Sukkot (Leviticus 22:26-23:44 )
While the overwhelming majority of the Torah is made up of either narrative or law, a small percentage of the Torah is poetry or song. One such poetic section is found in the penultimate parsha, Ha'azinu: As Moshe prepares to take leave of his beloved nation, he breaks into song. And although the form of Moshe's words to the nation may be less than typical, certain elements of the content of this parsha are quite familiar, continuing themes that recur throughout the Torah, and in the Book of Devarim in particular: Moshe gives a very frank accounting of the shortcomings of the Children of Israel, and tries to inspire them to follow the Word of God. He then offers a more personal insight: As Moshe stands with the people at the verge of the Land of Israel, from which he is personally barred, he allows his flock, and all of the future generations of the nation, a glimpse into his inner thoughts. Despite what others may perceive as an unjust punishment, an overly strict punishment, Moshe declares:
He is the Rock, his work is perfect; for all his ways are justice; a faithful God without wrong, just and right is He. (Deuteronomy 32:4)
This, from the mouth of a man who has given his entire life in service of one goal, only to denied the enjoyment of seeing it come to fruition!
Moshe then turns his attention to the larger picture. He addresses the nation as a whole, and its place among the family of nations. Whereas the Book of Deuteronomy does not lack repeated warnings against idolatry and the dangers presented by the undue familiarity with the surrounding cultures, Parshat Ha'azinu offers a somewhat unique perspective. Here, Moshe compares and contrasts the Jews with the other nations of the world, and the lessons we learn from this comparison are fascinating. First, Moshe teaches of an intrinsic relationship between the Jewish nation and the other nations of the world:
When the Most High divided to the nations their inheritance, when he set apart the sons of Adam, he set the bounds of the people according to the number of the people of Israel. (Deuteronomy 32:8)
This verse hearkens back to the Book of Bereishit. After the flood, in the aftermath of the Tower of Babel debacle, seventy descendents of Noach were dispersed throughout the world, divided into distinct nations, each with a distinct language and culture; these seventy nations spread and multiplied, and populated the world.1 According to Jewish tradition, these seventy nations represent the totality of human civilization. Thus, when the Torah commands that seventy offerings are to be brought in the Temple on the Festival of Sukkot (Tabernacles), the Talmud explains that these offerings are brought on behalf of the seventy nations of the world, representing a universal gesture on the part of the Jewish people.2
This is Rashi's frame of reference when elucidating the verse in Ha'azinu:
When the nations of the world rebelled against God, destruction could have been the punishment, instead God dispersed the nations and created borders (and therefore separate) regimes, and did not destroy them.
Moshe places the Jewish People within the family on nations, but goes on to pinpoint Israel's unique position within that larger context:
For the number of the Children of Israel who would descend in the future from Shem, and the seventy souls of the Children of Israel who went down to Egypt, He created borders of nations of seventy languages. (Rashi Deuteronomy 32:8)
Rashi points out a parallel which might otherwise have been overlooked: When the children of Yaakov went down to Egypt, the family numbered seventy people. This was the beginning of our particular nation, a unique entity within the family of nations.
And the sons of Yosef, who were born to him in Egypt, were two souls; all the souls of the House of Yaakov who came to Egypt were seventy. (Genesis 46:27)
The relationship goes far beyond a numerical coincidence or a scriptural oddity; apparently, the role to be fulfilled by the Jewish Nation, the destiny of the House of Yaakov, is somehow linked to the seventy nations. This is an underlying principle, which Rashi emphasizes in his brief comments on our verse: God's relationship with the Jewish People is two-tiered. On the one hand, the Children of Israel enjoy a unique, exclusive relationship with God:
For God's portion is His People; Yaakov is the khevel (see the discussion below for a definition of this word) of his inheritance. (Deuteronomy 32:9)
The Nation of Israel, uniquely, is called "God's inheritance". On the other hand, the Jews are members of the larger community - and not merely members, but members whose mandate is to repair the damage caused by the other members, to uplift and purify what the other nations corrupted.
The word khevel has several different meanings. Based on the context of this verse, and in light of the verse immediately preceding this one which discussed borders, the word khevel here would mean portion, lot, or parcel of land. Yet Rashi chooses an alternate definition of this word, which is seemingly disconnected from the context.
Why all this? Because His share was hidden among them and destined to emerge. And who is His share? His People. And who is His People? Yaakov, the khevel of his possession. And he (Yaakov) is the third of the Patriarchs who is tripled with three merits: the merit of his father's father, the merit of his father, and his own merit. There you have three, like this rope which is made of three strands. Rashi D'varim 32:9
In this verse, Rashi renders the word khevel as 'rope': a rope formed by three strands, whose combined strength is not easily broken.3 This definition of the khevel forces us to leave behind the earthly sphere, parcels of land or inheritance. Rashi prefers a more spiritual meaning, perhaps taking his cues from the poetic framework. With this definition of khevel, our three Patriarchs, Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov are drawn into the verse: The merger of the attributes of our Three Forefathers creates a spiritual bond between the Jewish People with God. Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov are each one strand of the spiritual rope that connects us to God.
The idea appears in the Midrash, in a very significant context:
AND HE DREAMED, AND BEHOLD A LADDER...Shalmoni said in the name of Resh Lakish: He showed him a throne of three legs. R. Joshua of Siknin said in R. Levi's name: [God said to Yaakov]: You are the third leg.’ That, indeed, is the view of R. Joshua (quoted) in R. Levi's name, who said: 'For God's portion is His People; Yaakov is the khevel of his inheritance.' (D'varim 32:9): as a cord cannot be woven of less than three strands [so there were not less than three Patriarchs]. (Bereishit Rabba 68:12)
The image of the three-corded rope is paralleled by the image of the three-legged throne: Our spiritual stability, the durability of our relationship with God, is impossible without the combined strengths of our three Forefathers. Yaakov's vision of the ladder is a vision the ongoing relationship with God, the possibility of dialogue with the Almighty - a dialogue made possible by the combination of spiritual qualities contributed by each of the Forefathers to the "spiritual DNA" of the Jewish People. Elsewhere, the Midrash expresses a similar idea, using different imagery: The Forefathers are depicted as a merkava (chariot), a spiritual conduit to heaven.
And God went up from him: R. Simeon b. Lakish said: The Patriarchs are [God's] chariot, for it says, "And God went up from upon Avraham" (Bereishit 17, 22); "And God went up from upon him". (Bereishit Rabba 82:6)
While we might lose ourselves in the wealth of images and visions, Rabbi Avraham Ben Ya'akov in his Tz'ror Hamor helps us to understand that in fact, all of these Midrashic sources refer to the same idea, the same power to which Rashi alludes when he defines khevel in this particular way: The rope in Ha'azinu which describes our unique relationship with God is the same rope of which Yaakov's ladder is made, and the images of the three-legged throne and the chariot describe this same phenomenon:4 God's love for our three Patriarchs. The ladder, poised between heaven and earth; the fiery merkava which enables mortal man to grasp some measure of the spiritual world beyond; the image of the Throne of Glory - all are manifestations of God's love for His People, and it is this love that enables man to relate to and reach heaven. The Tzror Hamor quotes an additional verse that brings these images into focus:
I swaddle them and draw them to me with human cords, with bands of love; and I am to them like a parent who lifts up an infant and holds him to the breast and patiently feeds him. (Hoshea 11:4)
It is precisely in this context that the Tzror HaMor places the Mishkan: It is because of God's love for the Jewish People that He gives us the opportunity to build a conduit, to build a ladder with its base on the ground that reaches up to heaven. Where some commentaries see an expression of human failing, and believe the Mishkan to be a corrective response to the sin of the Golden Calf,5 the Tzror Hamor sees an affirmation of the unique bond between God and the Children of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov: Despite the enormity of their sin, the connection between the Jews and God is not severed. This connection is stronger than their sin; like a three-corded rope, the relationship is multifaceted, deeper and richer than it may appear at any given moment in history, because it is made up of the combined strands of spiritual greatness of our three Forefathers. The love between God and Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov is the source of our relationship with God, the reason God allows us to approach Him, to come ever closer to Him. This love is symbolized, in Bereishit, by the ladder of Yaakov's vision, in the visions of the Prophets by the Chariot and the Throne, and in Moshe's farewell song of love - by the image of the khevel that connects God and His People.
The Mishkan and later the Beit HaMikdash were designed as ongoing, permanent expressions of this unique bond between God and the Jewish People. When we remind ourselves of the events leading up to the construction of the Mishkan, this becomes more clear: At the climactic moment of our spiritual redemption, as Moshe receives the Torah from God, the Jewish People commit an unthinkable transgression against God. The Tablets of the Covenant are smashed at the foot of Mount Sinai, and it appears that all is lost. Yet God invites Moshe to ascend the mountain again, on the 1st of Elul. Forty days later, on a day of forgiveness, a day of love, the people are given a new set of Tablets. This day would come to be known throughout history as Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, for on that particular day the Jews were forgiven for their outrageous sin - the Golden Calf. And immediately after Moshe descends with the Second Tablets, the Jewish People are given the commandment to build the Mishkan - a physical manifestation of the unique, eternal relationship, an apparatus to facilitate closeness with God.
The Vilna Gaon connects the Festival of Sukkot to these same elements - the sin of the Golden Calf, Yom Kippur, the building of the Mishkan - and the special love that God has for the Jewish People. Specifically, the Vilna Gaon addresses a question raised by many of our Sages: Why is Sukkot celebrated in the fall?6 It is universally accepted that Sukkot commemorates and gives thanks for the way God protected the Israelites when they left Egypt and travelled in the desert - spiritual protection with Clouds of Glory, or physical shelter, huts or booths.7 Why not celebrate this holiday during the time of year in which it transpired - like the Exodus itself, in the spring? The Vilna Gaon explains that the protection of the Clouds of Glory was cancelled when the Israelites sinned with the Golden Calf. The clouds symbolized the relationship between God and His People, and when they turned their backs to God and worshipped the Golden Calf the clouds dissipated. When the people actively sought out God and began building the Mishkan, enthusiastically reconstructing their relationship and taking advantage of the opportunity to come close to God, reaching up to take the hand God lovingly extended to them, the Clouds returned. This is what we celebrate on Sukkot - not the clouds themselves, which accompanied us from the start of the Exodus in the month of Nisan, but the return of the Clouds of Glory that began after Yom Kippur. We celebrate the healing of the relationship that had become fractured,8 and rejoice in the knowledge that God's love for the Jewish People remains.9
This idea is expressed in the custom of starting to build the sukka immediately after the completion of the Yom Kippur fast.10 The Maharil,11 who cites this custom, explains: God displays his continued love for us by granting us forgiveness, and we immediately reciprocate by building the sukka - a symbolic representation12 of the Mishkan/Beit HaMikdash.13 Love does not remain unrequited; the gestures of love are mutual. The ties between God and the Jewish People are bonds of love, and they are mutual: In Moshe's words, "God's portion is His People; Yaakov is the khevel of His inheritance."
Sukkot, then, is a celebration of a unique, loving relationship that is founded on the love between God and our three Forefathers. How appropriate, then, that we invite our Forefathers into the sukkah. The tradition known as ushpizin, spiritual guests whom we invoke as we sit in the sukkah, connects us back to the wellsprings of our unique relationship with God.15
From this perspective, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur prepare us for the Festival of Sukkot: in order to be worthy of this unique relationship with God, in order to be worthy to sit in the sukkah and enjoy our special closeness with Him, we concentrate, on Rosh Hashanah, on the universal truth of God's kingship over all of Creation. The realization and acceptance of God's sole dominion over everything enables us to seek His forgiveness on Yom Kippur. And when He grants forgiveness, in an act of love for which we are unworthy as individuals but for which we merit because of our Forefathers, we reach the ultimate stage - Sukkot. We enter the sukkah; we are enveloped by God's love.16 Once again, we delight in heavenly protection. We leave our physical homes and return to our spiritual home - the sukkah, our own small Mishkan. The seventy offerings brought on Sukkot express our prayer that all of the seventy nations will find their way home as well.
1. See Bereishit 10:32.
2. See Talmud Bavli Sukkah 55b: "R. Eleazar stated, To what do those seventy bullocks [that were offered during the seven days of the Festival] correspond? To the seventy nations."
3. See Kohelet 4:12.
4. Rav Abraham ben Rav Jacob Saba was born in Castile, Spain, ca. 1440 -1508 commentary Deuteronomy chapter 10.
5. See Rashi Sh'mot 31:18.
6. See Tur Shulchan Uruch Aruch Hayim section 625.
7. See Talmud Bavli Sukka 11b, in other rabbinic sources the opinions are inverted.
8. See Kol Eliyahu Vayikra 23:43. This idea can be found in a much earlier source, Derashot of R. Joshua Ibn Shu'ib (1280-1340) in his drasha for the first day of Sukkot.
9. See the Meshech Chochma Sh'mot 23:16, for a remarkable implication of this teaching.
10. See Rama Shulchan Uruch Aruch Hayim section 624, and 625.
11. See Rabbi Jacob ben Moses Moellin Liquity Maharil Sukkot.
12. With an elegant touch the Maharil cites the practice of his teacher to mark the various walls of the sukka, the Shla Hakodesh explained the practice -for the holiness of the east is unlike the holiness of the west - just like the walls of the mishkan. See Rabbi Jacob ben Moses Moellin Minhagim Maharil Sukkot, Rabbi Yeshayahu Horowitz Sheni Luchot Habrit Sukka mitzva daled.<
13. As indicated in the verse in Amos 9:11: In that day I will raise up the sukkah of David that is fallen, and repair its breaches; and I will raise up his ruins, and I will rebuild it as in the days of old.
14. The Zohar reports that when the celestial guests are invited Rav Hamnuna would break out in joy and say "He would then raise his hands in joy and say, Happy is our portion, happy is the portion of Israel, as it is written, For the God's portion is his people; Jacob is the lot (rope) of his inheritance. D'varim 32:9". See Zohar Vayikra 103b: YE SHALL DWELL IN BOOTHS.The word succoth (booths) is written without a vav, to show that there is one cloud to which all the others are linked. R. Eleazar cited here the verse: Thus saith the Lord, I remember for thee the kindness of thy youth, etc. (Jer. II, 2). This verse, he said, refers to the Community of Israel at the time when She went in the wilderness with Israel. The kindness (hesed) is the cloud of Aaron which carried along with it five others which were linked with thee and shone for thee. "The love of thine espousals: when they adorned and perfected thee like a bird. And all this for what? That thou mightest go after me in the wilderness, in a land not sown. Observe that when a man sits in this abode of the shadow of faith, the Shechinah spreads her wings over him from above and Abraham and five other righteous ones make their abode with him. R. Abba said: Abraham and five righteous ones and David with them. Hence it is written, In booths ye shall dwell seven days, as much as to say, Ye seven days shall dwell in booths, and a man should rejoice each day of the festival with these guests who abide with him. R. Abba further pointed out that first it says "ye shall dwell and then they shall dwell. The first refers to the guests, and therefore Rab Hamnuna the Elder, when he entered the booth, used to stand at the door inside and say, Let us invite the guests and prepare a table, and he used to stand up and greet them, saying, In booths ye shall dwell, O seven days. Sit, most exalted guests, sit; sit, guests of faith, sit. He would then raise his hands in joy and say, Happy is our portion, happy is the portion of Israel, as it is written, For the portion of the Lord is his people, and then he took his seat. The second dwell refers to human beings; for he who has a portion in the holy land and people sits in the shadow of faith to receive the guests so as to rejoice in this world and the next. He must also gladden the poor, because the portion of those guests whom he invites must go to the poor. And if a man sits in the shadow of faith and invites these guests and does not give them their portion, they all hold aloof from him, saying Eat thou not the bread of him that hath an evil eye (Prov. 23:6). That table which he prepares is his own and not God's. Alas for him when those guests leave his table. R. Abba further said: Abraham always used to stand at the cross roads to invite guests to his table.
15. See Rav Zadduk Hakohen in Pri Zaddik Devarim Chag Sukkot section 7.
16. See Rabbi Jacob ben Moses Moellin Likutei Maharil Sukkot.