I like to travel with an entourage. It is not fitting for a man of my stature to be traveling alone, I need at least a few million followers wherever I go. The good news is that I usually get my desired entourage, and there is a pretty good chance that the last time you saw me, millions of them were with me. You simply don’t have good eyes.
More accurately, you don’t have microscope eyes, because that is what you would need to see my entourage. You see, the adoring fans that follow me around are actually millions of microscopic organisms. They comprise a microscopic cloud that follows me, and indeed follows you, all day, every day. The cloud contains bacteria, viruses, and fungi, thousands of different types of them. And they are not content to cling to our skin, they float about around us with reckless abandon. Scientists call this cloud our microbiome.
The good thing about the microbiome is that it is unique to each individual! My microbiome is not like yours, and yours is unlike anyone else’s. They’re ours for keeps! Well, sort of. The more we live in close proximity with someone else, the more our microbiomes share with each other, making our microbiomes similar but still not the same. The detectives of the future may be able to determine who was in crime scene hours earlier by taking samples of the microbiome, and matching it with those of known suspects.
Many in today’s society are bent on destroying their microbiome. This is not to prevent police detection, rather it is a personal crusade against anything they consider dirty. They use antibacterial agents on every surface they can; from hands and countertops to cutting boards, clothing, and children’s toys. These are the people that will tell you that they don’t mind a bacteria here and there, but a million? That’s unacceptable!
So they wash and they scrub, they brush, mop, scour; and then rinse, wash and repeat. They wipe down tables that seem clean to most of us, they keep antibacterial gel in their purses and attaché cases, and they make sure to leave some hanging from their children’s backpacks. They make sure their children wash up before dinner as if they were scrubbing in for surgery. Clean is never clean enough, sterile is the goal.
Despite all their good intentions, they may be causing themselves some pretty significant harm! The microbiome it turns out, is not the enemy. The vast majority of the bacteria, viruses, and fungi in the microbiome, are actually pretty friendly fellers! They are not there to harm; they are here to help; they come in peace.
We humans need to develop and strengthen our immune systems, and to do that we need to come in contact with harmful substances. Each time we are exposed to a harmful bacteria, but fight it off, our immune system grows stronger. But if we are not exposed to harmful bacteria, our immune system remains weak. This is not a good thing for anyone who ever plans to ride the NY Subway system, go to kindergarten, or use a public restroom! Additionally, studies demonstrate that people who are not exposed to enough bacteria are much more prone to develop allergies, asthma, eczema and a host of other illnesses. Ironically, the very thing people are trying so hard to get rid of is the thing that makes them stronger, healthier, and more equipped to take on the world!
This theme is one of the underlying messages of the upcoming holiday of Succos. The Torah tells us (Leviticus 23:42) “For a seven day period you shall live in Succos. Every resident among the Israelites shall live in booths.” Living in the Succah is the central experience of Succos, and from all holiday mitzvos, it is the only one that completely envelopes a person! The most important part of the Succah is the schach that lies on the roof (the name Succah derives not from the walls but from the schach). One would expect that we would put beautiful tapestries on top of our heads in the Succah, but the Torah has different ideas.
The Talmud (Succah, 12B) quotes a verse (Deut. 16:13) “You shall make yourself the Festival of Sukkoth for seven days, when you gather in the produce from your threshing floor and your vat.” The Talmud deduces that not only is the Torah telling you when to make your succah but it is also hinting you how to make your succah, and it is telling you to use the “refuse of the threshing floor and the winery” for the schach on your succah. The threshing floor is where you separate the wheat from the chaff, and the winery is where you begin the winemaking process by stripping the stems from the grapes. Normally the chaff and stems are tossed in the garbage (or the compost if you’re from Portland!) But here the Torah tells us that we should instead throw it on top of our succah and let it be the most important part of our holiday experience?
But this really unlocks the secret of Succos. Yom Kippur is the time that we come back to G-d through a process known as Teshuva M’Yira, repentance (trying to come close to G-d) out of fear. Yom Kippur is an awe inspiring day; we dress in white kittles, we don’t eat or drink, we read Unetaneh Tokef which talks about who will live and who will die, the whole experience is one of awe, of concern over how much we’ve slipped and the hope that we can remove it all without being negatively impacted.
But Succos is quite the opposite, Succos is when we try to come close to G-d out of love. We sit with Him in a special house, one that the mystics call The Shadow of G-d. We eat with Him and drink with Him, we sing to Him, we rejoice with Him! The two holidays are both required, I need to first clean out any impurities before I’m able to move in with G-d for a week, but they both work from opposite ends of the spectrum.
That being said, there is a huge difference between coming to close to G-d out of fear and coming close to G-d out of love. The Talmud (Yoma 86B) says that when one tries to come close to G-d out of fear of punishment, G-d says, “Fine, I’ll take all of your intentional sins and treat them like they were mistakes, so you won’t get punished.” But if one tries to come closer to G-d out of love motivated by how far they’ve strayed, G-d says, “Great, I’ll treat all of your intentional sins like merits, because it was in their merit that you wanted to come closer to me!”
What does this have to do with chaff and stems? We look at the challenges in our lives as the scourge of our existence. We wish we didn’t have them, we wish that we could be more pure and holy, we wish that we could be more selfless and giving. They are our deficiencies, and we wish we never had them. Indeed during the High Holidays we try to get rid of them, by casting them into the water at Tashlich or sending them onto a chicken or money during the Kaparos. That’s because during the High Holidays we are repenting out of fear.
But during Succos, we actually take our “junk” and throw it on top of our succah, because we realize that it is those deficiencies that are actually our greatest catalyst for growth! True love occurs when two people are able to fill each other’s gaps, and together become one whole perfect unit. On Succos, we are not looking to run away from our challenges, but rather to move in with G-d and to allow G-d into our lives so that He fills our gaps.
Those challenges that we face, they are not the bane of our existence, they are our raisone d’etre, the reason we exist! We are here to elevate our pettiness, and through our relationship with G-d we can turn those challenges into greatness, we can turn the “junk” of our threshing floor into our crowning achievement.
Each one of us has a microbiome of challenges, a little cloud of character deficiencies that follows us wherever we go. Some people try to simply run away from their challenges and banish them from their lives. Succos is when we recognize that all those little character bacteria, viruses, and fungi are actually here to help us become great. We allow ourselves to own them, we recognize that G-d gave them to us to build super strong spiritual immune systems, and we move in with G-d for a week and let our deep love for G-d fill the crevices in our soul, creating such perfection that our deficiencies become our crowning glory!
Quote of the Week: Human happiness and moral duty are inseparably connected. ~ George Washington
Random Fact of the Week: Michigan borders no ocean… but has more lighthouses than any other state!
Funny Line of the Week: Raisin cookies that look like chocolate chip cookies are the main reason that I have trust issues.
Have a Radiant Succos,
R’ Leiby Burnham