“Rabbi, Do I Need to Be Chareidi so that My Children Turn Out Religious?”
Inside the Sukkah of the Lodz Ghetto.
That was the question posed. Or rather, the statement. In truth, it was a challenge.
Please ignore, for the moment, the impossibility of unpacking the notion of Chareidi or Modern Orthodox. I don't really know what any of that means. What was clear to me was that this young father was simply giving societal names to varying perceived levels of insularity and integration. He was not concerned with the philosophies of “Torah U'Madah” vs “Torah im Derech Eretz”. Nor was he wondering about the values of secular education.
This question, which is a real question, is, simply put: If I want my children to have the best chance of becoming committed, connected, passionately Jewish adults, which community will best serve those outcomes?
For those who are in a more insular community, their answer is clear. They have chosen to protect their interests by engaging less with the outside world. At least as this pertains to external cultural expressions.
But after many conversations with friends and colleagues, I have a growing suspicion that as COVID introduced dozens of internet connected devices to “chareidi” homes, the gap between the “inside” and “outside” world has all but disappeared.
Which means that this question – how to best prepare our children for the “outside world” – is now universal. There is no community in which one can hide their children away from the “Outside”.
How then should we proceed?
In 1940, the Jews of the Kovna Ghetto approached Rabbi Efraim Oshry with the following dilemma (ממעמקים חלק ד, שאלה ו, עמ' מט):
In an alleyway between two bombed out buildings, they had found an area in which to build a Sukkah, with the hope and prayer that they would not be discovered by the Germans.
But in order to compete the building of the sukkah, they needed boards, which they “repurposed” from the Nazi forced-labor supplies.
Naturally, they had no permission to take these boards, and certainly no right to cut them to size. Indeed, if they would have been caught, it would have meant certain death. Despite the danger, these brave Jews risked their lives for the sake of performing the mitzvah of Sukkah.
The question that arose however, was whether or not this Sukkah could be used, being that its materials were stolen. Is this not, technically, a מצוה הבאה בעבירה – A mitzvah that is accomplished by performing an aveirah, and thus categorically invalid?
Rav Oshry embarks on a two page discussion as to who truthfully owns these boards; the Germans or those from whom the Germans stole them originally. He questions if we should be concerned that the boards were always German property.
Ultimately, he concludes that since the Germans are trying to kill us, and one can take the life of a Rodef – one attempting to kill you, their possessions are also permitted. Thus taking these boards is permissible and one can even make a Bracha in such a Sukkah.
The Challenge of Building A Sukkah
Today, with immense gratitude to Hashem, we live in a generation in which building a Sukkah is little more than snapping some poles into place. But in many ways, the internal Avoda of building a kosher Sukkah is just as challenging.
The Mishna tells us that amongst the requirements of Schach is that it doesn't contract ritual impurity.
Rav Yaakov Moshe Charlap (מי מרום – חלק טו עמ׳ רכב) explains that this requirement of not contracting ritual impurity is our major Avoda this Chag, and indeed, the entire purpose of the Sukkah:
After Yom Kippur when we achieve purity, Hashem asks us to live in way that ensures not only that we do not become impure, but that we are incapable of contracting impurity.
We may not have Nazis holding us back but are we not under the constant barrage of culture, politics, negativity, foul language, inappropriate images and atheism?
How do stay pure? Beyond that, how do we ensure that we, and our children and our students are immune to contracting Tumah?
The Piasezno Rebbe asks himself this question a century ago in his personal spiritual diary, Tzav V'Ziruz and answers that indeed, it is impossible to remain pure from the relentless influence of the world. Unless a person a constantly working to create a world for themselves in which they can hide from the world. Our Avoda is to build a Sukkah – a deep inner world of just me and Hashem.
This is our tefillah: ופרוש עלינו סוכת שלומיך – spread over us Your Sukkah of peace.
So how do we build this Sukkah?
The Sukkah is a strange place in Halacha and its laws are unlike anything else in Torah. A Sukkah is build with four walls, or three, or two and a bit. But even those walls are little more than imagination. They need only to be ten handbreadths high and truthfully, the Halacha allows for gaps throughout. The walls of a sukkah can be no more than lavud-straps!
There is a tremendous secret to success here. We don't need to build massive walls in order to ensure that we live in the sukkah. Indeed, the Sukkah is by definition temporary. Instead, the work of a Jew who wishes to remain pure from the world is to be able to imagine the walls around them.
The Mitzvah of Sukkah tells us that we can look at this world and see the walls that Hashem has established for us, even when they are invisible to others. And behind those walls, we can build worlds and worlds of Sukkos – places for us to be alone with Hashem, the Jewish people, and the infinite values of our Torah.
We can enter that world at work and at home; on vacation and during our commute. Of course, the more often we make use of the passage way to get there, the easier the door is to open, the more familiar the path.
The Sfas Emes (סוכות תרע״ב ד״ה מצות סוכה) explains that this is why we welcome the Ushpizin on Sukkos. When a Jew escapes from the world to the world of the Sukkah, we find a good Chevra there: Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov, Moshe, Aharon, Yosef and Dovid.
They were the first inhabitants of that world; they built the buildings, paved the roads and made it comfortable for us. And the moment that we enter into that world, we're greeted by the giants of our tradition that built it.
For those of us who merit to enter, the Shem Mishmuel (תרפ״א) quotes from the Chidushei HaRim that our enemies cannot follow us into the Sukkah. But beyond that, he quotes from the Zohar that not only can they not enter, but the forces of evil that seek to harm a Jew them cannot even see into the Sukkah.
Indeed, Rav Oshri continues in his responsa, that there was a Jew in the Kovno Ghetto, known as Zalman the blind, who hid in that Sukkah build with stolen Nazi boards during one of the “Akshens”, the Nazi round ups. Despite the Germans searching every house, bunker and alleyway, and despite repeatedly passing by that Sukkah, as if stricken with blindness themselves, they never looked inside that Sukkah and Zalman the blind was saved.
Hashem should help to steal away from this world. To hide, invisibly behind the invisible walls of the Sukkah, to remain immune to the impurity around us. For us, our children and our families until He builds for us, once again, the great fallen Sukkah of Dovid – the סוכת דוד הנופלת.