Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

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

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk


            You don't often hear people chanting:  We're number three!  We usually think of people getting excited about being number one.  Even being number two has its devotees.  Remember Avis?   But number three, I don't think so.  So, I, therefore, officially feel bad for Sukkot.  Sukkot is number three on two separate lists.  When we list the Pilgrimage Festivals, we say Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot.  When we discuss the holidays of Tishre (Okay, September to many of you out there) we recite Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot.  We Jews happen to like lists of three, like three Patriarchs, the world stands on three principals and three parts to our Bible (Tanach), but that doesn't mean that one should like coming in third.  So, let's commiserate with Sukkot and see some value in being the horse who won a bet to Show.

            The truth is that I've discussed this issue in previous years, therefore I'd like to review a few possible answers before unveiling my fresh idea.  A beautiful answer which is developed in the Yeshiva University booklet Sukkot-to-Go by Rabbi Benjamin Blech works very well.  Rabbi Blech suggests that there are three kinds of love represented by the three festivals.  Please enjoy his article, but also remember that when I wrote about this idea a few years back I suggested that Pesach represents the love of first meeting and courtship, Shavuot demonstrates the love of marriage and honeymoon, while Sukkot describes the deepest love of all, the love of reconciliation after a tremendous crisis.  It is also possible to put forward the idea that the holidays represent the progression through the Patriarchs from Avraham, to Yitzchak through Ya'akov.  One could also propose that the three holidays are about the agricultural development from sowing to reaping to harvesting.  That analogy can, of course, be a metaphor for life, through the succession of seasons, spring, summer and autumn, which, also, explains why we read the depressing scroll of Kohelet on Sukkot. 

Concerning Sukkot's third place finish in Tishre we can say that it represents a progression in our relationship with God, like a mini-series.  We evolve from repentance to atonement all the way to love and joy as we rendezvous with God in our Sukkah and live happily ever after.  But I'd like to present a different approach to the question of Sukkot's place in our tradition, our philosophy and our hearts.

            Once upon a time, I was a history major.  It seems so long ago that I think that it's part of history by now.  But I think that there is a significant historical angle in how to view the implications of Sukkot.  We know that Pesach is the most historically oriented holiday.  We spend tremendous effort developing a historical presentation at our Pesach Seder every year.  We do our best to cultivate a situation in which the presenter represents himself or herself as if they themselves actually departed from Egypt on that momentous day. 

On Shavuot, however, we stay up all night as if that somehow makes up for the fact that our ancestors had to be awakened on that morning so long ago at the foot of Mt. Sinai.   They must have been really tired, because all that thunder and lightening was making quite a racket.  But unlike Pesach, we're not required to convince anyone that the members of the previous generation were those who actually stood there.  I think that's because we have another agenda on Shavuot.  It says in Pirkei Avot:  Every day, an echo resounds from Mount Horeb (Sinai) proclaiming and saying: "Woe is to the creatures who desert the Torah." For one who does not occupy themselves in Torah is considered an outcast (6:2).  Torah is being given everyday.  That's why the basic blessing on Torah study ends with the words:  Blessed are You, God who gives the Torah.  Notice, that it is in the present tense. The blessing that refers to the exodus is in ga'al Yisroel, in the past tense.  Pesach is about the relevance of the past to our lives; Shavuot is about the present continual acceptance of Torah.

            Sukkot, on the other hand, doesn't commemorate a specific event or date.  It celebrates the care God tendered to the Jews during the forty years in the desert.  The association with the fifteenth of Tishre is so tenuous that over the centuries our rabbis have offered many explanations for why Sukkot falls on this date.  But the Haftora on the first day of the holiday I believe provides the answer.  In the last chapter of the book of Zecharia, we are informed that a great war will take place and, as a result, all nations will acknowledge God as the only God (Zecharia 14:9).  It's interesting that the chapter refers to the specific day when all this will happen seven times, without ever telling us exactly what day it is.  Curious.  However, we are told:  And it will come to pass that everyone remaining from the nations who came up against Jerusalem will go up from year to year to prostrate themselves to the King, the Lord of Hosts, and to celebrate the festival of Tabernacles (verse 16).  Doesn't it make sense that they will come to Jerusalem on the anniversary of the battle?  Therefore, Sukkot is observing the anniversary of an event which has not yet happened.

            That future event is given added significance by a famous rabbinic story.  At the beginning of tractate Avoda Zara, the rabbis say that the gentiles of the world have rejected mitzvoth, and the example they use is the sukkah. So, in the present world non-Jews denigrate Sukkot, but in the future they will actually observe it.

            So, Pesach is about the past, Shavuot about the present, and Sukkot about the future.  This works for the month of Tishre as well.  Rosh Hashanah reviews our past, Yom Kippur renews our relationship with God and Sukkot looks forward to a world dominated by ethical monotheism.  Be joyous in your Sukkah while dreaming of a better tomorrow.   Chag Sameach!         

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