A Student Studying in Nishmat

Sukkos Dvar Torah:

During the month of Elul, we add L’David Hashem Ori, perek 27 of Tehillim, at the end of daily prayer services. We continue to say this chapter through Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Sukkot, stopping on Shemini Atzeret. It is not a coincidence that we insert perek 27 at this time, for during the months of Elul and Tishrei we make an extra effort to work on our relationship with ‘ה, and this perek describes King David’s full faith in Hashem’s ability to guard him from all evil.

Yet one can find another connection between this perek and its designated time period by closely reading of the fourth verse, which includes the phrase: “Achat shaalti me’et ‘ה…” (I have asked one of God…). The Midrash Bereshit Raba states that achat is one of four terms that can take on the meaning of neshama, or soul. The word “sha’al,” besides for meaning “ask” in Hebrew, can mean “borrow” when translated in the context of halacha. Sha’al is a type of borrowing that does not require the borrower to pay the owner rent, yet requires him to return the borrowed object in perfect condition.

If the alternate translations of achat and sha’al are taken into account, the pasuk now reads as follows: “My soul is merely borrowed from God; I will treat it with the utmost care and one day will return it to Him in perfect condition.”

According to this reading of the pasuk, we enter the holiday of Sukkot having proclaimed for over a month that our entire existence is owned by Another. At first glance, the laws of Sukkot seem to support this idea. On Sukkot, we relinquish ownership of several material aspects of our lives as we move out of the comfort of our permanent homes and into the simple and temporary dwelling of the Sukkah.

However, there is one central law of Sukkot that contradicts this concept. On the first day of Sukkot, we are forbidden to take a lulav that is not our own. This law is derived from sefer Vayikra, perek 23 verse 40, where the Torah states: “Ulekachtem lachem b’yom ha’rishon” (And you should take unto yourself on the first day”). The Mishnah explains that the addition of the word “lachem.” or “unto yourself,” is in place to explain that on the first day of Sukkot, the lulav that you use must be your own. The law goes so far as to say that even a borrowed lulav does not fulfill the mitzvah.

This presents a paradoxical situation: How can we acknowledge our lack of ownership while simultaneously fulfilling a commandment that requires us to take ownership? To answer this question, I would like to share an idea that I learned this year while studying in Midrasha.

As stated above, we recite the psalm of Le’David Hashem Ori throughout the holidays of Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Sukkot. Each holiday is unique in its practices and rituals. Rosh Hashana places significance on physical customs and traditions; we celebrate the holiday not only with prayer, but also with big meals, sweet tastes and new foods. Ten days later we observe Yom Kippur by shunning physicality completely and focusing all of our attention on our spiritual connection to God. We spend all day deeply immersed in prayer, and do not break even for meals.

After these two opposing holidays, Sukkot follows by placing an equal emphasis on both the physical and the spiritual. We shun physical pleasures by leaving our homes to live in the sukkah, but we also place importance on physical ownership of the lulav to properly observe the holiday. With this marriage of physical and spiritual, we connect to physicality by investing in Torah and mitzvot.

People are neither strictly spiritual nor physical beings; everyone has a neshama encased in a body, and the struggle between these two forces is constant. May we culminate our recital of Le’David Hashem Ori having analyzed our relationship with God further, in order to strengthen our connection to Him.

From a student at Nishmat