Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Monday, October 10, 2011

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk


            How does it feel to come in third?  I guess that depends on many conditions.  In a world wide competition, it must feel pretty special.  In a three man race, not so much.  With the Three Stooges, being third never gave Curly much solace.  However, in many lists of three, in both the Bible and world culture, the third in a list is often the honored position.  As in 'that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.'  It's called a tri-colon, and the third item is the most powerful or memorable.  I mention this idea this week, because Sukkot occupies just such a third place position.  In the month of Tishre it follows Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and, let's be honest, it doesn't get the same crowds as those first two heavy hitters.  But also in the Jewish annual cycle of pilgrimage feasts, it occupies third place after Pesach and Shavuot.  How should it feel about this third place finish?  Well, since we're getting ready to celebrate it, I think that we'll try to make it feel good.

            In all the Torah's lists of the holidays, Exodus (chapters 23 and 34), Leviticus (chapter 23), Numbers (chapter 28 and 19) and Deuteronomy (chapter 16), Sukkot is always last.  The most obvious reason for this is chronology.  It both comes third in the Torah's count of months and historically commemorates the years in the desert which followed the events of Pesach, departing Egypt, and Shavuot, the revelation at Sinai.  Also, it is third in the agricultural significance of the holidays, since Pesach is a planting holiday, Shavuot is a first fruits commemoration, while Shavuot is a harvest feast.  However, we're less interested in these technical points, and more concerned to discover what spiritual significance this third place finish imparts to our Sukkot experience.

Although many authorities deal with this issue, it is the Sfat Emet (Rabbi Yehuda Aryeh Leib Alter of Gur, 1847-1905) who really got involved in this question, and gave numerous answers over a number of years to this query.  At one point he suggested that the three holidays of Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot correspond to the three patriarchs, Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya'akov, who is third but called the choicest of the Patriarchs.  Another time he said that the three pilgrimage festivals repair (tikun) the three most grievous sins, idolatry, adultery and murder.  Yet a third suggestion was that the three feasts represent the three spiritual realms of action, speech and thought.  However, there are two more suggestions made by the Sfat Emet, which I want to take a look at in greater detail.

In 1874, the second Gerrer Rebbe wrote that the three holidays line up with the famous threesome from the second verse of Shema, in which we proclaim that you should love your God with all your heart, all your soul and all your might (Deuteronomy 6:5).  On Pesach as we left Egypt we also left behind our evil inclination so that our hearts could be totally devoted to God, with no other suitors for our affections.  That's all you heart. On Shavuot while listening to God's awesome voice we felt our souls departing from our physical forms, and knew that there would be times when we would have to lay down our lives for God and the Torah.  The third member of this trio is translated as 'with all your might.'  Our Sages understood this to mean with all of our financial resources.  Indeed, on Sukkot we depart from our fine homes to dwell in flimsy huts.  This demonstrates our willingness to sacrifice financial well being for God, if need be.  This third commitment is the hardest, not because we love money so much (well, maybe there are some such Jews, like Jack Benny), but because it requires us to sacrifice on an ongoing basis, which can affect our lives constantly.  Poverty doesn't go away easily or quickly.

            In that same d'var Torah the Rebbe mentions another approach to this issue, namely that the three holidays also represent the three corrosive character traits, jealousy, lust and the pursuit of honor.  In 1876 he expanded on this theme in the name of his grandfather, the first Gerrer Rebbe, who raised him.  He doesn't really explain how Pesach and Shavuot counteract jealousy and lust, and I'm not going to speculate, because this is not an article about those holidays. However, he does expand on the relationship of Sukkot to the pursuit of honor.  The symbolism of our dwelling in these huts commemorates the clouds of glory or honor which enveloped our ancestors during their forty year trek through the wilderness.  This glorious manifestation of God's presence and love for us gave the Jews an overwhelming sense of national pride, worth and honor.  At that moment no earthly honors could possibly entice us.  We were totally beyond the clutches of mundane lust for power and position.  The sukkah and its cloudlike flimsy roof is an antidote for what drives much of humanity's worst characteristics of greed and egocentrism.

            Why does the Sfat Emet mention these two answers together?  Why does he believe that these two answers can coexist?  Well, I think that the Rebbe is teaching us that these two answers work together, because they function as explanations for a famous argument in the Talmud.  Rebbe Elazar says that our sukkot remind of those glorious clouds which accompanied our ancestors, while Rebbe Akiva claims that they represent the actual huts in which the Jews dwelled in the desert (tractate Sukah 11b).  So, the Gerrer Rebbe is teaching us that the actual hut answer is connected to devoting all of our resources to God and spirituality.  On the other hand, the comparison of our sukah's roof to the clouds of glory emphasizes how Sukkot helps us repair the human desire to pursue honor and power.

            So, this Sukkot when we sit in our humble huts we should strive to eliminate our negative tendencies and strengthen our positive inclinations.  Sitting in the sukkah should be a lot of fun for every Jewish family, but also a motivation to become better human beings, and that's a first place idea.  Chag Sameach!                             


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