Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

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

Friday, September 28, 2012



Rabbi David Walk


Ya know every year when thinking about the onrushing holidays (especially this time of year when they come on like a torrent) there are basically two directions one can go to understand them. Either one can analyze the festival in light of its similarities to other celebrations or one can emphasize the different character of this particular commemoration. In most card games the more you have of the same thing the better it is, but I'd like to convince you that sometimes the greatest hand you can draw is the unique value of being one of a kind.  Sukkot in many ways is very different from the other pilgrimage festivals of Pesach and Shavuot.  In many ways it's the odd man out.  It is paradoxically both more intimate and more universal than the others. There is an intimacy of sitting in your own sukkah which contrasts with large family seders and the Shavuot experience which is largely in synagogue. Moreover what could be more private than the lulav encounter? The circular motions I make with my lulav focus on me alone enveloped by outside spiritual forces. On the other hand a major part the holiday message is so universal. We're celebrating a harvest festival. We all gotta eat. In Temple days we sacrificed 70 animals on behalf of all mankind's 70 symbolic nations. How can we reconcile these conflicting influences?

According to the B'nai Yesaschar (Zvi Elimelech of Dinov, 1783-1841), the joy of Sukkot (Remember, we call Sukkot the time of our joy, Z'man Simchateinu) derives from the feeling of drawing from the wells of Divine Spirit (ruach hakodesh) into ourselves. The great ceremony of Sukkot in Jerusalem during Temple days was called the 'water drawing merriment'. This symbolized the joy we felt after the intense experience of atonement on Yom Kippur. We sensed an infusion of holiness from the infinite (or universal) into our innermost recesses (our own Holy of Holies). On Sukkot this sensation of personal connection to the boundless beyond bursts forth in elation.

There's another way of looking at this which I saw in the Pachad Yitzchak (Reb Yitzchak Hutner, 1906-1980). This is one of those embarrassing cases when you read the concept and say, "Hey, I should have seen that!" It's an idea which jumps out from a linguistic anomaly in the Biblical verses themselves. The critical verse describing the obligation of observing Sukkot is, "In order that your future generations should know that I had the Israelites dwell in huts (sukkot) when I brought them out of Egypt (Vayikra 23:43)."  Concerning our personal relationship with the experience of exodus from Egypt the operative verb is zachor, remember. Over and over again we are required 'to remember' leaving Egypt. However on Sukkot we must 'know' that we dwelt in tents. What's the difference between these two cognitive acts? Before I get to an answer we need a bit more information. There's another term in our verse which must be analyzed. The phrase "I had them dwell," is in Hebrew the one word v'hoshavti. This word carries the connotation of being settled, to sit in a more or less permanent sense. The Torah reading called Vayeshev (discussing the attempted settling down of Ya'akov before the fights between the brothers), from the same word, calls up the idea of expected relaxation or retirement after a stormy life. Ya'akov was rudely reminded that his time for resting on his laurels hadn't yet arrived, and that's why he had encamped at a place called Sukkot. However Sukkot, even in these flimsy booths, represents arrival at our desired destination. And that's a Sukkot idea, too. According to the prophet Zachariah all nations will come to Jerusalem to celebrate Sukkot in the Messianic period. Sukkot beckons a future reality.

Now we can understand why we don't have the term 'remember' connected to Sukkot. Remembrance is relevant for events in our memory. But the real events of Sukkot haven't happened yet. It's hard to remember something for which we still await. And that idea explains another problem about Sukkot. We always ask why we celebrate Sukkot at this time of year. There's no such problem with Pesach and Shavuot. We have Pesach on the date we left Egypt; Shavuot falls on the date we received the Torah. But we lived in huts all year round during the 40 years in the desert. Why commemorate it now? I mean we could space our holidays a bit better. Like we've got enough holidays in Tishre, but many months are open. I know there are many answers about harvest and Yom Kippur, but the real answer is: This is when the real culminating events of Sukkot will happen. It's the anniversary of anticipation.

So, we understand why we can't use the word 'remember' for Sukkot, but why use the word 'know'? What is there about knowledge which better describes the Sukkot requirements? The Hebrew root 'da'at' connotes an intimate familiarity with a phenomenon. It is the third and final step in the process of acquiring intelligence (after 'chochma' acquiring raw data and 'binah' deductive reason), and implies the true sagacity that comes from experience. It is also the term used for the relationship between husband and wife. The only human you have a chance at really 'knowing' is your spouse. And this also makes sense. When we really settle ourselves into the sukah dwelling endeavor there is an intensity missing from our other festivals.

Sitting (especially alone) in the sukah and reading or studying Torah, and, better yet, lying in the sukah and looking up at the full moon through the branches is a special feeling, which brings us in touch with forces usually ignored or just missed in the hectic business of living. We contemplate how things should be in a perfect world, and it encourages that hope to be fulfilled. It is the sweet vision of the Sukkot to come. I'm personally in an anticipation mode and it's very special.  It is one of a kind, and a winner. Chag Sameach!


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