T here’s an enigmatic phrase in a piyut that some recite on the second day of Succos that speaks of the various ways in which to fulfill the mitzvah of Succah. Among those it lists are a Jew’s “entries into and exits from the succah.” Entering the succah, sure — but leaving it? How can departing from that holy abode play a role in this mitzvah?

One answer might be that, indeed, one of the many things the succah has to teach us (if only we spend enough time there to tune in to its frequency) is the Jewish way to leave it, particularly when forced to do so by inclement weather. The Gemara (Avodah Zarah 3b) describes a future scene that will unfold in the End of Days, when the gentile nations, desperate for the reward accruing to those who keep G-d’s commandments, will be given the mitzvah of Succah to perform.

They enter their hastily constructed huts on the rooftops of their homes, but not for very long. Hashem makes it unbearably hot for them, causing them to leave in a huff, and on their way out, they give the succah a swift kick for good measure. And with that, whatever claim they might have had evaporates into thin air.

The Gemara notes that it’s not the fact of their leaving that proves Hashem’s point; the halachah is, after all, that oppressive heat exempts one from the mitzvah of Succah. It’s the way they leave that says so much, indicating that they haven’t a clue as to what this mitzvah is all about.

At the very heart of the mitzvah is the understanding that we are fragile, powerless creatures, completely dependent on our Creator. Armies, governments, doctors, businesses, careers, all the supposed pillars of power, prestige, and protection, are illusions Hashem allows to exist specifically in order for us to see through them — to Him.

The twin themes of succah are bitachon, reliance on our Creator, and bittul, the negation of self that enables us to attach ourselves to Him wholeheartedly, without the interposition of the ever-present ego. No wonder this is zeman simchaseinu: Can there be a cause for deeper joy than resting securely in His protective embrace and knowing that all the blessings in our lives are far, far more than we deserve? This is why the succah is a unifier of Jews, as the very name of the holiday — Chag HaAsif (Festival of Ingathering) — denotes. When there is annulment of ego, all Jews can, in the Gemara’s phrase, “sit in one large succah,” because with both pride and prejudice out of the way, what reigns are amity and good will.

BUT WHAT HAPPENS IN A DOWNPOUR? The halachah provides an exemption from this mitzvah for one who suffers physical discomfort in the succah to a degree that requires him to leave it. The Kotzker Rebbe explained that it couldn’t be otherwise: If he feels discomfort, that means that, at bottom, he is still feeling the self, while the whole point of the succah is to sit in the Almighty’s shadow and lose one’s autonomous sense of self.

My father-in-law would recall for us the poignant Lower East Side scene of the Kopyczynitzer Rebbe sitting in his succah on Henry Street on the night of Yom Tov, tears streaming down his face, refusing to leave despite the rain pelting down from above, and the same is said of many other great tzaddikim. That’s because they were oblivious not only to the rain, but to themselves as well.

When the rains (or mosquitoes, or heat) come and a Jew has no choice but to vacate his precious weeklong home, he does so humbly, heavy-hearted over his spiritual inadequacy and the lost opportunity for this special bond with his Creator. The very fact of his departure due to discomfort is an indication that he has yet more work to do before achieving the bittul atzmi, the self-negation that is this mitzvah’s core and essence. The Mishnah (Succah 28b) also sees in Yom Tov rains a sign of divine rejection, likening it to a master throwing the water his servant has brought him back in the latter’s face.

Not so the gentile in the Talmudic telling, for whom dwelling in the succah was, from the outset, nothing more than an instrument of self-inflation rather than self-effacement, a way to demonstrate his superiority, or at least parity, with the Jew (aptly symbolized, seforim observe, by its placement high up on “the rooftop of his house” for all to see). He too experiences the sudden heat wave as a divine rejection, but instead of looking inward for what message that might convey about him and his spiritual state, he responds by arrogantly lashing out at the succah, and through it, He who commanded it.

So intoxicated is he with the self that nothing else matters to him. Not only has the mitzvah of Succah eluded him, but its very point too. Two succahs, two exits: For one, his leaving represents continuity with his dwelling within it; for the other, it is proof positive that he was never really there at all.

In this light, perhaps the paytan also had something else in mind in referring to one’s leaving the succah as a part of the mitzvah. Whether Succos is blessed with good weather or not, as Yom Tov ends, we all take permanent leave of it, and there’s a specific way in which a Jew does that too.

Succos, writes the Tur, is the Yom Tov of Yaakov Avinu, paragon of truth, and for seven days we spend our time living in a booth of truth, a dwelling one enters to get clarity on what is reality and what is illusion. Koheles, which we read publicly at the festival’s midpoint, is the perfect primer for the sugya d’kallah of emes and sheker, a no-holds-barred indictment of the alma d’shikra, the world of sheker prevailing beyond the succah’s walls.

AS ONE LEARNS THROUGH the halachos of building a succah, he encounters so many principles — with names like gud achis, gud asik, lavud, chavut rami, dofen akumah, and more — that seem so strange to the outsider to Torah who doesn’t have an understanding that Torah determines reality, even physical reality, rather than vice versa. Where the am ha’aretz sees only empty space, the talmid chacham sees a solid wall; and where the former thinks there is a panel, the latter knows there is a breached partition that’s worthless as a wall.

But then the week is over and Yom Tov passes. We’re left with mashiv haruach u’morid hageshem to recite, a few more unwanted pounds to work off, and many pleasant memories of good times spent with Hashem and family and friends. We gingerly venture out of the succah because we must. This World isn’t designed for life in a truth booth, but for everyday living in a world pockmarked with falsehood, littered with enticing mirages at every turn.

And if we’ve used our Yom Tov well and gotten mileage out of our little succah’leh, we step outside fortified with truth, and clearheaded about what matters, and as prepared as one can hope to be for the deeply flawed world we will find there. And with that, our departure from the succah is itself testament to its power as a crucible of reality. 

Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 681. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at kobre@mishpacha.com