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Board and Beautiful

By: Rabbi Yaakov Yisroel Wenglin

How do you mark your succa boards?  Do you just number them consecutively, starting with the door and then going around clockwise or counter-clockwise?  Do you use Arabic numerals, or are your really shtark and use Hebrew letters?  Do you have a more elaborate system indicating “right” “left” “front” “back” along with numbers or letters, or maybe you use directional names?  And why do you need such a system anyway?  Is it to make sure the screw holes line up each year or because the ground is uneven in that one spot and, well, the boards there are well designed for that spot?  Or maybe you want to keep the same boards next to each other year-to-year because you’ve got them set up in a unique fashion to hold your s’chach?  Well whatever your style and whatever your motivation, did you know that marking the succa boards is actually an old and holy minhag, based much more on spiritual notions than on practical ones?

In paragraph 7 of מסכת סוכה, פרק נר מצוה, the Sh’lah HaKadosh brings from the Maharil[1], who writes that he saw his rebbe make simanim on the boards that comprised the walls of his succa to  keep track thereby of each board’s specific location so that it would remain unchanged from year to year.  The Sh’lah then adds that the Talmud Yerushalmi (Shabbos 12:3) asks on the verse והקמת את משכן כמשפטו (Sh’mos 26:30 – “And you shall erect the Mishkan according to its judgment”), “Is there judgment for wood?!” to which the Yerushalmi answers that the verse teaches that a board that merited to be placed in the north side of the Mishkan shall be placed in the north forever, and likewise a board in the south shall be in the south forever.  We thus see that our board-marking custom goes back at least 600 years and that the purpose of the markings is to keep each board in its place rather than more practical concerns.  We also see that according to the Sh’lah the custom regarding succa markings has its root in the mitzva to mark the boards of the Mishkan, forcing us to understand the link between our backyard succa and the Mishkan.

The simplest way to explain the comparison is to note that each edifice is designed to reveal Hashem in the world.  This is a fairly straightforward and familiar idea (just note, the Haftaras of the first day of Succos and Shabbos Chol Ha’Mo’ed have as their topic the war of the end of days and the revelation of Hashem in the world that will follow – soon, BE”H).  But if we examine this idea a bit deeper, we can arrive at a beautiful insight in avodas Hashem.  The holy books compare the holiday of Succos to Yaakov Avinu, based on the posuk ועקב נסע סכתה ויבן לו בית ולמקנהו עשה סכת על כן קרא שמ המקום סוכת (Beraishis 33:17 – “But Yaakov traveled to Succos and built himself a house, and for his livestock he made shelters (succos); therefore, he called the name of the place, ‘Succos.’”).  Our holy books also associate Yaakov Avinu with the spiritual attribute of tiferes, which is often translated as “beauty” or “harmony.”  In the Mishkan as well we also find associations to Yaakov Avinu and the attribute of tiferes.  The boards comprising the walls of the Mishkan were held together by three gold-plated beams that ran through holes drilled in the sides of the boards.  The middle beam was the only one of the three to run through all of the boards from end to end.  Our holy books compare this beam to Yaakov Avinu and thus to tiferes – the beam holds the whole structure together, unifying it from one extreme to the other.  Additionally, we know that the avoda in the Mishkan was performed by the Kohanim, whose clothes were made לכבוד ולתפארת (Sh’mos 28:2 – “for glory and beauty”), thus associating the attribute of tiferes with the revelation of Hashem’s glory through the avoda that took place in the Mishkan.

Have you ever thought of yourself as a board?  Maybe you’ve been bored, but never a board.   Well, from the above, it comes out that the idea of having boards in their proper place – whether from year to year in our succa or from location to location in the Mishkan – is an expression of tiferes, which is in turn a revelation of the glory of Hashem in the world.  Now, if we can understand how the attribute of tiferes applies to us in our daily lives and our avodas Hashem, we can access a vital tool in our ability to reveal Hashem in the world through our daily lives.  We just have to be a board.

To understand more about the attribute of tiferes as it affects us, one of my Rabbe’im, Rabbi Nachum Chaimowitz, once directed me to Pirkei Avos, Chapter 2, Mishna 1.  That Mishna says: רבי אומר: איזו היא דרך ישרה שיבר לו האדם? כל שהיא תפארת לעושיה ותפארת לו מן האדם.   “Rebbe says: Which is the straight path that a person should choose for himself? All that is tiferes (beautiful) to the one who does it and tiferes to him from (i.e. in the eyes of) others.”  From these words of wisdom we can gain life-changing guidance on how we should approach life and our individual purpose in it.  First, we need to establish a major piece of background information that must be assumed when reading this Mishna: each Jew needs to understand that on the general level his or her purpose in this world is to reveal the holiness and glory of Hashem.  That’s it! 

Now, when I say “That’s it!,” I don’t mean “It’s so simple to do”; rather, I mean that the general mission statement of each Jew is this straightforward and uncomplicated.  We are here, in this physical world that seems so separate from Hashem, to reveal His unity and splendor to all of His creations.  In general, this purpose is achieved by doing the mitzvos and by rectifying our character traits.  Our above-quoted Mishna comes into the picture after we understand this general purpose of life, and it comes to tell us how we can identify our individual purpose in life, that is, metaphorically, the place where each of us must stand like a succa board or Mishkan board year to year or location to location.  In other words, each of us must live with the goal of revealing Hashem’s glory in the world and each of us must do so via performance of the mitzvos and rectification of our character; nevertheless, we must also find our particular path in life that will enable us to reveal Hashem’s greatness in the most effective way possible given our individual uniqueness.

The Mishna comes to teach us to find our unique talents, abilities, and character traits – these are our simanim, our identifying markings – and use them with the context of Torah and mitzvos to reveal the greatness of Hashem in the world.  Let’s first focus on talents and abilities.  Rashi clarifies that a person must do that which is comfortable and pleasurable to that person while at the same time causing other people to take pleasure.  Nuances are lost in translation, so let’s be clear that Rashi does not mean that a person should live life on a beach (hey, that’d be pretty comfortable and pleasurable, right?); he means that a person should do what he or she is good at doing.  After all, it feels comfortable and pleasurable to do what you’re good at.  If a person is a singer, she should sing; if a person is a painter, he should paint; if a person is a talker, she should talk; and so on.  Why is this so?  Because it is through a person’s expression of these abilities that the person’s unique soul is expressed, and through the expression of the soul, Hashem is revealed in the world.  This is the idea of tiferes, of beauty. 

Tiferes is the harmonization and balancing of disparate details – from one extreme to the other – into one well-orchestrated, well-synergized, well-designed whole.  This was the experiential effect of the Mishkan.  Each of us is a piece of a great structure that must be erected together, and it is via this structure that the creations of the world will experience the revelation of Hashem.  To modernize the metaphor: Our individual skills and abilities are pixel-like manifestations of the “picture” of Hashem, so to speak, and the entire picture will be complete only when we light up our individual pixels.  This is why it feels comfortable and pleasurable to do what one is good at doing – it is an expression of the glory of Hashem.  And people who witness the expression of such talents and abilities will thereby take pleasure because they themselves are brought closer to Hashem.

Now this idea of individualized expression applies not only to a person’s talents and abilities, but also to a person’s character traits.  Each of us has certain traits that are particularly prominent and help make us unique.  Some people are outgoing and extroverted; others are more quiet and reserved.  Some people are fiery and passionate; others are calm and collected.  When these traits are brought into active use, they also reveal the individual soul in the world and thus the glory of Hashem as well.  When viewed from this angle, the Mishna is teaching us that we must choose an individual path that enables us to take advantage of our traits.  A kind person ought to look to do acts of kindness.  An outgoing person ought to “go out” and network or organize.  A fiery person ought to fire people up.  And even within kindness, there are a variety of forms.  Some people express kindness by lending their personal items; some do it by opening up their homes and having lots of guests; others do so by being there for a friend who is feeling hurt and upset and needs someone to talk to.   It’s said in the name of the Chozeh (the Seer) from Lublin[2] that people have different ways to serve Hashem based on the varieties of their natures.  Some people will feel more pulled to learn Talmud and halacha while others will have a proclivity for mysticism.  Some people are naturally adept at community work while others will be drawn to work with individuals.  The Chozeh explained that a person must choose the approach that represents tiferes – beauty – for the person, because this approach will be an extension of the person’s spiritual root and also enable the person to achieve his soul-level rectification.  At the same time, the chosen approach will give others an encounter with beauty, causing them to say, “Even though that approach is not for me, it’s definitely beautiful for him!”

So let’s be sure that we understand the deeper reason why others will see the beauty in our chosen paths.  So far we’ve discussed expressing our talents and abilities, such as singing or painting, and then we discussed expressing our character traits, such as kindness or passion.  But lest we think that what this Mishna means is that we should kindly join the local artists’ colony or passionately head for Greenwich Village in Manhattan and wait tables and wait to be discovered by some talent scout, we must recall that piece of background information that I mentioned in the beginning of our discussion of the Mishna, namely that our general purpose of life is to reveal Hashem’s glory in the world through the performance of mitzvos.  Accordingly, the Maharal highlights that the path to which the Mishna refers must be “straight,” meaning that it must be one that is emesdik (True).  And it must be true to oneself and true to ha’adam, loosely translated as “others”; however, explains the Maharal, ha’adam literally means “the man,” and this term is a sort of code-word referring to a person who has knowledge and understanding according to Truth.  And, of course, Truth means the objective standard of Truth that is expressed and revealed in the Torah.  Putting it all together we find that a person must choose a path that is true for himself, that is, it is suited for the person’s talents and abilities and traits (as we’ve discussed above), and the path must be true in the eyes of “the man,” that is, in the eyes of a person who views the world 100-percent through the lens of the Torah.  In other words, we can’t just do a few mitzvos each day and then go off and express our abilities in ways that may be inconsistent with, or destructive to (G-d forbid), the Torah; rather, the Mishna teaches us that to be successful, we must be true to ourselves, but the only way to really be true to ourselves is if our whole life is suffused with Truth (Torah), including the way we express our talents and abilities.

So we should each be a board.  We should all express our unique markings and stand in our unique place in the overall structure with consistency.  The singer should sing – but they should be G-dly songs.  The painter should paint – but they should be G-dly pictures.  The talker should talk – but they should be G-dly lectures.  When a person lives life with Torah, mitzvos, and self-expression in harmony with Torah, the person projects beauty into the world.  This beauty is a revelation of Hashem and is a fulfillment of the person’s life purpose, both on the specific and general levels.  And when we all do so together, the world gets to where it needs to be – a clear experience of the glory of Hashem.  So this year, when you take out your succa boards and you see the markings that you have made on them (or if you buy new boards and make new markings), have in mind the depth of the minhag, that it represents the idea of revealing Hashem in the world through the attribute of tiferes.  And also have in mind how you have to be like a board yourself, accessing the attribute of tiferes in your daily life. 

May Hashem bless us that we are each able bring out our true beauty and see the day when Hashem’s beauty is completely clear to the entire world!

[1] The Maharil’s name was Yaakov ben Moshe Levi Moelin.  He lived in Mainz, Germany from around 1365-1427.   His best known work is Minhagei Maharil, which contains a detailed description of religious observances and rites, at home and in the synagogue.  This book is frequently quoted in the various works of halacha and their commentaries, including the Rema (Rav Moshe Isserles) who cites Maharil frequently in his gloss on the Shulchan Aruch.


[2] The Chozeh’s name was Rebbe Yaakov Yitzchok Horowitz.  He was a great Chassidic Rebbe who lived 200-plus years ago.  The Ba’al Shem Tov was the founder of Chassidus, and one of his main students, the Rebbe Dov Ber (also known as the Maggid of Mezeritch) was the Chozeh’s teacher when the Chozeh was a young man.






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