After three grueling months working in a Calcutta orphanage, I was treating myself to a Himalayan vacation before returning to the States. My destination was Simla, one of India's fabled "hill stations" in the foothills of the Himalayas, a haven for wealthy Indians and foreigners escaping from the heat of the Indian plains.
As our rickety bus reached the crest of the last hill before Simla, we were greeted by a horrifying sight: Masses of people, in cars, busses, and rickshaws, were fleeing the city. Alarmed inquiries by my seatmate revealed the cause: An unseasonable snowstorm had hit the town and wiped out its electrical supply. Frigid temperatures combined with no electric heaters were driving away all the tourists.
I sat there in shock. During four extended trips to India, I had dreamed of a room with a Himalayan view. My departure date five days hence left no possibility of postponing this holiday. As the bus slowly made its way over the snow-crusted streets, I decided: Cold or not, I was staying in Simla.
With the help of my copy of India on $10 a Day, I quickly found an affordable, clean, Indian-style hotel. The manager apologized that the electric heater in the room didn't work as he piled four blankets onto my arms.
"Would you like to stay in a Maharaja's palace?"
The cold kept me awake all night. Soon after dawn, I went outside hoping to warm myself in the first rays of the morning sun. A short man with a moustache accosted me. "Would you like to stay in a Maharaja's palace?"
I responded, with a wry chuckle, "Where's the Maharaja?"
"He and his family are living in London," the man responded earnestly. "The Maharaja has turned part of his palace into a hotel, the grandest accommodations in all of Simla. Since the other tourists have left, I am giving you a bargain price for a room."
His bargain price was triple what I was paying in my frigid hotel. I shook my head.
He handed me a brochure: "Woodville has ten elegantly furnished bedrooms with modern attached bathrooms with running hot and cold water, and a fine billiard room... Special arrangements on advance notice can be made for the accommodation of personal servants."
I handed him back the brochure, muttering, "It's not in my league."
Then he played his trump card. "Every room has a fireplace."
I decided to cut my stay from four nights to two, bargained him down further, retrieved my suitcase, and in five minutes we were in a scooter rickshaw on our way to the palace.
Entering the grand entrance hall of the palace was like stepping into a fantasy: the parquet floors, the Oriental carpets, the museum-quality Indian sculptures, the gilt-framed oil paintings of distinguished turbaned ancestors, the chandeliers, the draperies. A liveried servant took my suitcase and led me up two flights of the grand staircase to my room. There another servant lit the fire in the fireplace. "Is anything lacking, Memsahib?" he asked with a bow.
I could only shake my head in wonderment.
Before leaving, he handed me a bell. Because the electric buzzer was not working, I would have to ring the bell to summon a servant whenever I wanted anything. It turned out that I was the sole guest. All six servants had nothing to do but wait on me.
After a luxurious nap in my four-poster bed, I decided to take a bath. The servants brought up buckets of steaming water, heated, no doubt, on a kerosene stove in the kitchen. Then dinner was served in the imperial dining room. A gourmet vegetarian feast with rice pillau, dhal, puris, stuffed chapattis, chutneys, and an array of vegetable curries was served on silver plates.
Then Her Majesty, I mean, I decided to read a book. As soon as I chose which library I deigned to occupy, a servant lit a roaring fire in the fireplace. A couple hours later, I choose to take a walk. The snow-covered grounds did not entice me; instead I meandered from room to room. The palace was mine.
At supper that night, my table was illuminated by a silver candelabra. The parade of exotic dishes ended with cardamom-flavored rice pudding. To make my way back to my room up the dark staircase, I held the candelabra aloft in my right hand and lifted the sweeping skirt of my long Tibetan dress with my left hand. By the first landing, I had become the princess of a Disney movie.
By the time supper was over that night, I had had enough.
The next morning a female servant brought breakfast on a tray to my room. I meditated, bathed, chose one of the sitting rooms to read my book, dined, napped, meditated again, and read again. By the time supper was over that night, I had had enough.
Instead of ascending the grand staircase again, I pushed the door through which the servants disappeared, and found myself in the simple, Indian-style kitchen. In the middle of the large, almost bare room, the six servants were sitting on their haunches crowded around a kerosene stove, the room's only heat source. As soon as one of them noticed my presence, he started to jump up, but I motioned him down.
Not having mastered the art of sitting on my haunches, I sat down cross-legged on the cold floor, and started to converse with them in a combination of English and Hindi. I asked about their families, all of whom lived in distant villages, about the different seasons in Simla, about the people who frequented the hotel-palace, about the Maharaja and his family. The servants were convivial company, alternately humorous and sage. Sitting there on the bare floor, I passed the happiest hour of my sojourn in the palace.
A sukkah is the opposite of a palace. Simple, usually small and even cramped, a sukkah is by definition a temporary, vulnerable structure. It provides no protection from the elements, and is penetrated by both cold and heat. Rain drenches the sukkah's occupants, strong winds can blow the sukkah down, and Jews in Europe and America often dine in their sukkah shivering in their winter coats. While most Jews decorate their sukkahs with fruit, paper decorations, or children's art projects, even the most ornate sukkah never crosses the threshold into lavishness or luxury. Most sukkahs never even cross the threshold into real comfort. Yet, mysteriously enough, Sukkot is the most joyous holiday of the Jewish calendar.
What makes a Jew rejoice in his sukkah even more than a Maharaja in his palace?
The mitzvah to dwell in a sukkah for seven days is reminiscent of the sukkahs the Jewish people occupied during their post-Exodus 40 years of wandering in the desert. On a deeper level, the sukkah represents the Clouds of Glory that surrounded the wandering Israelites. The mystical Clouds of Glory protected the people from the desert sun, snakes and scorpions, and detection from enemy nations. The Clouds of Glory are, in fact, synonymous with the Shechina, the immanent Presence of God. During the festival of Sukkot, a Jew dwelling in a sukkah is thus surrounded by the Shechina Itself.
The timing of the holiday is crucial. A Jew who truly engages in teshuvah, repentance, between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur experiences a spiritual cleansing on the Day of Atonement. Transgressions are like a concrete overpass that obstructs our "cell phone connection" with God. The atonement of Yom Kippur obliterates that concrete barrier, so that we can experience unimpeded "reception" of the Divine Presence. The roof of the sukkah, which must be porous enough to see the stars, permits total receptivity to the Shechinah.
VERTICAL AND HORIZONTAL CONNECTION
The holiday of Sukkot is a celebration of connection with both God and other Jews. The commandments of Sukkot include dwelling in the sukkah and also taking "the four species": the lulav, esrog, myrtle, and willow branch. Each of these species represent a different kind of Jew. In order to enact the mitzvah, all four must be touching each other in a unified bundle. Sukkot is the holiday of Jewish unity.
While Madison Avenue tries to convince us that happiness results from material acquisitions, Judaism teaches that happiness results from connection.
Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are days of the solitary Jew standing before God. Passover is a family holiday, when parents are charged with recounting the story of the Exodus to their children. Sukkot is a community holiday. People go "sukkah hopping," visiting each other's sukkahs in a festive spirit of camaraderie, and on every intermediate night of the week-long holiday Jews get together at a simchat beit hashoeva to dance and rejoice en masse.
The celebration of community is integral to Judaism. Maimonides wrote that a Jew who isolates himself from the Jewish community, even if he observes all the mitzvot, is considered a heretic. Community in Judaism is not just a social advantage; it's a mystical reality. The Shechinah, or Divine Presence, is associated with Knesset Yisrael, the collective identity of the Jewish people.
Thus both Divine companionship and human companionship converge in the sukkah. This is the secret of the holiday's overflowing joy.
While Madison Avenue tries to convince us that happiness results from material acquisitions, Judaism teaches that happiness results from connection. On Sukkot, we leave our possession-filled homes, turning our backs on our comforts and luxuries, and enter the utter simplicity and spirituality of the sukkah. Devoid of all material comforts but rich on connection, the sukkah is the locus of true happiness.
That's why a humble sukkah engenders more joy than a Maharaja's palace.
Sara Yoheved Rigler will be lecture touring from Oct. 28 to Nov. 15 in Monsey, Teaneck, Philadelphia, Yardley, Miami, Chicago, Minneapolis, Cleveland, Detroit, Los Angeles, and New York. Details of her lectures will be posted after her next article on aish.com.