“A Turning Point for Humankind”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

To most observers, Sukkot is a festival that is closely associated with the celebration of nature. The Torah (Exodus 34:22) refers to Sukkot as “Chag Ha’ah’sif,” the festival of the ingathering, marking the season when the ancient Hebrew farmers gathered their fruits and produce from the fields. Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible) notes in tractate Chagigah 18a that, just before the festival of Sukkot, the crops were transferred from the fields where they had been left to dry over the summer, and were gathered and properly stored to protect the harvest from the winter rains.

From an agricultural point of view, the festival of Sukkot is essentially an extension of the festival of Shavuot, because that festival was the time of “Chag Ha’Katzir” and the “Bikurim”–-the festival of the harvest and the bringing of the first fruits. In fact, all three of the major festivals of the Jewish people are related to agricultural events. It was, after all, on the second day of Passover that the Omer sacrifice was brought from the first barley harvest.

There is no question that agriculture played a critical role in the life of not only the Jewish people, but of all ancient civilizations. It was certainly not uncommon for the ancients to have harvest and ingathering celebrations, just as industrial countries have labor celebrations on their calendars as a tribute to the working people.

What we often fail to realize is that for the ancient people, nature was god. Almost all ancient cultures offered sacrifices to some aspect of nature, for fear that without expressing thanks to them, the gods would be angry and punish them with floods, pestilence, thunder, lightening and hail. Even today, farmers, for all practical purposes, are very much at the mercy of the environment.

It is the unique emphasis and message of Sukkot that makes this festival so revolutionary. Of all the Jewish holidays, Sukkot is the only holiday that does not mark an historical event. Passover, which is celebrated on the 15th of Nissan, commemorates the exodus from Egypt that occurred on that day. Shavuot, celebrated on the 6th of Sivan, recalls the occasion when the Torah was given. But what historical event occurred on Sukkot? In fact, nothing. Logically, the proper time to celebrate Sukkot would therefore be during the summertime, because that is when the ancient people dwelled in their booths, to protect them from the burning hot sun. It certainly does not make sense to enter the booth after the Jewish New Year, when the fall season has already begun, and the sun is no longer very powerful.

The fact is that Sukkot, which occurs exactly six months after Passover, is deliberately observed at an inappropriate season. The reason is obvious. If Jews were to move into open booths in the spring or summertime when the weather is warm, it would be seen as an attempt to protect themselves or commune with nature–certainly not as a celebration of the exodus from Egypt. How unusual then, that the Jews suddenly decide to live outdoors just when the weather grows cooler. By moving out of their warm homes and living outdoors during this often chilly season, it is obvious that the Jews are doing so in order to acknowledge the Creator of everyone and everything. It is by dwelling in the Sukkah that Jews commemorate the exodus from Egypt and underscore that they are obeying the will of the Al-mighty G-d.

And yet, as much as Sukkot is a nature-oriented celebration, it is much more a G-d-centered festival, and therein lies the essential revolutionariness of Sukkot.

As long as the ancient people saw themselves at the mercy of the environment, as victims who had to face the destiny that nature had carved out for them, there was an inevitability of death, defeat, poverty and oppression. They hoped that by celebrating nature their god would have mercy on them, and give them rain in its proper time and make certain that the harvest was secure.

While this idea of declaring independence from nature is found in each of the Jewish holidays, it is the central focus of the Sukkot festival. It is by dwelling in Sukkot that the Jews proclaimed that human beings were indeed masters of their fate, that they could break out of the spiral of imprisonment that nature had bestowed on them. Jews celebrated the freedom, not only of the ancient Exodus, but the freedom of the local farmer as well. They celebrated their freedom to achieve and accomplish, to work with nature, to control nature, to innovate, to discover new and more effective ways to irrigate, to plant, to sow and to harvest, and to produce much more through human inventiveness. It was specifically because humans were created in the image of G-d that they could now free themselves from poverty, sickness, illness and death.

And it was this defiant break with nature that eventually gave birth to new technologies. Unlike the Eastern religions, where human beings were enslaved to nature and its “gods,” the Torah gave human beings the ability to declare themselves free, and proclaim that the human mind and human creativity are free to work for the benefit of humankind.

Nature is not G-d. Nature, in fact, was created by G-d to be used for human benefit. That is what we celebrate on Sukkot.

May you be blessed.

The first days of Sukkot will be observed this year on Wednesday evening and all day Thursday and Friday, September 22, 23 and 24, 2010. The intermediary days [Chol HaMoed] are observed through Wednesday, September 29th. On Wednesday evening, the festival of Shemini Atzeret commences, and is observed on Thursday, September 30th. The final day of the festival, Simchat Torah begins on Thursday evening,September 30th and continues through Friday, October 1st.

Wishing you a wonderfully joyous holiday.