SUKKOT - A UNIVERSAL HOLIDAY?
Rabbi Ari Kahn
The Talmud relates that in the future, when the nations of the world will complain about the preferential status enjoyed by the Jews, God will explain that the Jews are the "Chosen People," because they alone are the "choosing people," so to speak; they alone accepted the burden of the commandments and chose to follow God's law.
The nations will then plead, ‘Offer us the Torah anew and we will follow it.’ ‘You foolish people,’ God will answer, ‘he who prepares on the Eve of Shabbat can eat on Shabbat, but he who made no preparations, what can he eat? Nevertheless, I have an easy commandment called sukkah, go and fulfill it….’ Why is it called an easy commandment? Because it has no expense. Immediately each one will build a sukkah on his roof but God will cause the sun to blaze as if it were the summer solstice. Each one will then kick his sukkah, and leave… Thereupon God will laugh, as it is said, [Tehilim 2:4] “He that sits in heaven and laughs.” (Talmud Bavli, Avoda Zara 3a)
Although this passage has many difficult elements, one of its main themes is of particular interest at this time of year: Non-Jews will be unable to keep the commandment of sukkah. This is a very strange idea, particularly because Sukkot, the festival also known as Tabernacles, is considered the most universal of all the holidays. The Talmud (Talmud Bavli, Sukkah 55b) teaches:
Rabbi Eliezer (another tradition reports “Elazar”) said, ‘Why are 70 offerings brought on Sukkot? For the (merit of the) 70 nations of the world.’
Rashi: To bring forgiveness for them (the 70 nations), so that rain shall fall all over the world.
The sages stressed that Sukkot has a universal element that is glaringly absent in the other festivals: Pesach celebrates the exodus from Egypt and the emergence of the Jewish nation. Shavuot celebrates the giving of the Torah, specifically to the Jewish People. It seems paradoxical, then, to find an expression of the inability of the nations of the world to relate to God specifically in the context of Sukkot. We may theorize that specifically on Sukkot, when the Jews concern themselves with the welfare of the entire world, the other nations are expected to respond and to relate to God directly. There is, however, another passage which makes this approach untenable.
And it shall come to pass, that every one that is left of all the nations who came up against Jerusalem, shall go up from year to year to worship the King, the God of Hosts, and to keep the holiday of Sukkot. And whoever does not come… to Jerusalem, ...upon them there will be no rain. (Zecharya 14:16)
This passage, from the prophecy of Zecharya, describes the aftermath of the apocalyptic battles that herald the messianic age when the vanquished nations will celebrate Sukkot. How, then, can the Talmud suggest that the nations of the world will be given the commandment of Sukkot, but fail to fulfill this “easy” commandment? This Talmudic teaching seems to contradict the prophecy of Zecharya which describes their successful adherence to this precept in the future. While the Talmud contains many explanations of biblical teachings, the Talmud does not, as a rule, contradict biblical prophecy. Our question, then, is quite simple: How can the Talmud state that in the future the nations of the world will be unable to keep Sukkot, when the Prophet Zecharya tells us that they will, in fact, celebrate Sukkot?
In the resolution of this apparent contradiction lies the essence of Sukkot.
There are two distinct aspects to the holiday of Sukkot, represented by two commandments in the Torah:
On the 15th of the 7th month, when you have gathered the fruit of the land, you shall keep a feast to the Almighty seven days… And you shall take for yourselves on the first day the fruit of a hadar (etrog), branches of palm trees, aravot and haddasim, and you shall rejoice before your God seven days. And you shall keep it as a holiday seven days a year, it shall be a statute forever to celebrate. You shall sit in booths (sukkot) seven days, every citizen of Israel shall sit in the sukkot. In order to inform all generations that the Children of Israel dwelled in sukkot when I liberated them from Egypt. (Vayikra 23:39-43)
In this passage, we are given two distinct commandments: We are to take the four species and rejoice with them, and we are to sit in sukkot. The mitzvah of the four species is linked with “gathering the fruit of the land,” while sitting in the sukkah is a commemoration of a specific time in our national history, during the exodus from Egypt. The four species is an expression of the agricultural aspect of the holiday, which is universal, whereas the sukkah expresses our own unique national history, and is therefore particular to the Jews.
Sukkot in Jerusalem
The relationship between the gathering of the fruit and the four species seems clear: After gathering the harvest from the fields, we collect these four species, and use them as a visual aid for prayer over the course of the festival: We thank God for the produce we have just harvested, and implore him to continue to sustain us with generous rainfall and economic security over the coming year. Rabbinic tradition teaches us that God allocates the world’s supply of water for the coming year on Sukkot:
On Chag (Sukkot) we are judged regarding water. (Talmud Bavli, Rosh HaShanah 16a)
In fact, much of the celebration in Jerusalem on Sukkot was connected to water, including the Simchat Beit HaShoeva ceremony, of which the Mishna says:
“Whoever did not see the Simchat Beit HaShoeva never saw real joy in their life.” (Sukkah, 5:1)
The commandment to take the four species speaks of rejoicing before God, referring to the Temple in Jerusalem. Sukkot was uniquely celebrated in Jerusalem: Armed with the four species, the Jews would make a pilgrimage to the Temple and pray for plentiful rainfall in the coming year.
Clouds or tents?
What, however, is the meaning of the other aspect of the festival, in which we are commanded to sit in sukkot? What do these booths symbolize? The Talmud records two opinions: According to Rabbi Eliezer, the sukkot we build are a representation of the Clouds of Glory with which God protected the Israelites in the wilderness. Rabbi Akiva, on the other hand, was of the opinion that when the Jews were liberated from Egypt, they dwelt in actual sukkot, booths, not unlike those we build today. Both opinions agree that the sukkot signify the special relationship between the Jewish People and the Almighty; the difference between the opinions lies in respect to the historical reality. Were we protected metaphysically, by a cloud, or were we protected by a physical construct- actual huts, sukkot?
This difference of opinion is unresolved; either way, we celebrate the festival and the unique, loving relationship that lies at its heart, by building sukkot. We remember that the Jews ventured into the wilderness, vulnerable to the elements, putting their faith in God. This is what we commemorate today, and it is a central part of the fulfillment of the mitzvah of sukkah to teach our children the lessons of ahavat Hashem and emunah (love of God and faith) that this holiday expresses. This is the essence of Sukkot: The Jew leaves the comfort of his home and turns this little hut, this makeshift dwelling, into his place of residence for the duration of the festival. This serves as a reminder of the temporary nature of our existence, helping us focus on the proper balance between the physical and the spiritual aspects of our lives. Most importantly, the sukkah is an expression of our trust in God - the trust that we had in the desert and the trust, it is hoped, we have today.
Now, perhaps we can resolve the inconsistencies in our Talmudic passage. There are two sides to the Festival of Sukkot: On the one hand, we pray for physical sustenance, for the plentiful rains and bountiful harvests that are a universal human need. Our physical needs are quite real, and nothing is as representative of these needs as rain; in fact, the Hebrew word for rain, “geshem,” is at the very root of the Hebrew word for physical reality, “gashmiyut.” For this very reason, we pray for rain specifically on Sukkot: Whereas on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur we pray for life itself, on Sukkot we pray for quality of life. We pray for the success of our economic undertakings; we pray for rain. On the other hand, we reject our physical comfort, and, in testimony to our special relationship of love and faith in God, we leave our physical needs behind. We remind ourselves that the source of our sustenance is beyond our physical realm, beyond our own human accomplishments or capabilities. The source of rain, the source of geshem, God Himself, is represented by the Clouds of Glory that protected and sustained us in our early history as a nation.
With dialectical elegance, a synthesis is created: We are commanded to leave our homes, the physical anchor of our lives, and to enter a home under the clouds, protected by our trust in God. Our physical existence is brought into sharp contrast with our spiritual life, and the two aspects of Sukkot co-exist.
Now we may return to our original question: Will the nations of the world be capable of observing the holiday of Sukkot? Surely, the answer must consider each aspect of the holiday independently. The passage in Zecharya that spoke of observance by non-Jews of Sukkot stressed that they would do so in Jerusalem - “before God.” The aspect of Sukkot that finds unique expression in Jerusalem is the universal aspect of thanksgiving and the prayer for rain. In fact, the prophet Zecharya made this very clear: “And whoever does not come… to Jerusalem ... upon them, there will be no rain.” The focus of the pilgrimage to Jerusalem and the joyous prayers there was the physical, agricultural – and therefore universal - aspect of Sukkot, the blessing for rain. This aspect of Sukkot surely can be fulfilled by Jews and non-Jews alike: It is pragmatic. In essence, it is a recognition of cause and effect. The nations of the world will have no trouble performing this type of service.
However, the other aspect of Sukkot, the building of the sukkah, what the Talmud called a “simple Mitzvah,” is what the non-Jewish, and certainly the pagan religious experience, finds so foreign. Here there is no pragmatism, only trust, faith -- and love.
Go and cry in the ears of Jerusalem, saying, ‘Thus says God, I remember in your favor the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, when you followed me into the wilderness, into land that was not sown.’ (Yirmiyahu 2:2)
The sukkah is testimony to that love. Simply being “with God,” quite literally leaving our “comfort zone,” stepping away from our physical existence, even if only to a small degree, is a concept that is foreign to the pagan mindset. Pagan practice centers around commandments that are far more “difficult” to fulfill - commandments that involve sacrificing something precious in order to find favor with the gods. Conversely, the Talmudic passage with which we began reports that God offers them “a simple mitzvah,” an “easy mitzvah.” God asks for no sacrifice, no pain, no price to be paid. To the pagan mind, this type of commandment is bewildering: What is a God who asks for nothing?
This same Talmudic passage points out the contrast between the Jewish and non-Jewish mindset:
But does not Rabba say whoever is uncomfortable is freed of the obligation of sukkah? (Talmud Bavli, Avoda Zara 3b)
A fundamental principle in the laws of sukkah is that anyone who is extremely uncomfortable in the sukkah is exempt; therefore, the non-Jews who find themselves in a hot sukkah are, technically, exempt from sitting in it. This is even more perplexing for the pagan mind: If a god asks for something difficult, are you exempt? The response of the non-Jews is to kick down the sukkah, as if to say, “Enough is enough. How can man be expected to relate to such a deity?”
This aspect of the festival is a uniquely Jewish experience: When we sit in the sukkah, we are living with God, remembering the days of our youth when we followed God like a lovesick bride - unquestioning, accepting, trusting. This aspect of Sukkot cannot be enjoyed by the non-Jews who will, in Messianic times, seek equal treatment; they did not take that leap of faith. They did not make that unconditional commitment. They did not build or maintain that unique relationship; therefore, they are spiritually incapable of enjoying the sukkah, which is the physical manifestation of that relationship. To our great joy and pleasure, we are invited to enjoy this unique and exclusive relationship with God each year, on the occasion of Sukkot.
This essay is an excerpt from my book Emanations
Rashi: To bring forgiveness for them (the 70 nations), so that rain shall fall all over the world.