Posted on

Festivals of Faith: Sukkot — The Illusions We Live By

Excerpted from Rabbi Norman Lamm’s Festivals of Faith: Reflections on the Jewish Holidays



The Halakhah is generally rich in the use of illusions, and especially in its treatment of the laws of Sukkot. There is, for instance, the law of lavud. This means that even if there exist empty spaces in the sekhakh, or the covering of the sukkah, if these spaces are less than three tefahim (about nine inches), then we consider the empty space as if it did not exist but was covered by branches or other sekhakh. Lavud means that we accept the illusion that any distance less than three tefahim does not exist; it is as if it were attached.

Another example is the law of dofen akumah. This means that if four cubits or less of an invalid type of covering, or sekhakh, was placed on the roof of the sukkah contiguous to the wall, we do not regard it as invalid, thereby disqualifying the entire sekhakh, but rather imagine that it is as if the wall were bent over and inclined for that distance, thus causing us to regard the sukkah as kosher.

A third example would be that of tzurat ha-petah. This 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 ha-petah, 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.

One of the greatest and most distinguished scholars and preachers of modern Israel, Rabbi Moshe Avigdor Amiel z”l of Tel Aviv (in his famous Derashot el Ami), discovered a hint of this propensity for the use of illusion in sukkot in the Talmud’s statement concerning the nature of our dwelling in sukkot. The Torah teaches us ba-sukkot teshevu shiv‘at yamim, “you shall dwell in the sukkot for seven days” (Lev. 23:36). And the Talmud adds, teshevu ke-ein taduru—you shall “dwell” as if you truly “resided” in the sukkah (Sukkah 26a). We do not really 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. All of Sukkot is a tribute to the power of a noble illusion.

Thus, the Halakhah, as a Torat Hayyim, a Torah of Life, tells us something about the importance of illusion in daily life. Normally, we use the word “illusion” in a pejorative sense, as a term of derision, as something which is contrary to fact, to reality, to common sense. But my thesis this morning is that that is all wrong. In many of the most significant branches of human endeavor, we make use of illusion and could not get along without it. Thus, for instance, in law we use legal fictions—as, for example, when we consider a corporation not as a collection of many people, but as an individual, collective personality. In science, we abstract “ideal systems” from reality—and that is creating an illusion. The mathematician deals with such concepts as infinity and imaginary numbers. Philosophers speak of the philosophy of Als Ob, the philosophy of “as if.” Men of literature describe and criticize life and society by means of creative illusions.

Indeed, we live our regular lives by certain illusions—not only in the intellectual disciplines, such as law and science, but in the deepest recesses of our individual and ethnic consciousness. Without the proper illusions, life can become meaningless and a drudgery. The future is bleak, the past a confused jumble, and the present depressingly dull without the necessary illusions.

What we must know is this: that illusions are not opposed to fact. Illusions are what the facts add up to in the long run, what give us the ability to understand and interpret facts. Illusions are frequently more consonant with reality than narrow and isolated facts. Illusions are the framework of facts, that which gives them sense and meaning.

…What are some of the noble illusions that Judaism teaches? What are some of the outstanding examples of the principle of Sukkot that teshevu ke-ein taduru? One of them is the illusion that man is basically good, that, in the words of David, Va-tehasserehu me‘at me-elohim (Ps. 8:6), “he was created but little lower than the angels”; in other words, that man has a neshamah, a soul. The man who has a nose only for hard facts will not see a soul in the human personality; for this you must have an eye for larger illusions and a heart for great ideals. How silly was that Russian astronaut who, when he returned from orbit, reported that he had looked through the heavens and found no God. It is as childish as the sophomoric comment of the surgeon who announced that he had conducted a thorough search of the anatomy and discovered no soul. The best answer was provided by the wise man who replied that he had taken apart a violin and found no music! Of course, man has a neshamah; without it, his life is meaningless and makes no sense.

Or take the halakhic principle that every Jew has a hezkat kashrut—a presumption of being decent and honest. A narrow view of the facts will tell you that most people are unworthy and irresponsible. But without the illusion of man’s kashrut, there can be no trust, no loyalty, no faith. And therefore, there can be no transactions, no marriage, and no happiness. Teshevu ke-ein taduru— without the proper illusions, life is unlivable.

A narrow view of the facts will tell you that Jews do not constitute one people. The Yemenite and the American Jew, the Russian Jew and the Bene Israel of India, the German Jew and the Jew from China, are completely different types. What matters is that they share a common history or aspiration or faith. These things cannot be measured and established as hard facts. Yet Judaism accepts that all Jews are one people, that they constitute Keneset Yisra’el. As in the sukkah, we accept the principle of lavud: even if there are gaps, and discrepancies, and big holes, and lacunae of all kinds, we assume that they are solid, attached, covered up. The Jewish people is one people. It is by virtue of such illusions that history was turned and redirected, and the State of Israel created!

Finally, there is another law of Sukkot that beautifully expresses the noble idealism that informs the Jewish mentality in its use of illusion. The Halakhah states that if a man builds his sukkah and makes the walls from atzei asherah, from the wood of a tree which was used as an idol by idol-worshipers, then the sukkah is invalid. The reason given is, kattutei mikhatat shi‘ureih (see Sukkah 35a); since an idol must be destroyed, then we consider this wood as if it had been totally demolished, and therefore there is no shiur, and the wall is not big enough, since it does not even exist! Here is a heavy, solid wall before me—and the Halakhah says: it is nonexistent! What a marvelous expression of the great Jewish illusion that evil does not really exist, that all that is wicked and cruel and unseemly and anti-human can be considered unreal because, ultimately, it will be destroyed in the great triumph of the good over the evil and the holy over the profane and the pure over the defiled! The halakhic principle which accepts the illusion that idolatry is already nonexistent is the basis and expression for the great Jewish optimism that has kept us alive throughout the centuries. Teshevu ke-ein taduru!

The kabbalists of centuries ago devised a special recitation to be read before performing any mitzvah, such as sukkah or lulav. It reads: Yehi ratzon shetehei hashuvah mitzvah zo ke-illu kiyyamtihah be-khol perateha ve-dikdukeha, “May it be Thy will that this mitzvah which I am about to perform shall be considered in Your eyes as if I had observed it in all its details and particulars.” Indeed so! If we harbor the right illusions about life, if we live life according to the noblest ideals and observe them faithfully, then God will return the compliment, and accept the illusion ke-ilu kiyyamtiha, as if our noblest thoughts had been put into practice, as if our most cherished aspirations were realities, as if our errors and sins did not exist, as if our lives were lived on the highest level of humanity and Jewishness.

Teshevu ke-ein taduru—what a wonderful holiday is Sukkot, which teaches us this noble and beautiful and precious exchange of illusions! No wonder it is called zeman simhatenu, “the time of our happiness.” May it indeed continue to be so for us, for all Israel, and for all humanity.


The full excerpt can be found in Rabbi Norman Lamm’s Festivals of Faith: Reflections on the Jewish Holidays