The Coveted Sukkah of Sodom

Sukkot 5781 / 2020
Sarah Yehudit Schneider—

Inspired by R. Tsadok HaKohen’s commentary on the Pesikta d’Rav Kahana[1]

Life is a lot of work. It takes every ounce of strength to tread water, let alone rise and shine. HaShem gives us mighty incentives, there’s the deep soul satisfaction—the nachas—in the here and now from seeing the fruits of our labor (אלו דברים שאדם אוכל פרותיהם בעולם הזה)…and there is the promise of eternal bliss in the world to come (והקרן קיימת לו לעולם הבא). And so the Pesikta d’Rav Kahana tells us (concerning the latter), “don’t worry, you won’t regret the effort, wait till you hear about the eternity that’s in store for you: Anyone who fulfills the mitzvah of sukka in this world, will get a perpetual share (are you ready for this) in the Sukka of Sodom.”  Now doesn’t that just whet your appetite?  Doesn’t that make you want to roll up your sleeves and get up and go?

So what’s happening here.  First I want to just read the midrash:

Whosoever fulfills the mitzvah of sukkah in this world, will be rewarded by HaKadosh Boruch Hu in the world to come with their own reserved corner in the [coveted] Sukkah of Sodom.  … This extraordinary sukkah will be divided among all the tribes, each will have its chalek. … And the sukkah will be covered with the foliage of seven trees, one above the other—each shading the one below: vine, fig, pomegranate, peach, almond, walnut, and then, finally, date palm above them all…. [full Hebrew text below]

So what’s the message of this strange midrash. Why do we want to spend our eternity sitting in this Sukkah of Sodom? How could it be that all the blood sweat and tears of life is worth it, just to spend our eternity in this Sukkah of Sodom

And I guess the first question is what does it mean to “fulfill the mitzvah of sukkah in this world.” On one hand there’s the pshat, of building a temporary structure with skhock as its roof, five days after Yom Kippur and to dwell in it for a week…zehu. But really, that experience of living beneath the skhokh for seven days (with its leaky roof and peep holes to heaven) is supposed to bring us to sukka consciousness. And that seems to be the midrash’s intent…One who dwells in sukkah consciousness in this world, earns a place for perpetuity in the sukkah of Sodom.

So the next question is, what exactly is sukkah consciousness?  According to Rav Dessler it’s the awareness that we live in an upside down world.  That what seems solid is actually certain to fail, and what seems nebulous and flaky is actually a solid, unshakable foundation stone.  Meaning that the physical world seems solid, but actually, eventually, it crumbles, its structures break, its loyalties fade, its certainties collapse…The physical world will inevitably betray our trust, not because it is bad but because it is impermanent.  Change is an inescapable feature of our physical plane. And that impermanence produces pain and disappointment, loss and anxiety. Yet whereas Buddhists note this fact of impermanence and contemplate the suffering it brings, curiously, in Judaism, this very same fact which even gets acted out on sukkot to drive its message home—that awareness of impermanence becomes our zman simchataynu—our period of greatest joy. But why? How does that work?

The idea (as we know) is that the skhokh [with its peepholes to shamayim] reminds us that the Primal-Will-to-Good (aka HaShem) is behind all this and if we are patient and we adjust our focus (like in those figure ground images) we can get a glimpse of the purposefulness of our ordeals, the hidden good buried inside our disappointments, the blessings in disguise.

Buddhists solve the problem of suffering that’s associated with impermanence by cultivating non-attachment. Jews solve the problem by saying, no, we are not going to be intimidated by the threat of suffering.  We are going to continue to raise families and attach to them, we are going to continue to have passionate missions and attach to them.  And yes, those attachments will bring sorrow, disappointments and suffering into our lives, but they will also bring nachas, and really, beyond both the suffering and the nachas is the purposefulness of it all (both individually and collectively). For example, our assignment, as Jews, is to shine the truth of ethical monotheism out to every corner of our global village until “knowledge of G-d fills the world like waters fills the ocean bed.” The creator of the universe asks this of us. Yet there is a huge learning curve which means there are going to be growth pains.  It’s a kabbalistic truth (a Jewish noble truth) that: Suffering is always present when a vessel is developing, expanding, growing. So, from this perspective, the goal is not to end suffering but (with HaShem’s help) to sweeten it, by allowing it to stretch us (and grow us), which makes more space for consciousness, which (says kabbala) always brings a quiet joy in its wake. The Tanya defines simcha as the spontaneous emotion that arises in the heart when a person draws close to their Creator.

Yet there’s a catch, for the Tanya explains that since HaShem is, by definition, the epitome of good, so then every interaction HaShem has with creation must also be good.  And that means there are two types of good: revealed good which is what we pray for, and wish upon our loved ones.  And concealed good, which often is so well concealed it appears as its opposite, ie bad.  And this is where things get tricky for the Tanya explains that revealed good comes from encountering the revealed, outer, more superficial layers of Divinity.  Whereas concealed good comes from the higher, deeper and more concealed layers of HaShem.

The implications of this teaching are profound. It means that when things fall apart…when impermanence strikes, when “bad” comes down the pike–if we can look through the roof that was supposed to protect us but failed, ie if we look through the skokh to the heavens beyond, we will see that we are encountering Hashem at a level of depth and intimacy that is beyond all previous experience. This new revelation of light (and good and truth) is “bigger” than anything we’ve ever known. Our “vessel” of personality is too small to take it in. We must stretch beyond ourselves to accommodate its new light (and love), which is trying to enter. The process is painful. The dilation hurts. One sees only darkness and bad. But in retrospect, when the work is done and the growth integrated, the event takes on a different meaning. It gets reframed, and from this new and slightly expanded perspective, it is even perceived as a gift. When hidden good finally becomes visible as revealed good, it is called a blessing in disguise. Depending upon the magnitude of the suffering, this process can take days, years and even lifetimes.

In the sukkah we act out this scenario in order to engrave its truth into our nerve net. In the nusach of the ushpizin we refer to the sukkah as a kind of voluntary banishment. If we are guilty of sins that require exile for their tikun (sinat chinam being one) then let us pay those dues through our sukka since, for these seven days, we are “expelled” from our homes and reside in these temporary huts that are vulnerable to the elements and uncomfortable in so many ways. And yet on sukkot it is easy to see right through this makeshift “exile”  ie right through the skokh. It is easy to take joy in the deepened connection with HaShem that is available at this time davka because of our mini-exile.  And so the mitzvah of sukka greases our neural pathways that it should become our habit, in real life, to remember that inside every calamity is an opportunity to connect with HaShem more deeply than ever before and if we do, then there is the promise of simcha—the quiet joy that comes from deepening consciousness, that comes from connecting with the Holy One. And so it makes sense that sukkot, our holiday of impermanence, should be our Zman Simchataynu (our time of greatest joy).

But sukkah consciousness is not something we can tick off and be done with.  It takes a lifetime to integrate this correction of faith into our bones—that it’s an upside down world—and that our deepest peace and our most stable joy comes from hardships turned around.

And this brings us back to the Sukka of Sodom, for it is no coincidence, that Sodom (buried beneath the southern tip of the dead sea) is the lowest point on earth (both literally and metaphorically). Its cold-hearted and selfish ways, combined with its crooked court system are the antithesis of all that HaShem holds dear. R. Tsadok notes that there were three generations with three different fatal flaws that drew three different (measure for measure) consequences.

There was the Dor HaFlaga (the Tower of Babel folks), that dared to contend with HaShem and actually believed they could defeat Him. This was a ridiculous chutzpa but there was a redeeming side to their venture so their punishment was relatively mild.  They lost their common language and were cast to the winds but they were spared the death penalty.

Then there was Noah’s generation, who transgressed all the Torah’s deadly sins. For them, HaShem released a flood that obliterated the people and the animals but not the fecundity of the earth itself.

And then there was Sodom, whose defect was cold-hearted cruelty and fanatic selfishness. These flaws were so intolerable to the Creator that He destroyed the people, animals, plants and the landscape itself. The psychopathy of Sodom was so toxic HaShem employed a scorched earth policy to rid the world of its bad seed and cruel ways.

And yet, notes R. Tsadok, the maternal lineage of the soul of mashiach derives from there via Lot and his Sodomite wife and daughters, whose lineage produced Ruth, the grandmother of King David, and Naama (who became a wife to King Solomon and mother of Rachavam—the inheritor of Shlomo’s  throne).       .

And just as there is a Sodom out there, so we each have our own personal Sodom—the lowest edge of our personality that resists sukkah consciousness with a fury. Its not interested in surrender (or hardships)…it wants control. It’s the dark kernel at the root of our psyche: unconscious and totally self-absorbed…as (and here’s the catch) as on some level it should be.  For it is our survival instinct (our animal soul) charged with the holy task of self-preservation. And this “self” that it preserves is not only our life but also the unique mission that is the point of our life. And that mission (when accomplished), says R. Tsadok, is our pintilla mashiach—our unique/essential contribution to the messianic unfolding.[2] So here as well, on the intra-psychic level, mashiach is enmeshed with Sodom.

And to accomplish our messianic mission we need resources (material and spiritual, outer and inner), which the animal soul must hunt and gather. Without sukka consciousness it’s a dog eat dog world: if they win, I lose; if they have, I don’t. That’s the world according to Sodom—a world of tunnel vision, with roofs instead of skokh, and a ruthless survival instinct.

And the Pesikta is telling us that that our mission (our Jewish mission) is to shine sukka consciousness into this G-d forsaken wasteland.  (U’pharatzta  yama v’kadma)[3]. And that if we can do it on a personal level with our inner Sodom, then we’re guaranteed success on a global level as well

Its an extremely complex mission because surrendering to our Higher Power (and the softening it brings) cannot compromise one iota of the fierceness of our drive to individuate and to manifest our pintilla mashiach to the nth degree (as required).  And, on the other hand, our attachment to survival cannot compromise one iota of our total, unwavering submission to HaShem’s “rules” which include cultivating a heart of flesh (and all the self-limiting mitzvoth of bein Adam l’chavero).

Yet if we can bear the paradox and infuse Sodom with sukkah consciousness, then, says the pesikta, that’s as close to gan eden as we can get. Bringing light to our inner Sodom is equivalent to bringing rains and moisture to the geographic Sodom. You might be surprised to realize that part of what it means to “restore the fallen sukka of David”  is to restore the former glory of Sodom. Do you know that Sodom gets the most superlative praise than any other place in the Torah (including Yerushalayim)

וַיַּרְא אֶת-כָּל-כִּכַּר הַיַּרְדֵּן כִּי כֻלָּהּ מַשְׁקֶה … כְּגַן-יְי

… and he looked toward the Jordan valley, that it was well watered everywhere, …like the garden of HaShem…[like Gan Eden],

The Pesikta in our midrash is stating our goal: That there should be no corner of our psyche or of the world that is not infused with sukka consciousness, down to the lowest edge.  And yet, even in this ultimate yichud [of the Holy One and Shekhina] our inner Sodom (who guards our survival) must prevent us from surrendering so totally into the light that we cease to exist altogether.

It’s like in the shema where, in the first verse, we declare the truth of oneness, yet in so doing, we pull the rug out of our very existence.  If there is only one, then we must are an illusion. That is our (mesirut nefesh our) love-letter to Hashem so to speak.

But in the second verse HaShem says no…! I want you, Kenesset Yisrael, my malchut (my moon) to exist l’olam voed (forever and ever). I forgo my oneness (at this level) to make space for you, and for us. That is HaShem’s (mesirut nefesh, His) love-letter to us (so to speak). And the layer of soul that enables this second verse’s fulfillment is (paradoxically) our inner Sodom because of its stiff neck that resists the tug toward total surrender (which is exactly why Hashem created it. Because it actually does/will serve Him in the end).

And that is our Sukka of Sodom. Its walls will be our rectified survival instinct (our inner Sodom), because you can’t have a sukka without walls.  And its skhokh will be the knowledge of G-d that fills the earth like the sea fills the ocean bed.

So I want to bless us as individuals, as a people and as part of the larger world community, that we should absorb the gift of sukka consciousness into our heart bones cells and spaces… and it should awaken joy and a strength of faith that fortifies us to rise and shine this coming year. And these holy lights should spread to the wilderlands of our psyche (and also of the world) bringing sukkah consciousness all the way to Sodom, ushering in the messianic era of growth through joy. And we should claim our reserved seats in the coveted Sukkah of Sodom, basking in the simcha, beaming from the fact that: “wow, it really was all worth it, just for this.”


[1] Pri Tsadok, Sukkot, 23, 24.
[2] Tsidkat HaTsadik 153
[3] בזאת תדע, בעת שיתפרסם למודך ויתגלה בעולם ויפוצו מעיינותיך חוצה מה שלמדתי אותך והשגת, ויוכלו גם המה לעשות יחודים ועליות כמוך, ואז יכלו כל הקליפות ויהיה עת רצון וישועה

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