The Succah and the House
"Esau went back that day on his way to Seir. And Jacob journeyed to Succot and built himself a House, and for his cattle he built shelters, therefore he called the name of the place Succot" (Genesis 33:16-17).
Catching sight of Esau and his four hundred men advancing towards him, Jacob grouped his wives and their respective children and went out ahead of them to meet Esau.
"He prostrated on the earth seven times until he reached his brother. And Esau ran to meet him and embraced him and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept...." (Genesis 33:3-4).
Jacob's display of humility aroused Esau's compassion. Jacob pressed him to accept his gifts, and Esau agreed. He even suggested that they join and travel together. But Jacob knew that their destinies were different and that to remain faithful to his own mission he must keep a respectful distance from Esau.
"And he said to him, my lord knows that the children are tender and the flocks and herds have their young, and one hard day's traveling could knock them out and all the flocks would die. Let my lord pass on in front of his servant and I will advance slowly at the pace of the cattle that are ahead of me and at the pace of the children...." (Genesis 33:13-14)
Jacob's reply reveals a down-to-earth practicality and a touching sensitivity to the needs of the weakest and tenderest. Jacob had the ability to take account of everyone's different needs and to orchestrate opposing forces into a dynamic harmony. With Binah-understanding he could pay attention to the tiniest details while at the same time using wide-angle Chokhmah-vision to see each detail in its proper place in the context of the wider whole.
By bringing even Esau -- representing the material world of Asiyah -- to make peace with him, Jacob showed that he had the power to harness the material world itself in service of his higher spiritual quest without letting its grosser aspects divert him from his path.
This was what qualified Jacob to build his House. It was not only to be a "house" in the metaphorical sense, a community of souls. There had to be an actual physical structure as well. The spiritual and physical had to be joined together. Immediately after his reconciliation with Esau -- Asiyah -- Jacob built a House:
"Esau went back that day on his way to Seir. And Jacob journeyed to Succot and built himself a House, and for his animals he built shelters, therefore he called the name of the place Succot" (Genesis 33:16-17).
When Jacob built his House he thought about everyone, not only the adults and children but even the animals. All have their different needs. Everything must have its just and proper place in the larger whole.
Jacob's domestic practicality comes to teach us that we have to bring even the smallest practical details of our material lives inside the "House" of our overall spiritual vision. If we merely think and talk about spiritual ideals without acting accordingly when we go about our daily business, our "spirituality" is an illusion.
The Torah teaches us how to bring all of life inside the "House" of spirituality by following the halachot, practical pathways that apply in all the various different situations we face as we go about our lives in the material world. The pathway that includes all others is that of personal prayer. This is the most powerful way to make the necessary connection between our spiritual goals and the details of our material lives. In the words of Rebbe Nachman:
"You must pray for everything. If your garment is torn and must be replaced, pray to God for a new one. Do this for everything. Make it a habit to pray for all your needs, large or small. Your main prayers should be for fundamentals, that God should help you in your devotion and bring you close to Him. Still, you should also pray even for trivial things. God may give you food and clothing and everything else you need even though you do not ask for them. But then you are like an animal. God gives every living thing its bread without being asked. He can also give it to you this way. But if you do not draw your life through prayer then it is like that of a beast. For a man must draw all the necessities of life from God only through prayer."
Rabbi Nachman's Wisdom #233
To be true to his mission in this world, man must "draw all the necessities of life from God only through prayer". If he fails to do this, he is no better than an animal. Indeed when man merely consumes and takes from this world the way animals do, not only does he fall below his own proper level. He brings the rest of the world down with him,causing the animals themselves to suffer.
Rabbi Nachman discusses this point in a teaching about the Succah (see below). During the annual autumn festival of Succot it is a mitzvah to dwell in a Succah, a temporary structure with a roof made of nothing but leaves, branches and similar natural vegetation. One should take one's best furniture and utensils out into the Succah and actually live there the way one normally lives in one's house, eating and drinking, studying, praying and meditating, relaxing, socializing and even sleeping in the Succah.
Succot, third of the major annual festivals, is particularly associated with Jacob, third of the founding fathers. Bringing all one's various activities down to the most material under the roof of the holy Succah symbolizes the need to bring all the details of our lives inside the "House" of spirituality. This is why when Jacob built his house, not only did he build for himself and his family. He also "made shelters [succot] for his animals."
Rebbe Nachman taught:
When animals die off before their proper time, the reason is because people fail to take care to observe the mitzvah of Succah properly. For the Succah, which is essentially a shelter, represents the sefirah of Binah, which is called a "Mother who shelters her children". [Binah is the mother, while the lower sefirot which emanate from Binah are her "children"].
It is man's Binah-intelligence and understanding that puts him above the animals. For this reason in humans the breasts from which babies get their nourishment are higher up on the mother's body, whereas the udders from which young animals feed are lower down on the mother animal's body. In the same way on the spiritual level, man derives his sustenance from the sefirah of Binah, which is a very exalted level, whereas animals receive their sustenance from a lower level.
When a person fails to observe the mitzvah of Succah properly he falls from the level of Binah (= the Succah) and descends to a level where his nourishment comes from "animal udders". This means that he takes for himself the nourishment and energy that were intended for the animals. By doing so, he takes away their very life-force, as a result of which the animals die. How far a person falls depends on his neglect of the mitzvah of Succah. The further he falls, the more he takes away the life-force belonging to the animals, causing their death. This is why it says that Jacob "made Succot for his animals". For the Succah is for the sake of the animals!
Building can be a very dangerous occupation, as our Rabbis said: "Everyone who engages in building becomes poor" (Sotah 11). For the house must be built with wisdom and intelligence, and then the person will come to no harm from building. When a person has wisdom and intelligence, it is fitting for him to build a house, as it is written: "The house will be built with wisdom and established with understanding. And with knowledge the rooms will be filled" (Proverbs 24:3-4). By building such a house, the person creates a space in which to draw blessing into the world. But when a person builds without intelligence, it is harmful to him and he becomes impoverished. This is his punishment for having failed to build the house with wisdom, for "the wisdom of the poor is despised" (Ecclesiastes 9:16). It is therefore through the Succah, which represents intelligence, Binah, that a person is able to build a house, as it says, "With wisdom the house will be built."
This is why "Jacob traveled to Succot and built himself a house" (Genesis 33:17).
Likutey Moharan I, 266
Rebbe Nachman's teaching about the Succah demonstrates man's pivotal role of responsibility for the welfare of the world as a whole. Our fulfilmentl of God's mitzvot with the proper care ensures a balanced flow of blessing and nourishment to all levels of creation. Failure to fulfill the mitzvot can cause the death of animals and other ecological disasters.
Rebbe Nachman explains that it was only through first "traveling to Succot" that Jacob was able to build his house. In other words, man's very ability to establish a sound material basis for his own life in his "house" depends upon his willingness to take responsibility for overall ecological balance. This he does through "Succah" -- bringing all the details of life under the Binah-intelligence of Torah, which provides specific pathways to be followed at all the different junctures in our lives. Fulfillment of the various mitzvot brings a flow of life and blessing to all creation, leading to the overall ecological balance upon on which man's own long-term welfare depends.
This is a vital lesson at a time when people all over the world have fallen under the spell of a mindless consumerism that is destroying the global environment at a rate which threatens our very survival. Mankind is doomed to destruction unless humanity can learn to regulate its consumption intelligently. This will only be possible with the Binah-intelligence of the Torah, weaning people from excess by showing them how to eat, drink and carry out their other material functions in a way that elevates them to the level of spiritual activities.
This is precisely what Jacob's House -- the Holy Temple -- is all about. The Temple is to serve as a powerful, vivid, concrete symbol of the idea of Succah for all mankind. The idea of Succah is to bring even the most mundane aspects of our material lives inside the "House" of spirituality, making them part of our spiritual quest. This is achieved first and foremost by praying about our everyday needs and activities. Thus the Temple is the "House of Prayer for all mankind" (Isaiah 56:7).
This does not mean that the Temple is simply a large place of worship where people can come together to pray. Certainly the Temple is a devotional center where people come to connect with God. But this is not merely because it provides a suitable physical space to accomodate the worshippers. Every single detail of the design of the Temple buildings and courtyards is itself part of the lesson about prayer. "The design of the Temple corresponds to the design of creation" (Tikkuney Zohar, Introduction). The various halls and courtyards of the Temple correspond to the various worlds discussed in the Kabbalah. These spiritual worlds receive vitality and blessing through man's service in this world. Not only do the Temple rituals bring about a flow of vitality into the spiritual worlds. Every detail of the daily services and other "household" activities in the Temple is a teaching to mankind about how to lead our lives in our own private homes and houses in a way that leads to harmony and ecological balance in this world.
The Temple is comprehensible to the human mind because it is similar to a human house. A human house has a place to prepare and cook food for the people living in it and a place to eat it. The Temple was a place to which various kinds of "food" were constantly being brought in the form of animals, birds, corn, wine and oil for the various sacrifices. These were "consumed" on the altar, which is compared to the human table, or in some cases eaten by the priests and their families or by those who brought the sacrifices in an exercise of holy eating.
The human house provides space for us to rest and enjoy privacy and intimacy with our dear ones. Corresponding to this in the Temple is the "Holy of Holies", which is sometimes called Cheder Hamitot, the "room of the beds" or "bedroom"! The Holy of Holies, which is the place of ultimate union of the Holy One and His Indwelling Presence, is a teaching about the purity and holiness of the love between husband and wife in the intimacy of their own private chamber.
When Jacob had his dream of the ladder at the spot where this House of God was to be built, he saw angels ascending and descending. The various physical rituals in the Temple send expanding waves of influence to all the higher worlds: "angels ascending". This in turn elicits a response of blessing and life-force flowing from the higher worlds back into this world: "angels descending". The Temple rituals are vivid teachings about the holiness to which we should aspire when we eat and drink and go about our other activities in our own private homes and houses. Through sanctifying our mundane activities, we too send "angels" to the higher worlds and elicit the flow of blessing and vitality into this world.
It was after Jacob's triumph over Esau -- Asiyah -- that God told him to go up to Beit El, "The House of God", so that he could fulfill the vow made years earlier after his dream of the ladder.
And God said to Jacob: "Rise, Go up to Beit El and dwell there and make there an altar to El, the God who appeared to you when you fled from Esau your brother." And Jacob said to his house and to all who were with him, "Remove the foreign gods that are in you and purify yourselves and change your clothes. And let us rise up and go up to the House of God, and I will make there an altar to El, the God who answers me on my day of trouble and Who was with me on the path I have traveled" (Genesis 35:1-3).
Jacob's journey to Beit El turned into a great pilgrimage of men, women and children in a joint act of self-purification, repentance and self-dedication to God. This is symbolic of the destined future repentance of mankind as foretold by the prophets:
"And it will be at the end of days that the Mountain of the House of HaVaYaH will be established at the head of the mountains and it will be lifted up above the hills and all the nations will stream to it. And many nations will go and say, Come and let us go up to the Mountain of HaVaYaH, to the House of the God of Jacob, and He will teach us His ways and we will go on His pathways. For from Zion the Torah will go forth and the word of God from Jerusalem. And He will judge between the nations and reprove many peoples and they will break their swords into plow-shares and their spears into pruning-hooks and nation will not lift up sword against nation and they will no longer learn war" (Isaiah 2:1-4).
Said Rabbi Elazar: What does Isaiah mean when he says, "And many peoples will go and say, 'Come let us go up to the Mountain of God to the House of the God of Jacob!'" ? Why the God of Jacob and not the God of Abraham and Isaac? The answer is: Not like Abraham, who saw it as a Mountain ("as it is said this day, On the mountain HaVaYaH is seen" -- Genesis 22:14). And not like Isaac, for whom it was a Field ("And Isaac went out to meditate in the field" -- Genesis 24:63). But like Jacob, who called it a House: "And he called the name of that place Beth El, the House of God" (Genesis 28:19).
Jacob built the House of Prayer for all mankind. Abraham saw spirituality as a lofty Mountain, but this made it forbidding and inaccessible to all but a few, because "Who can ascend the mountain of HaVaYaH?" (Psalms 24:3). Isaac made it more attainable by turning it into a Field that can be tilled and cultivated through sustained work and effort. Yet this too requires a level of discipline that cannot be maintained by everyone.
However Jacob "called it a House". Everyone understands what a house is. The teaching exemplified in Jacob's life is to bring even the smallest practical details of our lives within the "House" of spirituality. First and foremost this is done by praying about them simply and directly in our own words. The world of Asiyah can be an obstacle to spirituality, but prayer turns it into a chariot of ascent to God.
When Jacob's House is established on the Temple Mount, the nations "will break their swords into plow-shares and their spears into pruning-hooks and nation will not lift up sword against nation and they will no longer learn war".
This magnificent vision of future peace and harmony can be attained if each one of us will learn to play his or her part in building the House by pursuing the highest spiritual goals in and through the practical details of our lives down to our very eating and drinking, working, socializing, etc. Only if we can succeed in attaining harmony between the spiritual and material in the domains where we have influence in conjunction with the people we actually live with can we hope for harmony to spread through the world as a whole.
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