“Sukkot: The Dialectic of a Festival”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

The festival of Sukkot is referred to in the Torah (Exodus 34:22) as “Chag Ha’ah’sif,” the festival of the ingathering. It was, after all, during Sukkot that the ancient Hebrew farmers gathered their fruits and produce from the fields. Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible) explains further in tractate Chagigah 18a, that throughout the summer the crops were left to dry in the field. Just before the festival, the crops were transferred to indoor shelters to protect them from the winter rains.

The Torah also refers to Sukkot as “a festival of joy” (Leviticus 23:40, Deuteronomy 12:12) The Al-mighty exhorts his people: “Oos’mach’tem lif’nay Hashem Eh’lo’kay’chem,” You shall rejoice before the L-rd, your G-d. The book of Judges (9:27 and 21:19) confirms that in ancient times during Sukkot great joyous festivities were held where the women of Israel would come out to the vineyards to dance and celebrate during the harvest of the grapes.

While the great happiness of the festival of Sukkot seems to be linked to the economic prosperity that was apparent at the ingathering of the crops, in truth, dual themes of both material and spiritual joy are prominent features of the Sukkot festival.

Sukkot is one of the few Torah mitzvot where scripture informs us of the reason for its observance. Leviticus 23:43 states: “L’mah’ahn yay’d’oo doro’tay’chem, kee ba’sukkot ho’shav’tee et b’nay Yisrael b’ho’tzee’ee oh’tahm may’eretz Mitzrayim,” So that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel dwell in booths [sukkot] when I brought them out of the land of Egypt. This statement begs the question: If the people of Israel dwelt in the booths after the exodus from Egypt, why isn’t the Sukkot festival celebrated in the month of Nisan together with Passover? Why is it delayed seven months until the 15th of Tishrei?

The rabbis explain that, apparently, after the exodus from Egypt, despite the Divine Presence that hovered over the nation, the people expressed no sense of appreciation. When G-d saw that the people of Israel had used the wealth that they had taken from the Egyptians to build a Golden Calf, He removed His Divine cloud of protection and the people were left to their own devices. It was only seven months later, in the month of Tishrei, when Moses returned from Mount Sinai on Yom Kippur with the gift of forgiveness that the people began to understand the purpose and value of their material endowments. It was at that time that they began to build the Tabernacle, donating of their wherewithal to manufacture the various holy furnishings, adding a spiritual dimension to the formerly exclusive material celebrations, which subsequently became embodied in the festival of Sukkot.

The above explanation alludes to a major Talmudic dispute regarding the festival of Sukkot. In tractate Sukkah 11b, Rabbi Eliezer maintains that the desert “sukkot” really refers to G-d’s clouds that protected the people from the elements as they marched through the wilderness. Rabbi Akiva, however, maintains that these were actual booths that the Jewish people erected themselves. The Netziv (R’ Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin, author of Ha’amek Davar, 1817-1893) maintains in his commentary on Numbers 10:34 that both opinions are correct. According to the Netziv, when the people of Israel traveled, G-d protected them in the form of Clouds of Glory. However, when the People of Israel encamped, they built their own physical sukkot.

Perhaps the Netziv is suggesting that true success must ultimately consist of a melding of both the spiritual and material worlds. It’s not enough to rely on the Al-mighty’s Clouds of Glory to protect us. We mortals need to labor by the sweat of our brows to build our homes, real homes, with four walls and a roof above to protect us. But we dare not incorrectly conclude that the walls of our domicile provide us with protection and that our wherewithal provides us with security. We must acknowledge the centrality of the spiritual aspects of life as well. It is, after all, the spiritual life that surrounds us when we walk outside our homes, and serves as our protection. While our homes may represent the material endowments with which we are blessed, it must also serve as a way of protecting our spirituality, just like the protection provided the People of Israel by the Al-mighty’s Clouds of Glory. It is to this end that our homes must be filled with the Divine presence that we bring in to our domiciles. In fact, the sukkah itself represents this delicate balance. While there must be strong, solid physical man-made walls, yet the roof, the s’chach, must be natural, made of vegetation, unprocessed and unused for any other purpose.

We have all recently witnessed the calamitous results of unbridled reliance on material wealth. We also know that excessive reliance on spirituality has its dangers and drawbacks as well. The festival of Sukkot underscores the delicate balance that the Torah tries to assert. We must build our homes, while simultaneously making certain that all our travels are done within the shelter of the Divine clouds.

May you be blessed.

The first days of the Sukkot holiday begin this year on Friday evening, October 2nd, 2009 and continue on Shabbat and Sunday, October 3rd and 4th. The intermediary days [Chol HaMoed] are observed through Friday, October 9th. On Friday evening, the festival of Shemini Atzeret commences, and is observed on Shabbat, October 10th. The final day of the festival, Simchat Torah, begins on Saturday evening of October 10th and continues through Sunday, October 11th.

Wishing you a wonderfully joyous holiday.