Baruch Hashem, Rav Weinberger has approved this version of my write-up of his drasha fon teh first day of Sukkos, the Ushpizin of Avraham Avinu. See here for past shiurim at YUTorah.org's website by Rav Weinberger both as Mashpia at YU and from the past 20 years. You can also click on one of the following links to subscribe to the shiurim: email, rss feed, podcast, or iTunes. Please note that these drashos will only be available online for one month. If you notice any mistakes, please let me know so I can correct it. If you are interested in a particular drasha that is no longer online, you can email me (right sidebar) and I'll send it to you IY"H, BL"N.
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Rav Moshe Weinberger
First Day of Sukkos 5776
Going Out to Go In
Hashem commanded us (Vayikra 23:43) to dwell in the Sukka “in order that your generations should know [ידעו]…” The seforim hakdeoshim teach, based on this passuk, that we acquire דעת – presence of mind – by sitting in the Sukkah. But this is difficult to understand. How can we settle our minds more by leaving our homes and dwelling in a temporary structure? It would ostensibly be easier to settle one’s mind in the safety and tranquility of his own home where he is more comfortable and not subject to the elements. The Rambam even says (Moreh Nevuchim 3:43) that the joy of Shmini Atzeres is only complete because one is able to return back into his house from the Sukkah. Why then do Chazal say that one must go into the Sukkah to acquire presence of mind?
Perhaps we can understand this better by delving into a related question. Rav Shaul Alter, shlita, son of the Pnei Menachem of Ger, zy”a, and the current Gerer rosh yeshiva, writes about the miraculous escape from Nazi-occupied Poland by Reb Ahrala of Belz, zy”a, and his brother Rav Mordechai of Bilgoray, zy”a. Belzer chassidim and others from Eretz Yisroel, England, and the United States worked tirelessly to rescue these two holy brothers from the Nazis. The Rebbe was one of the Nazis’ most-wanted fugitives. Spies and Nazi-sympathizers were everywhere attempting to catch the Rebbe, but he was saved by one miraculous escape after another. The plan through which they were rescued was extremely complex and second-by-second timing was critical if it was to have any chance of success.
The most dramatic point in the entire episode was the planned crossing of the Nazi-controlled border between Poland and the Czech Republic, on the way to Hungary, in the spring of 1944. Reb Ahrala and his brother shaved their beards and dressed as captured Russian officers being taken to Budapest for questioning. The driver of the car in which they were to cross the border, who had been paid a handsome sum of money, drove Reb Ahrala, his brother, and the Rebbe’s shammas toward the border. Nazi soldiers were everywhere as they drove. Because every aspect of the plan was scripted down to the second, everyone in the car was on edge.
Suddenly, the Rebbe said he needed to get out of the car. The driver tried to convince the Rebbe that whatever it was could wait, but he insisted that he need to get out. The driver implored the shammas to convince the Rebbe to wait, as stopping the car would place all of them in grave danger, but it was no use. They pulled over despite the fact that the entire area was crawling with Nazis, and everyone waited to see what the Rebbe had to do that could not wait until later.
When the Rebbe got out of the car, he merely walked over to a large rock on the side of the road and sat down. He placed his chin in his hand and simply sat there, thinking, for approximately ten minutes. He then returned to the car and they continued on toward the border. When they crossed the border, the Nazis guards looked at the Russian “officers” in the back seat, who nodded back at them. They waived the car on and the brothers, through many more miracles and intensive planning by many people, eventually made it to Eretz Yisroel.
Many years later, Reb Ahrala was speaking with Rav Mordechai Shlomo of Boyan, zy”a, when the latter asked him, “What were you actually doing during those ten minutes on that rock by the side of the road headed toward the border?” Reb Ahrala answered, “I saw that the evil inclination wanted to confuse me, to take my presence of mind away from me. I therefore went out and sat down until my presence of mind returned.”
One could ask more than four questions regarding Reb Arala’s actions and his answer to the Boyaner Rebbe. One question is: What about halachah? The Torah demands that one set aside virtually any mitzvah in the Torah in the case danger. Danger certainly takes precedence over one’s desire to maintain his presence of mind, which is not even a mitzvah! How could the Rebbe have seemingly violated halachah by placing himself in danger? Second, even if the Rebbe wanted to place his own life on the line in order to regain his presence of mind, how could he endanger his brother, shammas, and driver, all of whom could have been killed if the Nazis all around them discovered their true identities? Third, the Rebbe’s actions should have completely thrown off the plans his many supporters had spent months developing and which only had even a chance of success if they followed the script exactly. The Rebbe had even rehearsed various aspects of the plan in advance to make sure everything went smoothly. How could he have thrown all that away based on a last-moment desire to calm his mind?
Finally, why did the Rebbe think that he would be able to achieve more tranquility by deviating from the plan and sitting on a rock surrounded by Nazis?! Would he not have been better able to achieve greater tranquility by remaining in the car headed on schedule toward the destination in the safety of the car than sitting unprotected, outside? Wouldn’t it have been easier to concentrate inside the car?
While none of us can presume to understand the true intentions of the Reb Ahrala, with great trepidation, the Gerer rosh yeshiva suggests the following possible explanation for the Rebbe’s actions: Reb Ahrala knew that the plan was extremely exact. He might have felt that he could re-acquire his presence of mind specifically by deviating from human plans. Perhaps he felt that the only way he would survive was if he recognized that “My life is G-d’s among those who wait for the morning…” (Tehillim 130:6). He may have meant to remind himself Who was in charge by deviating from human plans for a few minutes and entering a plane over and above human capabilities where “There is nothing other than Him” (Devarim 4:35).
A similar incident occurred with the Brisker Rav, zt”l, in his escape from Nazi-occupied Poland in 1940. He possessed a tradition that if one mediates upon the words “You have been shown to know that Hashem is G-d, there is nothing other than Him” (ibid.) to the point that the words fill one’s entire consciousness, he cannot be harmed by his enemies. He knew that he could concentrate fully on these words, but he did not know whether his nine year old son and two teenage daughters with whom he was traveling could do so as well. They prepared for the day they would have to board a train out of Poland by mediating on this passuk for a week beforehand. Finally, when the day arrived, the Brisker Rav and his children filled their minds with the knowledge that there is nothing other than G-d as they boarded the train. Every time they passed a Nazi officer, it was as if they were completely invisible. The officers simply looked right past them. Rather than trying to work within the system, they rose above it and connected with the Infinite.
We are not on the level of Reb Ahrala of Belz or the Brisker Rav. So what can we learn, on our level, from these accounts?
We are also caught up in our detailed plans and schedules both with regard to our physical and our spiritual lives. We have our routines and like to arrange things in a specific way. We are caught up in the rush of daily life. Perhaps we can learn from Reb Ahrala that it is a good idea to sometimes get out of the car of life. We must sometimes leave our regular, fixed dwelling and go out into the temporarily dwelling of the Sukkah despite the fact that, from the perspective of human logic, it places us more at the mercy of the elements and makes us less secure. We must sometimes depart from the life to which we have become accustomed to remind ourselves why we are alive and that there is a G-d in the world; that He is above everything.
Perhaps this is why we daven in the Hoshanos on Sukkos, “Please save the soul from confounding!” On a simple level, we are asking Hashem to save us from outside forces which confound, embitter, and attack us. But on a deeper level, even our daily spiritual lives are confounded and confused. We get into a pattern of life and simply stick with it without thinking about why we are here and what we are doing. We establish schools, shuls, and yeshivos as well. But if we never step off the treadmill of daily life, we start to maintain these organizations for their own sake and not for the original purpose for which they were created. As a famous actress once remarked, “The trouble with the rat race is that even if you win, you’re still a rat.”
As important as our learning schedule, davening, Shabbos, housecleaning, homework, work, and other schedules are, if we never take the time to step out of our daily routines, we become lost in the confounding confusion of human plans. That is where Sukkos comes in. The numerical value of the word Sukkah (סוכה) is 91 (צ"א), meaning “Go out.” By leaving our established homes and routines for a few days each year and entering into the Sukkah, the “shade of emunah,” we thereby remind ourselves why we are here; what we are doing.
Today, the first day of Sukkos, is the Ushpizin of Avraham Avinu, about whom the passuk (Bereishis 22:3) says, “And Avraham got up early in the morning.” Sukkos is like morning-time, before the race of the day has begun. It is separate and apart from the rush of life. If a person taps into this ability of Avraham Avinu to arise early in the morning to learn before davening, he connects to something above this world. In the morning, one has not yet eaten; that earthy-ness has not yet fully descended onto him. He has not yet become obsessed with his smartphone. This is a magical time to learn Torah. One can focus much more early in the morning than those who attempt to learn at night. While there are a few people who can concentrate and accomplish things at night, most people are too drained by the rat race of the day’s activities to truly accomplish much at that time.
By getting up early like Avraham to learn before davening, one connects with that which it says (ibid. 15:5), “And He took him [Avraham] outside and He said, “Please gaze at the stars…,” which Rashi explains to mean, “He took him out of the space of the world and lifted him up above the stars…” Avraham had that ability to see the truth above the rush of worldly life. That is why the Midrash (Bereishis Rabah 42) says, “The whole world was on one side and Avraham was on the other side.” Because he was able to transcend daily life from time to time, he had the power to go against the current of the world. He knew the secret of “getting out of the car.”
That is why Chazal say (Brachos 6b), “Anyone who fixes a place for his tefillah, the G-d of Avraham will help him.” Having a fixed place for davening means achieving presence of mind, focusing on who his is and why he is here. A person can sit in the same seat in shul for eighty years, but if he does not focus his mind on where he is and what he is doing, he can be everywhere in the world other than davening in shul. But if he makes his place for davening fixed, if he takes himself out of daily life and enters the world of tefillah, then he is connected to the G-d of Avraham.
When we go out to the Sukkah, we look at the stars through the schach, about which Hashem told Avraham when he was elevated above the world, “Please gaze at the stars…” In the Sukkah, we stand outside of the pattern of our daily lives. Even though we are less “secure” there, the very fact that we leave our sensible human habits enables us to remind ourselves that behind the façade of physical life, there is nothing other than Hashem. He is why we are here.
Rav Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, zy”a, whose yahrtzeit is 25 Tishrei, the day after Isru Chag, once sent messengers to gather the entire community of Berditchev, men, women, and children, in the main shul on a regular winter Tuesday. Since it was not a special occasion, everyone came quickly, fearing that the tzaddik had become aware of some evil decree against the Jews in the city. But when everyone got there, Reb Levi Yitzchak approached the front of the shul with his tallis over his head, and called out, “Yiddin! You cannot forget that there is a Master of the World!!” We must sometimes get out of the car of our sensible human plans and remember that there is a G-d in the world and that we are His servants.
In the merit of the mitzvah of Sukkah, may we merit to see the reestablishment of the fallen Sukkah of Dovid Hamelech, the Beis Hamikdash, soon in our days!
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