Let me begin by asking you 2 questions: How many of you have moved from a large house to a smaller one or to an apartment within the last 10 years? 2nd question: how many of you think that you may move from a large house to a smaller house or to an apartment in the next few years?
I have friends who moved from a lovely 4-story house with a basement that had nearly 5,000 sq. ft. it to a lovely one story house that has less than 2,000 sq. ft. Can you imagine the pain that that must involve? How do you adjust from such a big house to a small one? And how do you choose between your possessions? Which ones of all the things that you have accumulated in your life do you take with you, and which ones do you leave behind?
There is a new word that has entered the modern vocabulary, and when we hear this word, many of us have mixed feelings: “downsizing”. What should you do when the children move out of the house or out of the state when the likelihood of their coming back to visit for more than a weekend is not very great? What do you do when you get tired of mowing the lawn and making all the repairs and doing all the maintenance yourself and would rather live in a rental apartment where the repairs are someone else’s responsibility?
But on the other hand, how can you get used to living in a small apartment after you have lived in a spacious home for many years? And where are you going to put all the stuff that you have accumulated over the years if you move into a smaller space? Are you going to give up your books that you have gathered over the decades that you have not opened for years but makes you feel good knowing they are nearby? Are you going to give away all your fancy tablecloths and cutlery because you haven’t had a formal dinner for years? Downsizing isn’t easy.
I once ask a woman, “How can you give up all these beautiful things and all this art that you have collected over a lifetime?”
And she said, “I’m not leaving them behind. 1st I called in my children and let them choose what they wanted. And so, whenever I want to see any of those things, all I have to do is visit my children. And the 2nd thing that I did was I took a photograph of every single one of my things. And so, now when I want to remember them, all I have to do is open my scrapbook—and there they are.”
That’s how one wise woman whom I know managed to downsize and yet, at the same time, hold on to the things that were precious to her, that she could not take along.
If you should decide that for you the time to downsize has come, let me give you the supreme example of downsizing that I know of in Jewish tradition: the Sukkah. Think of it; once a year we leave our homes behind; we leave the couches and the TV and the living room, and the paintings and the library and the den and everything else we have, and we go outside for a week and we eat and drink and some people even sleep in the Sukkah. It has none of the comforts of home. None! And yet, we have a good time, a very good time. I have never met anyone who said that he spent a week in the Sukkah and didn’t enjoy it.
I admit that it takes some effort to build a Sukkah. But once your wife has finished building it, it’s really fun to eat our meals in the Sukkah. And the Menorat Hamaor has a great comment on why we go into the Sukkah for a week. Listen to what he says: “The commandment to dwell in the Sukkah is intended to teach us that a person must not put his trust in the size or the strength of his house, even if it is filled with the best of everything”.
There you have it! The purpose of living in the Sukkah for a week is to teach us that a person should not put his trust in the size or in the strength of his house, even if it is filled with the best of everything. For a house, whatever its square footage, is only a house. I know people who live miserable lives in McMansions. I know people who live happy lives in hovels. It’s not the size of the house that determines the quality of our lives. It’s what takes place inside the house that determines the quality of our lives.
And that’s what living for a week in a Sukkah teaches us. There’s no building more frail than a Sukkah. It doesn’t have much square footage, but if you’re a family that gets along, you can find room even in a small Sukkah—and you can even find room for company as well. The Sukkah tells us what is ultimately important—the people you can fit in your Sukkah! As the Talmud puts it, “If 2 people are in love, they can live comfortably on the edge of a sword. If 2 people are not in love, a house with 60 rooms feels crowded.”
And so the question of whether to downsize or not to downsize is ultimately a personal question. If you rest better and if you feel better when you’re surrounded by all your possessions, then by all means don’t downsize. If you have the feeling that you have just too much stuff to cope with, and that you want to live an unencumbered life, then by all means downsize. But either way, know what the Sukkah teaches: that what counts the most is not where you live but how you live.
And at the end of the week of Sukkot, when you go back inside, your home will feel so big by comparison! You know the old story about the man who can’t stand to live in his small home so he goes to the Rebbe for advice. The Rebbe tells him to bring a sheep, some chickens, the cow and some other things into the house. The man obeys his Rebbe, although he can’t understand why he’s doing this. At the end of the week, he comes back and tells the Rebbe that the house is even more unbearably crowded now. The Rebbe tells him to take the cow, the sheep, the chickens and the other things out, and when he does, he comes back and tells the Rebbe: “The house feels so spacious now!” And so it is when you come back to your house after having your meals in the sukkah for a week. It feels so big!
And if you do this, you will have learned the lesson that what makes a house a home is not the square footage, and not the strength of the construction, but the love and the spirit that you bring into it.
And so I wish for you that your Sukkah this year be crowded with family and friends and that your home feel spacious when you come back to it. And may it be a year in which you learn from the experience the truth of what the Menorat Hamaor says: That it’s not the size and not the construction of a house that matters, and not even the amount or the quality of the stuff you have inside. What counts is the joy that fills your home, no matter how spacious or how small it may be. Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis