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The Divine Embrace: A Psychological/Kabbalistic Perspective on the Festival of Sukkos

A GIFT TO A MOTHER

Three sons left home, went out on their own and prospered. Getting back together, they discussed the gifts they were able to give their elderly mother.

The first said, “I built a big house for our mother.”

The second said,” I sent her a Mercedes with a driver.”

The third smiled and said, “I’ve got you both beat. You know how Mom enjoys the Bible, and you know she can’t see very well. I sent her a brown parrot that can recite the entire Bible. It took 12 years to teach him. I had to spend $100,000 a year for 10 years, but it was worth it. Mom just has to name the chapter and verse, and the parrot will recite it.”

Soon thereafter, Mom sent out her letters of thanks:

“Milton,” she wrote, my first son, “The house you built is so huge. I live in only one room, but I have to clean the whole house.”

“Marvin,” she wrote to another, “I am too old to travel. I stay home all the time, so I never use the Mercedes. And the driver is so boring!”

“Dearest Melvin,” she wrote to her third son, “You were the only son to have the good sense to know what your mother likes. That chicken was delicious.”

ANATOMY OF A SUKKAH

For the past three millennia, during the seven days of the joyous festival of Sukkos, we eat, drink, feast, schmuez, relax, read and sleep in a temporary structure, or hut, known as a Sukkah. This structure consists of walls and a roof composed of material that grew from the ground, like bamboo, straw or branches.

How many walls does the Sukkah require? According to Jewish law, a Sukkah must have two complete walls plus a third wall that may even be one handbreadth long. If your Sukkah has three or four complete walls, that’s wonderful; but the minimum requirement is two walls and a tiny piece of a third wall.

Why does the law dictate this exact requirement for the Sukkah walls?

And what really is the spiritual and psychological significance of spending seven days in a hut on your porch or in your backyard?

ANATOMY OF AN EMBRACe

Two of the most extraordinary Jewish thinkers, Rabbi Isaac Luryah (3) and Rabbi Schnuer Zalman of Liadi (4) turn our attention to the affectionate words uttered by the Bride in the Song of Songs (5), “His left arm lay under my head and His right arm embraces me.”

These two sages understand (6) these words to be addressing, in metaphorical prose, two distinct moments in the relationship between G-d the Groom and His people, the bride. During the “days of awe,”

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, G-d’s “left arm,” as it were, lay under the head of the Jewish people. The left side represents in Kabbalah introspection, discipline and integrity, and this is the primary theme of the days of awe.

Sukkos, on the other hand, described in the Torah as “the time of our joy,” constitutes the point during the year when “G-d’s right arm embraces me.”

Take a look at any of your arms, says Rabbi Isaac Luryah, and you will notice its division into three distinct sections, each one usually extending in a different direction. The first is the arm itself, from the shoulder to the elbow; the second is the forearm, from the elbow to the wrist; and the third section is, of course, from the wrist to the edge of the fingers.

Now, take a good look at your Sukkah and you will notice a “right arm’s embrace.” The first complete wall represents a Divine embrace from the “shoulder” to the “elbow”; the second wall reflects the embrace of the “forearm” and the third tiny wall symbolizes the palm embrace.

Rabbi Isaac Luryah takes this a step further. He explains that these three dimensions of an arm’s embrace encompass three distinct parts of the body being embraced. When you embrace another person, explains Rabbi Chaim Vital (7) quoting his teacher Rabbi Isaac Luryah, the highest part of the arm (between the shoulder and the elbow) encompasses the entire left waist of the one being embraced. The middle part of the person’s arm, the forearm, expands over the entire width of the embraced person’s back. Finally, the palm and the fingers extend even further and cover only a small part of the face of the embraced one, a handbreadth of the face.

The same is true concerning the Sukkah “embrace.” The first two walls represent G-d’s light embracing the left waist and the back of the human being dwelling in the Sukkah. The third wall of the Sukkah symbolizes the Divine energy embracing a small part of the Jew’s face.

(If you have a Sukkah of three or four complete walls, the hug is, of course, an all embracing one, encircling your back and your face.) This is the language of Kabbalah, written in codes and metaphors. Now the question is, how can we apply these anthropomorphic descriptions to our ordinary lives? How can the performance of the mitzvah of Sukkah become a meaningful and inspiring experience, even if the weather will decide to disagree with the holiday?

How do you express love?

To understand this we must examine four universally accepted forms of expressing love to another human being.

The first is, of course, through words of affection. The three simple words “I love you,” when uttered sincerely, may have a transforming impact on people’s lives. Words have always served as the basic tools for expressing our inner emotive experiences.

A second, more powerful expression of love is a kiss. A genuine kiss contains an extraordinary energy and serves as the medium for communicating a deeply intense feeling that may not be grasped in words. Words can state, “I love you,” while a kiss declares, “I love you more then I will ever be able to tell you how much I love you.”

A third, perhaps even more powerful expression of love comes in the form of a gaze. Two people in love can gaze at each other for long periods of time without uttering a sound. The sound of a silent gaze is sometimes louder then a thundering cry conveying affection. Eyes carry within themselves deep secrets of the soul (that is why most people feel uncomfortable when somebody stares them in the eyes for more than a few seconds.) There is something of your soul that you can communicate to another human being exclusively through your eyes (9).

A fourth universally accepted method of expressing love is by means of an embrace. A “big fat hug,” when it is authentic and not just for show biz, demonstrates a solid and profound bond existing between the two people embracing each other.

DISSECTING THE HUG

Which of these four forms of love do children cherish most?

Children enjoy being spoken to (to, not at). They certainly take pleasure from being kissed and being looked upon with tender affection. Yet, more then anything, most children, especially infants, cherish being hugged. When our children hurt themselves or destroy our homes and then break out in tears, they come running to their parents for a big and long hug to calm them down and to restore their confidence.

What is the secret of the hug? What is its power?

TWO FEATURES

Two significant features set apart an embrace from the other three “love communicators.”

All the above-mentioned forms of expressing affection are directed primarily toward the face of the beloved one. You speak to one’s face, you kiss one’s cheeks or lips, and you gaze at one’s eyes. An embrace defines as its target the nape and back of the one being embraced.

One more feature that distinguishes an embrace from other love communicators is the firm physical bond that characterizes a delicious hug. When I utter words of love to you, when I gaze at you, even when I kiss you, I am not holding on to you; if you want to move away from my kiss, it’s your choice. But when I embrace you, even if you wish to escape my embrace, you remain “trapped” in my gripping hug; I don’t let you tear yourself away from me.

Now, once we grasp the spiritual energy behind a hug, we will see how these two unique characteristics of an embrace – its target being the back and its gripping hold on the embraced one – are interdependent upon each other.

TWO FORMS OF LOVE

There are two forms of love — reciprocal love and unconditional love.

The first is directed to the face of the beloved one; the second is directed to the back of the beloved.

I may love you because of what I receive in return for my relationship with you. You may be wise, deep, sensitive, kind, beautiful, humorous, challenging etc. – qualities expressed in and through your face, your eyes, ears and mouth and general look – and I love you because of these or other tremendous qualities that enrich my life.

This is the type of love communicated in words of affection, or in a kiss or in a silent, romantic gaze, all of them directed toward the face of the beloved one, the primary location of reciprocity. When I express my attachment to you in these three or other forms, I am essentially stating that I cherish you because of your face, because of your qualities and virtues that enrich the caliber of my life.

Without you, life for me is that much more empty, boring and directionless.

This love is not an illusion or a myth. It may be deep and powerful and can bestow upon you a life of blessings and fulfillment. Yet it is conditional on the reciprocity of the beloved one. As long as you are here for me, I am here for you. In essence, I love you because I love myself, and you make my “self” so much deeper and happier.

Yet there is a far deeper love – the love demonstrated in an embrace, in which my arms encircle your back. The hug represents an unconditional, unqualified and absolute love. It is not about your face, it is about your back, a space lacking the opportunity for meaningful reciprocity. I don’t love you because of me; I love you because of you. You may not give me anything in return for my love, you may even want me out of your life, but I still love you with all my heart, because my soul loves your soul.

DO YOU EMBRACE YOUR CHILDREN?

That is why children, perhaps more than anything else, need their parents to embrace them.

When children contract a “booboo” or destroy something in the home, what they are searching for more then anything is the affirmation that the validity of their existence has not been compromised. They are yearning to hear the message that their value is not dependent upon them being perfect and impeccable, but that their dignity is absolute and eternal. “Teach me,” asks the child, “that you love me unconditionally because of who I am and not because of what I achieve.”

When your child’s is weeping because their finger is bleeding, and you simply place a band aid on the wound and go away, you may have forfeited the irreplaceable opportunity to teach your child the most important lesson of all: Your dignity stems from your very being. Even when you will fall in life and bleed badly, your very being and identity is sacred and indispensable.

WHEN YOU’RE UNINTERESTED IN G-D

Our relationship with G-d also operates on these two levels.

All year around, G-d’s light is communicated to us as a result of the choices we make in our lives. The more we fine tune our bodies and psyches to the higher truth of reality, the more we allow ourselves to hear echoes of the still, silent voice of G-d, resonating in the depth of our souls.

Throughout the year, we experience G-d’s presence only through our endless efforts and toil to refine our behavior and spiritualize our days. When we meditate, pray, reflect, study and live morally and holy, we may catch a glimpse of G-d’s love toward us. When I declare a war against my immoral temptations and ugly cravings, I can at times sense a reciprocal kiss from G-d.

Throughout the year, we enjoy a reciprocal relationship with G-d. G-d might talk to you, He may even kiss you or gaze at you, but with one condition: You must show Him your face. If you don’t turn your back on Him, He will be there for you in ways you might have never imagined.

Specifically, Pesach is the holiday focused on speech (Peh Sach, means a speaking mouth. The mitzvah of Passover is to tell the story verbally). G-d shows His love through words. Shavuos is the Divine kiss, communicated through His Torah, his inner breath. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is the Divine gaze (the time of Yirah, awe, letters Reiyah, gazing.)

But on Sukkos, He embraces us. On Sukkos, the above “rules” are suspended for seven days. During this unique festival, G-d embraces you. He shares His light and love with you unconditionally.

SUKKAH PATTERNS

This is the essence of the Sukkah experience. What do you do in the Sukkah? You eat, drink, chat, relax, hang out and sleep – all mundane things pursued by ordinary physical humans. There is no hint of spirituality or religiosity in many activities we do in the Sukkah.

Yet when these acts are performed in the Sukkah during the festival of Sukkos, they are defined by G-d as a Mitzvah, as a medium through which we craft a relationship with Him.

This is the message displayed by the walls of the Sukkah: I love you and cherish you not because of what you do for Me or because of what I gain from you. I am attached to you not because of your spiritual sophistication or because of your noble pursuits. I love you because I love you. I am one with you as you are. I am in love with your very core.

So if you need a big fat hug in your life, this Sukkos spend some time in a Sukkah.

SUSTAINING THE EMBRACE

The purpose of each Jewish holiday is to leave us with a message and an energy that can impact us throughout the entire coming year, till the same holiday comes again. This is true concerning Sukkos as well: This “hug” displayed to us by G-d even while we are in a very physical mode, empowers and inspires us reciprocate and transform all of our physical and mundane endeavors, throughout the year, into tools through which to serve G-d and bring His light into the world.

This may be one of the reasons for the statement of the Midrash (10) that the performance of the mitzvah of Sukkah nowadays guarantees you a place in the Sukkah that will embrace the world during the time of Moshiach. During the time of Moshiach the human being will feel himself encircled and embraced by divine energy, and the preparation for that is spending time in the Sukkahs that we build today.