a “middle-class” person’s possessions today would have been unheard of at any other time. (A technology company made the calculation that all the standard features in an iPhone would have cost the equivalent of more than 32 million dollars in 1985.) And while they think that is the answer to filling the void, all it does is create an even larger chasm which they seek to fill with even more “stuff.”
Americans, at the same time, are becoming less and less spiritual. A recent Pew survey found that religiosity in America is declining, with those who claim “no religion” at the highest point ever surveyed. And even those who do identify as religious seem to be less, well, religious about it — and their tenuous relationship with religion is reflected in the data which shows that it is these very same people who do not tend to value the cause of religious liberty all that much.
The two, one can argue, can be related. When the world turns to materialism to find happiness at the expense of spirituality, it will find neither. But when the country (as it once did) puts a premium on spirituality as well, it can have both.
Maybe that is the case with us as well. The Baalei Mussar describe how the act of sitting in the sukkah — leaving one’s own home to live in a temporary dwelling bereft of materialism — is the way to truly connect to Hakadosh Baruch Hu. While we are steeped in the frivolity of this world, we cannot have that relationship with Him that this Yom Tov is all about.
It is pretty clear that even the simplest Jews of previous generations reached levels we can only strive for. And strive we must, to be able to reach the point where we, as I heard from Harav Don Segal, shlita, “lebben mit ehm — are living with Him.” We can take the lesson of the sukkah, which teaches us how much the material world stands in the way of our being able to relate to Hashem on a Yom Tov, and apply it to the obstacles we face all year round..