Saturday, January 22, 2022

Normally, we use the word “illusion” in a pejorative sense, a term of derision or something which is contrary to fact, to reality or to common sense. And yet, consider that illusions of both time and space enable an artist to paint a canvas, a prospective homeowner to purchase an empty lot of real estate, the mathematician to consider infinitum, astronomers to identify new planets and galaxies, musicians to develop music, the average employment seeker to find the future promise of career growth and job satisfaction, and the creative ability to stand out amongst one’s peers and win the Nobel prize.

It would appear that there are ample examples of the use of illusions on Sukkot. To begin, although we do not change our address from home to sukkah; nevertheless, in our minds, in our practice, in our will, in our intentions, we dwell in the sukkah as if we really lived there (BT Sukkah 26a).

Our rabbis encouraged the use of human imagination whereby illusions enable us to think outside the box and become a powerful force of creativity, ingenuity and accomplishment, not only in Halacha, but in every sphere of knowledge, be it medicine, science, economics, law or business. As Rabbi Norman Lamm explained in his 1964 essay, “The Illusions We Live By,” “Illusions do not ignore facts; they build upon them and see them from a broader perspective.”

It is therefore understandable that of the more than 900 individuals to have received the Nobel prize, at least 20 % were Jews, capturing each of the six awards: Literature, Peace, Physics, Physiology or Medicine, Chemistry and Economic Sciences.

A narrow view of Jewish life and observance would falsely opine that Jews of Yemen, Iran, America, Russia, Hungary, Argentina, Cuba, Israel, Germany, France, Britain, Morocco, India, Poland and Spain, etc. do not constitute one people. That, too, is a mere illusion. Join any one for a Shabbat meal and you will recognize the zemirot, and that the Torah reading, and that of our collective common history, is the same. Judaism accepts all Jews as one people, for they are the social fabric of Knesset Yisroel—the Jewish people. And yes, it’s always great to broaden our culinary cuisine.

Consider the Halachic concept on Sukkot of lavud, which means that we accept the illusion that any distance less than three tefachim (about 15 inches!) does not exist; it is as if the sechach were attached.

Then we have the law of dofen akumah, which means that if four cubits or less of an invalid sechach were placed on the roof of a sukkah contiguous to the wall, we do not regard it as invalid, thereby disqualifying the entire sechach. Rather, we imagine that it is as if the wall were bent over and inclined to that distance, thus causing us to regard the sukkah as kosher.

Last is tzurat hapetach, which means that if a Jew does not have sufficient material to build the requisite number of walls, then it is sufficient to place two poles on either end and a beam across them. We consider this a tzurat hapetach, the figure of a doorway, and imagine that the doorway constitutes both an entrance and a wall. We accept the illusion that this empty space is really a complete wall.

Surely there are gaps, discrepancies in the Halachic dispensation of Jewish thought and practice among Sephardic, Chasidic and Ashkenazic schools of rabbinic thought, but similar to lavud and the driving message of Sukkot at large, we are solid, attached and “covered up.”

Aravot (willow branch, akin to the shape of human lips), is the weakest of the arba minim. The other three are the etrog, (citron, resembling the heart), lulav (palm branch, symbolic of the spine) and hadasim (myrtle, shape of the eyelid). Metaphysically, the functionality of the human body is contingent upon the organs operating together. Therefore, only when the heart pumps blood will the eyes see, the mouth speak and the frame of the body stand. Similarly, Am Yisrael succeeds when our many different groups that comprise the Jewish diaspora join together as one body, one soul, one nation. (Midrash Vayikra Rabbah 30: 12, 14).

Despite our differences, we fuse aravot with stronger elements. None are perfect and all stand to gain when we take a genuine interest in one another. It is a timeless message that requires us to roll up our sleeves and help those struggling with religion, addiction and health concerns, etc. and lift them from the depths of despair to the zenith of confidence. Despite the plethora of yeshivot, we still have a significant and growing number of children at risk. What we need is to coalesce into one unit. What we need is to provide unwavering, non-judgmental emotional and financial support. At times, we may feel that we are living an illusion, that our efforts are in vain. However, if we stick to it, we will strengthen ourselves, those that surround us, and broaden our individual understanding of both fact and reality in order to extract the penultimate source of z’man simchateinu, which is, la’asot ritzoncha b’laivav shalaim—to do the will of God with a complete heart.

Mordechai Plotsker runs a popular 10-minute nightly shiur on the parsha with a keen interest on the invigorating teachings of the Berditchever Rav, the Kedushas Levi. Plotsker resides in Elizabeth with his wife and children, and can be reached by email at [email protected]

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