“Jewish Unity and the Festival of Sukkot”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Of all the Jewish holidays, the one holiday that is singled out as a “Festival of Joy” is Sukkot. As the Torah in Deuteronomy 16:13-15 declares, חַג הַסֻּכֹּת תַּעֲשֶׂה לְךָ, שִׁבְעַת יָמִים…וְשָׂמַחְתָּ בְּחַגֶּךָ…וְהָיִיתָ, אַךְ שָׂמֵחַ , You shall make the festival of Sukkot for a festival day….You shall rejoice in your festival….and you will be completely joyous. That is why the rabbis call the festival of Sukkot, זְמַן שִׂמְחָתֵנוּ , the time of our rejoicing. Rabbi Yaakov Filber points out in his writings, that the nature of the joy that is experienced on Sukkot is much more than simply the joy of an individual. It is intended to be a festival of communal joy that the entire nation of Israel experiences. The Torah, in Deuteronomy 16:14 explicitly includes the broad spectrum of the community in this joy, וְשָׂמַחְתָּ בְּחַגֶּךָ, אַתָּה וּבִנְךָ וּבִתֶּךָ, וְעַבְדְּךָ וַאֲמָתֶךָ, וְהַלֵּוִי וְהַגֵּר וְהַיָּתוֹם וְהָאַלְמָנָה, אֲשֶׁר בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ , You shall rejoice on your festival–you, your son, your daughter, your slave, your maidservant, the Levite, the proselyte, the orphan and the widow who are in your cities. The happiness experienced on this festival is to be a collective happiness, resulting from the sense of unity and feelings of equality among the people. The Midrash Rabbah in Leviticus 30:2 explains the expression שֹׂבַע שְׂמָחוֹת , fullness of joy, found in Psalms 16:11, תּוֹדִיעֵנִי אֹרַח חַיִּים, שֹׂבַע שְׂמָחוֹת אֶת פָּנֶיךָ, נְעִמוֹת בִּימִינְךָ נֶצַח , You make known to me the path of life, in Your presence is fullness of joy, at Your right hand are pleasures evermore. Playing on the word שֹׂבַע , whose root is related to the Hebrew word שֶׁבַע , seven, the Midrash draws a reference to the seven mitzvot that are associated with the festival of Sukkot: etrog, hadass (myrtle), lulav (palm), aravah (willow), the Sukkah, the festival sacrifice and the mitzvah to be happy. There are many references of unity that are alluded to on the festival of Sukkot. The rabbis of the Talmud in Menachot 27a, state:

Of the four species that are used for the lulav, two are fruit bearing (the etrog and the lulav) and two are not (the myrtle and the willow). Those which bear fruit must be joined to those which bear no fruit, and those which bear no fruit must be joined to those which bear fruit. A person does not fulfill his obligation [of holding the lulav together with the other species] unless they are all bound in one band. And so it is with Israel’s conciliation with G-d, [it is achieved] only when they [the people] are all [bound together] in one band, as it is stated by the prophet Amos 9:6, He [G-d] Who builds His chambers in heaven, and founded His band upon the earth.

The Torah, in fact, explicitly relates the mitzvah of joy to the mitzvah of taking of the four species together. In Leviticus 23:40, it is written: You shall take for yourselves on the first day, the fruit of the citron tree, the branches of the date palms, twigs of a plaited tree, and brookwillow; and you shall rejoice before the L-rd your G-d for a seven day period. The theme of unity is similarly found not only with the four species, but with the Sukkah itself. The Talmud in Sukkah 27b, states, that even though the rabbis declared that one may not use a borrowed lulav on the first day, nevertheless, one may sit in a sukkah belonging to a neighbor. As the verse in Leviticus 23:42 underscores: You shall dwell in booths for a seven day period, every native in Israel shall dwell in the booths. The Talmud concludes from the phrasing of the verse that all of Israel are worthy of sitting in one great big Sukkah. An additional theme of unity and Sukkot is found in tractate Sukkah 2a. Citing the verse from Leviticus 23:43, בַּסֻּכֹּת תֵּשְׁבוּ שִׁבְעַת יָמִים , You shall dwell in the booths for seven days, the Talmud derives that, “Just as every Jew must leave his permanent dwelling place for seven days and live in a temporary dwelling place, so must every Jew on Sukkot live equally in a temporary dwelling, poor and rich alike.” Similarly, the mitzvah of הַקְהֵל (Nitzavim-Vayeilech 5777-2017), celebrated every seven years on Sukkot, brings everyone together–the men, the women, the babies, and the strangers who are in your gates. The festival of Sukkot marks the conclusion of the three pilgrimage festivals of the Jewish year where Jews all travel to Jerusalem and come together to celebrate in united happiness. It is only natural that on the last day of Sukkot, the festival of Simchat Torah, the rejoicing of the law, is celebrated. This is intended to teach that the true joy of Judaism is not only external, but internal. Consequently, the Al-Mighty is not satisfied with people only serving or worshiping G-d. The Torah expects the people to observe בְּשִׂמְחָה וּבְטוּב לֵבָב , with happiness and with a full heart. The Torah, in Deuteronomy 28:47, warns that evil will befall the people, because they failed to serve the L-rd amid gladness and goodness of heart when everything was abundant.
Looking closely at the verse, we see that the Torah does not reprove the people for not worshiping. In fact, it is clear that the people do serve the L-rd their G-d, but do not serve with happiness and with a full heart. That is why the final Torah reading of the year is always about experiencing full happiness on the festival of Sukkot. May you be blessed. The first days of Sukkot will be observed this year on Wednesday evening and all day Thursday and Friday, October 4th, 5th and 6th, 2017. The intermediary days (Chol HaMoed) are observed through Wednesday, October 11th. On Wednesday evening, the festival of Shemini Atzeret commences, and is celebrated on Thursday, October 12th. The final day of the festival, Simchat Torah, begins on Thursday evening, October 12th and continues through Friday, October 13th.