“Jacob Tarries in Succot”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayishlach, Jacob sends messengers ahead of him to Esau, his brother, to the land of Seir to prepare for a reunion after 20 years (some say 34 years) of estrangement.

Not certain whether Esau still wishes to kill him as vengeance for Jacob’s devious acts, Jacob prepares for all eventualities: military action, prayer and a tribute to bribe his brother into reconciliation. The night before the fateful encounter, Jacob wrestles with an angel, reputedly the angel of Esau.

Esau is apparently mollified by Jacob’s magnanimous tribute and the two brothers part ways, each going in a different direction. Esau begins making his way back to Seir and Jacob prepares to return to Canaan to reunite with his mother and father.

Despite the many years of separation from his parents, Jacob does not return directly to Canaan. Instead, the Torah in Genesis 33:17, informs us, וְיַעֲקֹב נָסַע סֻכֹּתָה, וַיִּבֶן לוֹ בָּיִת, וּלְמִקְנֵהוּ עָשָׂה סֻכֹּת, עַל כֵּן קָרָא שֵׁם הַמָּקוֹם סֻכּוֹת, Jacob journeyed to Succot and built himself a house, and for his livestock he made shelters (Succot); he therefore called the name of the place Succot.

Rabbi Chaim Dov Rabinovitz, in his wonderful compilation, Da’at Sofrim,, states that in Succot, Jacob finally merits to experience a short period of tranquility. The fact that Jacob could now put his own home in order after so many of years of wandering, and fatigue from traveling, was an important milestone in Jacob’s life, which he felt was worthy of commemorating. Jacob, therefore, eternalizes the event by calling the location “Succot,” naming it after the sukkot–the shelters that he built for the flocks. After all, as a shepherd, Jacob was forced to wander from place to place in order to find proper pasture. Finally, in Succot, Jacob found a place where he and his flocks could stay without wandering.

At long last, Jacob is now separated from both Laban and Esau. He had been told clearly (Genesis 31:13) by the Divine voice to return to the land of his fathers and to his birthplace. His father and mother surely long for him and would expect Jacob to immediately return to Hebron for a joyous reunion with them and the local people. Didn’t Jacob take an oath in Beth El that he would return, and yet, he does not go? From Pnuel, Jacob turns to Succot where he spends a year and a half, delaying his entry into the Promised Land.

How fortunate Jacob was that Esau went to Seir. The Rabbis say it was a miracle that Jacob was able to separate himself from Esau, who initially was keen to accompany Jacob to Canaan.

Why didn’t Jacob return to Canaan? The Rabbis say that Jacob remained in Succot for a year and a half because he was consumed with fear of Esau, and felt that he needed to continue to appease his bloodthirsty brother. Every month, Jacob would send Esau a gift, a tribute of 550 heads of flock, the same amount that Jacob had sent to Esau in his original tribute.

Jacob now finds abundant excuses not to go directly to Canaan. After all, he is waiting for the birth of Benjamin to fulfill the prophecy of the birth of 12 tribes. Jacob, unfortunately, paid the price for that delay when he was punished with the rape of Dinah.

There are those who say that Jacob tarried in Succot in order to deprogram his children from the encounter with Esau. Perhaps Jacob was influenced by the comfort that he found in Succot, since it says וַיִּבֶן לוֹ בָּיִת which is the first record of anyone building a secure house. Until now, Jacob had always dwelt in tents. While he builds for himself a permanent dwelling place, he only builds temporary dwellings, “Succot,” for the flocks. Other commentators suggest that Jacob remained in Succot to prepare spiritually for making “aliyah,” for ascending to live in the land of Israel.

Rabbi Eliyahu Kitov suggests that Jacob’s travels are mysterious, and that only the Master of the Universe knows the reasons for Jacob’s reluctance to return directly to Canaan. Some propose that Jacobs’s camp was intended to serve as a model for the future camp of Israel. Just as Jacob traveled by the word of G-d and moved only when he saw the Divine Presence moving, so would the future Israelites similarly travel. Since the presence of G-d did not move for 18 months, Jacob’s entourage remained encamped in Succot for the duration. It was in this same manner, at the direction of G-d, that future generations were to depart from Egypt and travel in the wilderness. Jacob was actually preparing the Israelites for those future experiences.

Even after leaving Succot, Jacob stops in Shechem. Jacob must prepare for the future. It was in Dothan, near Shechem, where Joseph’s brothers would conspire against him to sell him. It was also in Shechem that Jacob purchases land, which eventually serves as the burial place for his beloved son, Joseph.

Ramban suggests that the reason that Jacob built a large house in Succot was so that he could build tall defense towers that would protect him against an attack from Esau.

The Ohr HaChaim suggests that the name Succot is so prominently commemorated because not only was the first secure house built in Succot, but it may have been the very first time that anyone had taken the time and trouble to preserve animals from the distress of heat and sudden cold.

May you be blessed.