TIME FOR THANKSGIVING
Rabbi David Walk
At last I get to really enjoy Yom Tov in Israel. I haven't been in Israel for Chag in over 16 years. But that wasn't my point. I meant that my first holidays since returning home were Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and those aren't much different from the Old Country. Rosh Hashanah is two long days here, too. And, even though one could sleep on most roadways in Israel on Yom Kippur (Please, don't try it.), we still spend most of our day in shul. But here comes Sukkot, with perfect weather, trips everywhere, a whole country on holiday and loads of grandchildren. I have so much to be thankful for, and that's only appropriate, because this is our season of thanksgiving. I know that in our prayers we refer to Sukkot as Z'man Simchateinu (Season of Joy), but I'll discuss how it's really about thanksgiving. There's an idea in Kabala that one day all of Israel will sit in the same Sukkah, and here in Israel, as everyone is celebrating, it just seems possible. But what is the underlying principle of the joy and thanksgiving? Don Quixote said, 'Come, enter my imagination'; I'll say, 'Come, enter my Sukkah, to find out.'
Sukkot is the culmination of the year. I know we're used to thinking of Tishre as the beginning of the year, because of the Jewish calendars on our walls. However, the Torah numbers the months from what we have called Nisan for the last 2500 years. Moreover, our ancestors were all farmers, and their year went from spring planting (Pesach) until harvest (Sukkot). There is also a thematic climax achieved at Sukkot as the concluding festival of the three Tishre festivals, therefore the Torah always lists Sukkot last. Our holidays have a dual nature. There is, of course, the aforementioned agricultural significance. But there are historical themes as well. Pesach recounts the exodus from Egypt, Shavuot retells the epiphany at Mt. Sinai, while Sukkot, somehow, continues the story, with ancestors crossing the trackless wilderness and preparing to enter the Promised Land. Doesn't it seem that the two themes of Sukkot contradict each other? Agriculturally, we celebrate the conclusion of the annual cycle; historically we commemorate the preparation for a new beginning. Can they be reconciled? Duh, if not would I be writing this?
Rav Yoel bin Nun on the Yeshivat Har Etziyon web site (http://etzion.org.il/en/%E2%80%9Cfestival-sukkot%E2%80%9D-and-%E2%80%9Cfestival-ingathering) makes an interesting observation that there are really two holidays beginning on the fifteenth of Tishre. One is called Chag Ha'Sukkot and the other is called Chag Ha'asif (Festival of the Ingathering). This duality could help us demystify our problem. Agriculturally, we are commemorating a conclusion, but historically we can't because the Jews of the exodus didn't enter Israel and finish the job. So, the job is very much still in progress. Mystically, it's said that if that generation had gone into Israel, they would have achieved the geula shleima (the complete redemption). Perhaps, that's why we read the haftorah from Zechariah which describes the final redemption, which it appears will happen on Sukkot. We 're sort of celebrating a future event. But I believe that there's something else going on, and Hallel is the place to find the clues to what it is.
When we look at Hallel, we notice that it neatly divides into two parts. The first section (Psalms 113-117) are really about hallel or praise. This word in various forms gets repeated more times than I had the patience to count. While the second section (Psalm 118) switches to hodu or thanks. No more hallel. This repetitive theme of 'thanks' must be referring to Sukkot. And, if we look closer at the first section, I believe, that we discover it also has two parts. Psalms 113 and 114 clearly are talking about leaving Egypt on Pesach, but Psalms 115-117 are discussing our rejection of idolatry and our permanent relationship with God. I think that's about Shavuot and the revelation at Sinai. Even the verses in the first half of Psalm 116 (which are skipped when we recite the shortened Hallel), may refer to a mystical idea about Shavuot. They talk about rescue from death. Many esoteric sources describe how the Jews died and were resuscitated during the revelation, and the verses themselves relate how afraid of dying the Jews were during the event. So, now we must analyze Psalm 118, and see what it can teach us about Sukkot.
Initially, King David is telling us how we emerged from our fear of human enemies, because of God's protection, as the Jews of the desert did. But then we encounter a new theme. God gives us strength. Our hands are mighty because of God's support. Human logic saw defeat, but with God's support the rejected building stone became the keystone for a magnificent edifice. Unlike the Psalms 113-117, God isn't acting alone on our behalf. We sense that our successes are through God's blessing for our actions. We come to the House of God as partners in history. A more complete joy is discovered when our efforts are crowned with success. Sort of like a farmer, when his hard work pays off in a bounteous harvest. We're aware of the danger in saying, 'My strength and power of my hands accomplished all this (Deuteronomy 8:17)', but at this moment, we bask in the partnership with God. And that's the profound simcha which combines with thanksgiving on Sukkot.
Again, enter the fragile world of the sukka, representing the frailty of this world. Now, we see how the joy and the process mesh. And the critical word is hoshana. When Hevel son of Adam brought a sacrifice, God sha'a (turned) to it (Genesis 4:4). God accepted Hevel's attempt at intimacy, because it was sincere. That's the yeshua we celebrate on Sukkot, and we long for the true yeshua (Salvation, redemption), a synthesis of human effort and Divine blessing, and that's the prayer of Sukot: Ana Hashem Hoshia Na, Please, God bring that partnership salvation, please. Chag Sameach!!