A father set out one day to teach his young daughter a powerful lesson. When she woke up in the morning he took her in front of a mirror and asked her, “What do you see?”
She smiled and answered, “I see myself!”
He then took her to the window, and asked her, “What do you see now?”
“I see houses, and trees, and grass, and a whole world outside” she said, this time with a sense of wonder and joy in her voice.
That night, before tucking his daughter into bed, the father again brought her to the mirror.
“What do you see?”
“I still see myself,” she answered, a bit confused as to why they were doing this again.
He then took her back to the window. “What do you see now?” he asked.
“I see… me?” she answered, suddenly very confused. “Did the window turn into a mirror?”
“Be patient, stay focused, and keep on staring at the window. What do you see?”
After a long, silent moment, her eyes lit up. “ I finally see it! I see houses and trees and the world outside!”
Her father smiled and explained to his daughter:
“Sometimes, we get so caught up in our own lives that we think everything in life revolves around us; instead of seeing the true nature of things, we see everything as a mirror of ourselves. As a result, we project our views onto everything we see and everything we hear. Instead, we each need to learn how to peer past the surface, past ourselves, and see the endless beauty, wisdom, and depth that lies beneath that surface. When we do so, we turn the mirror into a window, revealing a world of depth behind it.
The Journey to Sukkot
The journey from Rosh Chodesh Elul through Yom Kippur is a 40-day experience of self-awareness, teshuva and spiritual growth, whereby we come closer than ever to Hashem and our true selves. This process of closeness culminates in the holiday of Sukkot, which represents the ultimate connection between Hashem and the Jewish People. The center of this connection is the sukkah, which represents the marriage canopy as klal Yisrel marries Hashem. As we approach this time of closeness, let us delve into the meaning of the sukkah and the lessons it holds for us.
Chazal enigmatically compare the s’chach of the sukkah to the ideal form of beauty. What does this mean?
The spiritual concept of beauty, and its relevance to marriage, is central to the connection we aim to develop through the process of Sukkot. In order to understand this connection, let us delve into the spiritual concept of beauty. To do so, we must understand the unique beauty of Sarah Imeinu.
Sarah Imeinu was the most beautiful woman in the world. We know Sarah was physically beautiful, that her beauty was not just of an ethereal, spiritual nature. When Sarah and Avraham descended to Mitzrayim (Egypt), the Mitzrim (Egyptians), and even Pharaoh himself, desired her (Bereishit 12:14-15. See Rashi). The Egyptians were steeped in immorality, interested only in beauty that ran skin deep. However, we know that Sarah Imeinu was immensely spiritual as well, that she reached the loftiest of spiritual levels (see Rashi, Bereishit 23:1).
At the end of Parshat Noach, Rashi (Bereishit 11:29) explains that one of Sarah’s other names was Yiscah. A name always reflects essence, so we must ponder the meaning of this name and what it reveals about Sarah Imeinu. “Yiscah” means transparent, and Sarah’s true beauty lay in her transparency. Her inner beauty completely permeated and was loyally reflected through her physical body. Genuine beauty requires the middah (character trait) of transparency, where the physical body reflects the inner and spiritual beauty, something infinitely greater than any external beauty. True beauty is oneness, where the physical and spiritual melt into a oneness, where the physical doesn’t hide the inner self, but reveals it!
It is therefore fitting that the shoresh (root) of the word “Yiscah” is also the shoresh of the word “s’chach,” the roof of the sukkah. According to halacha, the s’chach is the most important part of the sukkah, which is why “s’chach” is the shoresh of “sukkah” as well. What, then, is the connection between transparency and s’chach? The answer lies in one of the deepest themes of Sukkot. Sukkot is about seeing past the illusion of independent self-security, recognizing that Hashem is our true source of protection. This is why we leave our sturdy homes and enter a dirat arai, a temporary dwelling place. We show that our faith and trust lie in Hashem, not our “safe” homes. While on the surface, our security and safety seem to come only from our own efforts and hishtadlut, when we look past the surface we recognize that everything comes from Hashem. This is why the s’chach is the main part of the sukkah; it trains us to see past the surface. The s’chach must be transparent, allowing you to see the stars at night. It must also be loose enough to allow some sunlight and rain to enter the sukkah. Only when we have a transparent surface can we truly see what lies behind it.
The Two Stages
Amongst the Yomim Noraim (High Holidays), Sukkot is an anomaly. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are overtly spiritual and transcendent days, with intense rounds of prayer and spiritual elevation. Sukkot, on the other hand, is grounded in the physical. The centerpiece of Sukkot is a physical object—the lulav we shake—and much emphasis is put on going through our physical routines in a physical hut. It is the “z’man simchateinu,” a time of physical joy and festivities, highlighted by the celebrations of the simchat beit hasho’eivah. How is this the ultimate culmination of the spiritual growth we have worked toward throughout the last month and a half? The answer to this question is the secret behind the power of Sukkot, as well as a fundamental principle in Jewish ideology.
While the physical can be dangerous if misused, the ideal is not to transcend the physical, but rather to use the physical in order to reflect something higher. Think, how many mitzvot are commandments of the mind? Almost none. You can count them on your hand: Believe in Hashem, love Hashem, be in awe of Hashem, don’t be jealous, and just a few more. The overwhelming majority of mitzvot are physical actions that connect you to the spiritual source, Hashem! The act is physical, while the spirituality and mindfulness is contained within that physical act. We eat matzah, shake a lulav, blow shofar and wear tefillin—all actions, all physical. We don’t believe in transcending the physical, we believe in using the physical to connect to the transcendent.
Sukkot embodies this lesson in embracing the physical. The purpose of this physical world is for us to use everything it has to offer for a spiritual purpose. This requires us to immerse ourselves in the physical world, but for this immersion to be proper we must maintain control and focus while using the physical. In other words, our root must be transcendent, grounded firmly in the spiritual, and then atop that foundation we can descend into the physical and use it in a transcendent way. This is the key behind the process we undertake through the Yomim Noraim.
We first experience Elul, then Rosh Hashanah and then Yom Kippur, a developmental process of raising ourselves higher and higher above the physical world and deeper and deeper into the spiritual world. It is only once we create this transcendent root that we then re-immerse ourselves into physical living, but this time on an entirely new scale. We must infuse the totality of our spiritual acquisition into our physical life, elevating our actions and intentions as we move this physical world toward its ultimate spiritual root. Sukkot is the ultimate expression of this ideal, as we infuse the entirety of our spiritual gains from Elul, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur into a physical life of connection with Hashem inside the sukkah. It is in that simple and mundane hut that we draw the connection between the transcendent spirituality we just experienced and the elevated physical existence we are about to throw ourselves into. This is how a Jew lives a life of spirituality.
Two Levels of Reality
This is the most powerful message of life. There are always two levels of reality: the surface level and the deeper, spiritual level. The surface is meant to reflect the spiritual, reveal it, emanate its truth and beauty. But often we struggle, we forget, we get caught up in the deception that the surface is all that there is. But even when we fail, even when we fall, there is always hope, there is always a path back to our true selves. This is the message of Sukkot; this is the message of life. To strive to see more, feel more, learn more, become more. May we all be inspired to not only see past the surface, but to then reveal that truth through the surface, to live holistic lives of truth, spiritual beauty and true oneness.
Rabbi Shmuel Reichman is an inspirational speaker, author, and coach who has lectured internationally on topics of Torah, psychology, spirituality, medical ethics, and leadership. He is the founder and CEO of Self-Mastery Academy (ShmuelReichman.com), the transformative online self-development course based on the principles of high-performance psychology, Torah, and leadership.
After obtaining his bachelor’s degree from Yeshiva University, he received his master’s degree in Jewish Thought from the Bernard Revel Graduate School. He is currently pursuing a PhD at the University of Chicago while simultaneously completing his rabbinical studies at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS). Rabbi Reichman has also studied at Harvard as part of the Ivy Plus Exchange Scholar Program.
To find more inspirational lectures, videos, and articles from Shmuel, or to learn more about Self-Mastery Academy, visit his website: ShmuelReichman.com.