We are commanded this time of year to dwell in Succot (booths) “so all generations should know that G-d had us dwell in Succot when He took us out of Egypt: (Vayikra 23:43). We have been dwelling in Succot ever since – a sign of G-d’s love and protection from hostile natural elements, and from hostile human forces as well. Our Sages famously disputed whether these Succot were real, actual booths or the divine clouds of glory. But how far does the protection extend?
Rav Rami Berechyahu (the fine Rav of Talmon in Samaria and founder of the organization “Maaminim Bamishtara,” an educational network for religious police officers in Israel) was once asked the following question: a fellow said that he was building his Succa and he injured himself, broke his finger when he smashed it with the hammer. He wanted to know how such a thing was possible when the Talmud (Sota 21a) states that when you are involved in the performance of a Mitzvah, you are protected from harm. So how was he hurt?
The Rabbi first answered that building the Succa is not the mitzvah but a hechsher mitzvah (preparation for the mitzvah, which is dwelling in the Succa), so the aforementioned principle doesn’t apply) We might be tempted to dismiss such a question altogether but for the fact that many people live their lives according to such signs, omens, premonitions. This action brings good luck, and this brings bad luck. I’ll be successful if I wake up at a certain time, or the weather is a certain way, or this person calls me. As is well known, there are people who do this with mitzvot as well – if I observe this mitzvah, then that entitles me to this reward, or even this: if I do this mitzvah, then I can transfer my reward to someone else.
All of this is alluring but essentially baseless – we can daven for someone else (the primary way of helping another, aside from actually helping them) or even learn extra Torah for someone else. I’ve never seen an authoritative source suggest that I can assign my reward for wearing tefillin (or taking challah) to someone else, anymore than the Jets can assign extra points they have scored to the Giants (not that it would help). And if the transference of reward did work, would the converse also work – that someone else becomes responsible for my sins? (“I’m doing it for him, not for me.”)
Yet, interestingly, the notion that we can interpret events or signs is not unknown even in the world of Halacha. Two famous vignettes suffice: the Vilna Gaon long desired to implement the recitation of the Priestly Blessing every day in the exile, and not just on Yom Tov as we currently do. He tried several times but stayed his hand, until one time he decided that he would do it the next morning. That same night, he was arrested on slanderous charges (part of the Chasidic-Mitnaged wars of the 1700’s); when he was released he took it as a “sign from Heaven” (Aliyot Eliyahu, 44) that he should not make this change in the liturgy. Some years later, the Gaon’s disciple tried the same thing – and the night before it was to happen, the Bet Midrash in Volozhin burnt down.
So, too, the Chatam Sofer ruled that if a person ate meat late at night and arose early the next morning, it is permissible to have coffee with milk even before six hours have elapsed since he last consumed meat. One need not wait the customary six hours between consumption of meat and milk, as sleep speeds digestion. Most others disagreed, but having ruled, the Chatam Sofer decided to act in accordance with his ruling, ate a late night meat meal, rose early the next day, poured himself coffee, added milk, and… promptly knocked over the whole cup. From here he deduced that the halacha is not in accordance with his opinion.
What does this all mean? Are we mystics? Do omens matter? Rav Yisrael Salanter rejected all of these, arguing that the Torah is not in Heaven. Halachic questions must be decided based on halacha and not based on signs or wonders. The Bet Midrash in Volozhin was burnt down not by an act of G-d – but man, Rav Yisrael contended; it was arson by people who resented the change in minhag. (Some Jews will do anything to defend a custom – even violate several Torah prohibitions!) Perhaps on the level of the Vilna Gaon or the Chatam Sofer different rules apply. But who knows? Clearly such an approach is not normative. We can’t live that way.
Not everything has a deeper meaning. Rav Shlomo Aviner was once told by someone that he was trying to write a check for charity to a poor person when his pen ran out of ink. What message, he asked, was G-d sending him? Rav Aviner answered that G-d was telling him that he needs more ink in his pen. So too, Rav Berechyahu told his interlocutor that the signal the latter was sent from Heaven when he broke his finger while building the Succa was this: when you use a hammer, you have to be careful. That is also a divine message.
The Succa is a demonstration of faith on our part and of love on G-d’s part. The Vilna Gaon explained that the 15th of Tishrei was the day on which the divine clouds of glory returned to shelter the Jewish people after the sin of the golden calf. Those divine clouds of glory do not hermetically seal us. But without them, the actual Succot could also not protect us. They reflect the special Providence through which G-d preserves His people, and His love in giving us the Torah and Mitzvot, a land and a way of life, that doesn’t prevent harm but give us guidance in dealing with harm, especially the harm caused by G-d’s other creatures, human and otherwise. We don’t need a greater demonstration than Succa; we just need the Succa. It is our shelter of faith.
In so doing we find our deepest connection to G-d, our purpose in life, and our source of true happiness, and hastens the day of redemption, when G-d’s kingship will be recognized by all mankind.