Avodah is the energy with which you do a mitzvah. The act of giving tzedakah is a mitzvah, but if you do it out of habit, there is no avodah. Do it with love or fear or humble obedience—that is avodah.
Avodah comes in two forms. As the word itself implies, “I serving you” means you are important; I am not. Ergo I surrender my time and energy to your wishes. Yet serving also implies that I have something you need and I am thus important to you. The former avodah is called Kabbalas Ol Malchus Shamayim—accepting the yoke of Heaven. The latter is called Avodah Penimis—a personal service.
What motivates avodah?
Inspiration to avodah may come from above. When you are given a revelation of G-dliness—a near-death experience, a neis, a visit to the Kosel Hamaaravi or to Auschwitz—something powerful and overwhelming happens to you that can dramatically change your life. It can also dissipate as quickly as it came. This inspiration is called makif—an external force bigger than you that pushes you beyond your nature.
Inspiration may also be internally generated. When you consider what a Yid is supposed to be as compared to what you actually are at the moment, you feel a deep dissatisfaction and yearn to be better. When you consider all that Hashem has done for you—how patient He is with you—and then reflect how little you have done for Him, some internal movement of heart and mind brings you to a better place. This is penimi.
These changes are not as dramatic as when pushed from above, but they cause permanent and deep growth. Makif is a higher inspiration, and penimi is a deeper one. A leftist Yiddish writer once spent a Shabbos in Brooklyn, and in his column the next day he described the difference between “zayer frum” and “teef frum”—makif and penimi.
The Yamim Noraim are makif, awe inspiring—Yom Hadin! Selichah and kapparah! Every Jew feels a twinge of teshuvah, sometimes in spite of himself. That is the effect of yemei teshuvah. Sukkos is more of a reaction of relief and gratitude, which moves us to joy.
However, in the sukkah itself we see both makif and penimi. Makif is bigger than you, and the sukkah is bigger than you and all your guests. All Jews of the world could sit in one sukkah. Makif is above you; the schach is above you both physically and spiritually. It is similar to the anan haketores, the smoke of incense offered by the Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur in the Holy of Holies!
The sukkah is “arai,” a temporary structure because it is beyond the natural. Yet it is also penimi. We are to “sit” in the sukkah as in our own home. Sitting suggests permanence, familiarity. We eat in the sukkah. Eating is a process of internalizing the food so that it becomes flesh and bones: penimi.
This combining of makif and penimi brings the power of the makif into the penimi like a neshamah into a body, a process called yichudim—“e pluribus unum [out of many, one].”
To better understand this: During Sukkos, 70 oxen were brought on the mizbei’ach as a blessing for the 70 nations of the world. On Shmini Atzeres, only one ox was offered for Bnei Yisrael, “par yechidi.” It is like a king who celebrates with all his subjects, and on the last day, when everyone is leaving, the king asks his closest friend to stay one more day and rejoice together, “just you and me.” The days of Sukkos seem to be makif in that all the nations are involved. Makif is inclusive, being greater than the individuals. But when the King asks us to stay for a private celebration—just Yisrael and Malkeinu— we realize that, just under the surface, Hashem’s joy with Yidden is truly unique. Penimi: personal.
For two thousand years the world was treated to makif of chesed—indiscriminate kindness—to people who did not deserve, and for extensive lifetimes. Noach made his teivah that was his sukkah. But it was all makif. He had to be “pushed” from above and could not convince even one stranger to join him. Then Avraham is born and the world is ready for some penimiyus. Avraham enlightens the perplexed, making the people aware of one Creator Who should be thanked and worshiped exclusively: internal transformation, penimi. Unlike the teivah of Noach, our sukkah brings together the awesome makif, too big for human “vessels,” into the vessel of mind and heart, of thought, speech and physical acts, thus preventing the goodness from indiscriminately allowing the wicked to prosper as in the times of Noach.
Now the blessings of a good sweet year are given to us personally, not like a public soup kitchen, because Zman Simchaseinu is OUR simchah. The simchah of Hashem, with His “Am Segulah,” and the simchah of Yidden, with Hashem Elokei Yisrael, combine to create a powerful, eternal, inescapable bond made personal and individual through sitting under the schach of the sukkah—makifim in a penimiyus. When the nations of the world will see our success in bringing Hakadosh Baruch Hu into the world of action, they will rejoice like guests at a royal wedding. On that day we will see that Hashem Echad U’Shemo Echad.