LTTN med xp logoHoliday Lessons:
The Festival of Sukkot (Tabernacles)

by Rabbi Chaim Richman

1996 Light to the Nations, Rabbi Chaim Richman - All Rights Reserved
Reprinted from The Restoration newsletter, September, 1996 (Tishrei, 5757)

Each of the three major festivals, the sacred seasons sanctified by the G-d of Israel, has a designation by which it is known in the texts of Jewish liturgy and tradition. Passover, commemorating the Exodus from Egypt, is known as “the time of our freedom;” this is the holiday of national emancipation. Shavuot, the anniversary of the Sinai Revelation, is “the time of the giving of our Torah.” These holidays, wherein the entire nation makes the pilgrimage up to Jerusalem and the Holy Temple, each possess a special quality. At the same time, each one presents its own timely challenge as well.

Biblical Verses - Lev. 23:33–44

“And the L-rd spoke to Moses saying: Speak to the Children of Israel and tell them, the 15th day of this seventh month shall be the Festival of Sukkot — seven days for the L-rd…for seven days, you shall present a burnt offering to the L-rd…”

“On the first day, you shall take for yourself a fruit of the citron tree (Hebrew: etrog), a palm frond (lulav), myrtle branches (hadas) and willows (aravah). You shall rejoice before the L-rd your G-d for seven days. During these seven days each year, you shall celebrate to G-d. It is an eternal law for all generations that you celebrate in the seventh month.”

“During these seven days you must live in thatched huts; all Israelites must live in thatched huts. This is so that your future generations will know that I caused Israel to live in huts when I brought them out of Egypt. I am the L-rd your G-d.”

Background: The Time of our Joy

Our sages declared: “All seven days of the festival, each one should turn the hut into his permanent residence, and his house into the temporary one” (Sukkah 2, 9).

It is most apropos that the Festival of Sukkot is referred to as “the time of our joy.” For although it is marked by the observance of special, highly visible commandments such as the “four species” (mentioned in the Biblical verses quoted above); and while on a superficial level, it commemorates a specific period and event in Jewish history—the huts in which the Jews lived after they left Egypt—nonetheless, the central theme of this season is the pure joy of having a relationship with the Creator. As King David stated, this is the epitome of true happiness—and true religious experience.

Now, some of our sages have stated that those original “huts” of that generation were actually G-d’s Clouds of Glory, which He spread over Israel in His protection and Divine grace (BT Sukkah 11:B; Rashi). Whether or not this statement is taken literally is irrelevant—for what it symbolizes is a concept which not only personifies the very essence of this holiday, but the essence of Israel’s faith as well.

Israel’s calendar—G-d’s calendar of sacred seasons—is a Divine plan; a schedule whereby man is given the capability of plugging into a network of vast Heavenly resources. Each festival arrives just in time; each in its respective season. As these seasons change, just at the time when man needs to find a way of renewing himself, his belief, and his spiritual strengths, the festival knocks upon his door… “the voice of my beloved knocks” (Song of Songs 5:4). The unique observances and commandments associated with each festival are the vessels which hold the radiance of Godly light; they are the tools, tailor-made to fit the needs of each season by the Tailor who created man and knows exactly what he lacks.

What is the Source of this Great Joy at Sukkot?

We can find no better illustration for this than the unique festival of Sukkot. For the booths in which Israel live during these days symbolize her rock-steady, unshakable faith in the One G-d of Israel. Just in the fall, as the days are getting shorter and colder, most people are coming indoors. It is no longer pleasurable to sit outside as it was in the summer. But this is just when “every citizen in Israel” moves from the comforts and security of home, and takes up residence in temporary dwellings, thanking G-d for the harvest in this season and recalling His constant, enveloping presence. This knowledge is true joy! Unconcerned with sunshine or warm weather, these temporary dwellings do not appear to be “secure” in the physical sense…they may shake a little in the wind; their roofs are but thatches, open to the stars. But yet Israel sits within, unmoved and unaffected by what may be mistakenly perceived as a hostile world—for like the booth, this world is temporary, and we are but temporary dwellers within her. But just as we are surrounded by the walls of this hut, so we are surrounded by the constant, protective presence of G-d Himself. The winds may shake and the elements may confront us, but the shadow of the sukkah is the shadow of the Divine Presence.

“Escaping into the Sukkah”

Herein lies the exquisite precision of G-d’s calendar, answering the need of every human emotion by providing strength, encouragement and opportunities to connect with the Divine. For this great time of year follows just 4 days after Yom Kippur, the time of awesome reckoning and the dispensal of justice. And lest one feel dejected, despondent or fearful that perhaps his judgment was not favorable, and he has lost that Divine connection—immediately after the Day of Atonement he is given bundles of commandments to fulfill, the construction of the booth and the preparation of the 4 species. Then he goes out into the booth itself, symbol of Divine mercy; instead of running away from the Holy One he flees directly into His presence, as it were. There, he overwhelmed by the realization of the depth of G-d’s love and concern. Commenting on the juxtaposition of these holidays and the great Divine wisdom which plans for every human contingency, King Solomon was moved to write (Ecc. 9:7) “Go your way, eat your bread with joy and drink your wine with a glad heart, for G-d has already accepted your works.”

Sukkot: A Unique Connection to the Gentiles

Of all the sacred seasons that God commanded Israel to observe, the festival of Tabernacles has the strongest implications for the nations of the world. Even today, vast numbers of Gentiles identify with the holiday of Sukkot, and converge on Jerusalem just to be in the holy city at this time of year. It is as if their heartstrings are pulled by some invisible magnet, the source of which they know not. Some force draws them to connect between Sukkot and the location of the Holy Temple.

In the Written Torah and the Oral Tradition

This is well understood, for it is a connection emphasized by both the written Scriptures and the Oral Tradition. The relationship between the nations and the holiday of Sukkot dates back to ancient times, and arcs through our own period as well…to form a bridge into that future, rectified world that we all yearn and long for, Jew and Gentile alike—the day when “the L-rd and His name will be One” (Zechariah 14:9).

The Sacrifice of Seventy Bulls

During Sukkot in the time of the Holy Temple, a unique sacrifice was offered on the altar—with a unique intention.

In chapter 29 of the book of Numbers, the Bible outlines the sacrifices which are to be offered over the span of the holiday. Counting the number of bulls which are offered over the seven day period, we find that the total number was seventy. And in chapter 10 of the book of Genesis, there are seventy nations mentioned. These are the primordial nations, sometimes referred to as the “seventy languages,” which represent all humanity. The Talmud (BT Sukkah 55:B) teaches that the seventy bulls that were offered in the Holy Temple served as an atonement for the seventy nations of the world. Truly, as the rabbis observed, “if the nations of the world had only known how much they needed the Temple, they would have surrounded it with armed fortresses to protect it” (Bamidbar Rabbah 1, 3).

Here we can already sense that inherent within the very nature of the holiday, an inexorable bond—as expressed through its sacrificial requirements—links it to the earth’s peoples. Sukkot was mandated by the Creator Himself to be a holiday for all the world.

Prophecies of the End of Days

The haftorah, the section of the prophets read in the synagogue on the first day of the festival, comes from the 14th chapter of the book of Zechariah. This prophecy deals with the end of days, when the nations of the world will all gather together to do battle against Jerusalem. At the culmination of this, the Lord will be King over all the earth.

Before continuing, it would be most beneficial for the reader to study the entire chapter in the book of Zechariah. Here is a brief scan at some of the key verses:

“Behold, a day of G-d is coming, when your spoils will be divided in your midst. For I will gather all nations to do battle against Jerusalem…

Then G-d will go forth, and fight against those nations…

On that day, His feet will stand on the Mount of Olives…

On that day there will be neither bright light, nor thick darkness,

But it will be one continuous day known as G-d’s…

G-d will be King over all the earth; on that day G-d will be One and His name One.

All the land will become a plain…but Jerusalem will remain elevated on its site…

Men will dwell in it…Jerusalem will dwell in security.”

This prophecy contains elements of a theme which recurs many times throughout the Bible: the idea that not everyone will merit to survive the awesome judgment of the end of days, but only a remnant—both of Israel and of the nations. Here, the prophet tells us that all the nations (the UN, many people wonder?) will gather together to wage war against Jerusalem.

He goes on to tell us that G-d will smite all those who stood against Jerusalem with a horrible plague; He will cause a great confusion to fall on them. But of those who have survived this time, the prophet has this to say:

“Then every one who remains of all the nations which came up against Jerusalem will go up each year to worship the King, the L-rd of Hosts, and to keep the Festival of Sukkot. But if any of the nations of the earth does not come up to Jerusalem to worship the King, the L-rd of Hosts, there will be no rain upon it. If the family of Egypt does not go up and enter, there will be no rain on them; there will be the plague with which G-d will smite the nations that do not come up to keep the Festival of Sukkot. This will be Egypt’s punishment, and the punishment of all the nations that do not come up to keep the Festival of Sukkot.”

Thus we see that the mark of separation, that which will distinguish those who remain after that awesome battle, is the single fact that they will celebrate the holiday of Sukkot. And a stern warning is issued to those who do not observe it.

The Final Judgment and Sukkot

A similar thought is echoed by the Oral Tradition. The Talmud (BT Avoda Zara 3) relates that in the end of days, all the nations of the world will express a desire to repent, and G-d will judge them through the commandment of building a sukkah…He will give this single commandment to the entire world to fulfill.

The question which remains is, who will be motivated to fulfill it? Who will join forces with the Jewish people in sanctifying G-d in this world through His commandments?