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Sukkot: The Dual Festival

October 10, 2016 | by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

An in-depth exploration of Sukkot and its focus on Jewish particularity and universality.

Adapted from “Season of Joy”, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ introduction to The Gross Family Edition of the Koren Sacks Sukkot Mahzor.

The defeat of the southern kingdom by the Babylonians in the sixth century BCE was the deepest, most defining trauma of the biblical age. We can still feel the overpowering grief of the book of Lamentations, its raw pain undiminished by the intervening millennia, as the prophet sees the defeat of his people and the ruins of the Temple. We can still hear the despair of the exiles who, “by the waters of Babylon,” sat and wept as they remembered Zion. Yet, as the two great prophets of exile, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, had promised, the people did return. The Babylonian empire was defeated by a newer superpower, Persia, under whose enlightened leader, Cyrus, Jews were given permission to return.

The situation they found in the Holy Land was devastating. The people had lost almost all contact with their religious heritage. As Nehemiah later wrote, they no longer observed the Sabbath. They had intermarried with neighboring people. They no longer knew how to speak Hebrew: “Half of their children spoke the language of Ashdod, or they spoke the language of one of the other nations” (Neh. 13:24). Work had begun on rebuilding the Temple, but it hit a series of difficulties, and the returning exiles turned instead to rebuilding their homes and farms. The unfinished Temple was a visual reminder of Israel’s broken state, politically, culturally and religiously.

One prophet who undertook the task of kindling a spark of hope from the dying embers of national identity was Zechariah. His message, astonishing in the circumstances, was that despite its forlorn state, the people of the covenant would revive, and then inspire not only themselves, but the world. The day would come when “Ten people from all languages and nations will take firm hold of one Jew by the hem of his robe and say, ‘Let us go with you, because we have heard that God is with you’” (Zech. 8:23). Zechariah also gave expression to one of the briefest and best summaries ever given of Jewish history: “‘Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit,’ says the Lord Almighty” (4:6).

All the prophets had foreseen that the nation would be punished for its sins but would eventually return to God. Beginning with Ezekiel in exile in Babylon, prophecy now took on a darker complexion, as if the road from here to the Messianic Age could no longer pass through the normal processes of history. Israel’s glory would be restored, but this would happen only through Divine intervention into the human script, shaking the foundations of the world. Eschatology, Aḥarit HaYamim, the vision of the End of Days, began to grow more disturbing.

Not only would Jerusalem be the capital of Israel, it would become the spiritual center of the world.

Zechariah was the first prophet to say that even after Jews returned to their land, this would not be the end of their troubles. The nations of the world would form an alliance and wage war against the Jewish people in Jerusalem. God Himself would be forced to intervene to defend His people and defeat their enemies. The earth would shake. God would crush the Mount of Olives and flatten the surrounding countryside. Mount Zion would tower alone, streams of waters issuing from it, and bringing fertility to the land. After these momentous events, the nations would come to acknowledge that there is only one God: “On that day the Lord will be king over all the earth: in that day He will be One and His name One” (14:9) – a verse now one of the best-known lines of Jewish prayer.

It was in the course of this prophecy that Zechariah made a unique prediction. Not only would Jerusalem be the capital of Israel, it would become the spiritual center of the world. The nations would gather there once a year on Sukkot:

Then the survivors from all the nations that have attacked Jerusalem will go up year after year to worship the King, the Lord Almighty, and to celebrate the Festival of Tabernacles. If any of the peoples of the earth do not go up to Jerusalem to worship the King, the Lord Almighty, they will have no rain. If the Egyptian people do not go up and take part, they will have no rain. The Lord will bring on them the plague He inflicts on the nations that do not go up to celebrate the Festival of Tabernacles. This will be the punishment of Egypt and the punishment of all the nations that do not go up to celebrate the Festival of Tabernacles. (14:16–19)

There is no other prophecy quite like this anywhere else in Tanakh: none that says that a Jewish festival will one day be global, observed by all the nations. The pilgrimage festivals were part of Israel’s unique heritage, not its universal truths. They are about Israel and its seasons, and about the formative moments of Jewish history: the exodus from Egypt, the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai and, in the case of Sukkot, the forty years of wandering in the desert without a permanent home. Zechariah was thus making an unprecedented assertion when he spoke of Sukkot as a festival not just for Israel but for everyone.

What led him to do so? There was one unusual feature of the Sukkot sacrifices that might have inspired this thought. Whereas in the case of the other seven-day festival, Pesaḥ, the offerings were the same each day, on Sukkot they were different. On the first day, thirteen young bulls were offered, on the second twelve, and so on until on the seventh day, when there were seven – making a total of seventy in all (Num. 29:12–34). Seventy in the Torah corresponds to the number of nations into which humanity was divided according to Genesis 10. The sages drew the conclusion that in making an offering of seventy young bulls on Sukkot, the Israelites were in effect sacrificing and praying on behalf of humanity as a whole (Sukka 55b.) Zechariah may thus have been inspired by an idea implicit in the Torah itself.

Sukkot is the most universalistic of the festivals and paradoxically the most particularist of festivals.

Hence the paradox: Sukkot is the most universalistic of the festivals, the only one that will one day be celebrated by all humanity. As Zechariah makes clear, this has to do with its association with rain, and there is nothing distinctively Jewish about the need for rain. All countries, especially in the Middle East, need it. At the same time it is also the most particularist of festivals. No other nation took as a symbol not a castle, a fortress or a triumphal arch, but a fragile tabernacle. No other nation was born, not in its land, but in the desert. Far from being universal, Sukkot seems intensely particularistic, the festival of a people like no other, whose only protection was its faith in the sheltering wings of the Divine Presence.

There are other unusual features of Sukkot. In the list of holy days in Deuteronomy 16, rejoicing is not mentioned in connection with Pesaḥ. It is mentioned once in connection with Shavuot, but twice in the context of Sukkot:

You shall rejoice [vesamaḥta] on your festival…. For seven days you shall celebrate a festival to the Lord your God at the place the Lord will choose. For the Lord your God will bless you in all your harvest and in all the work of your hands, and you shall be altogether joyful [vehayyita akh sameaḥ]. (Deut. 16:14–15)

It was this that led to the description of Sukkot as zeman simḥateinu, “the season of our joy.” But why a double joy?

Turning to the account of the festivals in Leviticus 23, we notice something else unusual about Sukkot. It is defined not in terms of one overriding symbol, but two. The first is the command to take the “four kinds” of fruit and foliage:

On the first day you shall take the fruit of the hadar tree, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days. (Lev. 23:40)

The second command is quite different:

You shall live in booths for seven days: all citizens in Israel shall live in booths so that future generations will know that I made the Israelites live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. (Lev. 23: 42–43)

It was this command – to leave our homes and live in a temporary dwelling – that gave the festival its name.

No other festival has this dual symbolism, and their juxtaposition is curious. Not only are the “four kinds” and the sukka different in character: in a sense they conflict with one another. The “four kinds” are associated with the land of Israel. The sukka is the opposite, a reminder of exodus, exile, the desert, and no-man’s-land. In practical terms also they conflicted. The four kinds were, as the sages said, symbols of and a mode of intercession for rain (Taanit 2b). Indeed the rabbis said that rainfall for the coming year was determined on the first day of Sukkot (Mishna, Rosh HaShana 1:2). But the command to live for seven days in a sukka with only leaves for a roof presupposes the absence of rain. If it rains on Sukkot, with the exception of the first night, we are exempt from the command for as long as the rain lasts, if it is heavy enough to spoil the food on the table (Mishna, Sukka 2:9).

All this conveys the impression that Sukkot represents two festivals, not one. In fact it does, and therein lies its uniqueness. Though the festivals are often listed together, they represent two quite different cycles of time. First is the annual cycle of the pilgrimage festivals: Pesaḥ, Shavuot and Sukkot. These tell the singular story of Jewish identity and history: the exodus, the revelation at Mount Sinai, and the long journey through the wilderness. Celebrating them, we re-enact what made Israel the particular people it is. The central section of the Amida prayer on these festivals begins with the classic statement of Jewish particularity: “You have chosen us from among all peoples.”

There is a second cycle – the festivals of the seventh month, Rosh HaShana, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot. Just as the seventh day, Shabbat, is zekher lema’aseh bereshit, a memorial of creation, so is the seventh month. Hayom harat olam, “Today the universe was born,” we say in our prayers on Rosh HaShana. When it comes to Creation, we are all created, and we are all accountable to our Creator, Jew and non-Jew alike. That is why the Mishna says that on Rosh HaShana, “All who have come into this world pass before Him like sheep” (Mishna, Rosh HaShana 1:2). All humanity is judged. The language of the prayers on the Days of Awe is markedly more universal than at other times. The central section of the Amida begins by speaking not about Israel, the chosen people, but about humankind as a whole: “And so place the fear of You… over all that You have made.” Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur are about the sovereignty of God over all the world. We reflect on the human, not just the Jewish, condition.

The two cycles reflect two quite different aspects of God as He relates to the world: as Creator and Redeemer.

The two cycles reflect two quite different aspects of God as He relates to the world: as Creator and Redeemer. As Creator we relate to God through nature. As Redeemer we relate to God through history. As Creator, God is universal. We are all in God’s image, formed in His likeness. We share a covenant of human solidarity, made by God with Noah and through him all humankind after the Flood. We are fellow citizens of the world under the sovereignty of God. As Redeemer, however, God is particularistic. Whatever His relationship with other nations (and He has a relationship with other nations: so the prophets insist), Jews know Him through His saving acts in Israel’s past: the exodus, the revelation and the journey to the Promised Land.

It is now obvious what makes Sukkot unique. It is the only festival that is part of both cycles. It belongs to the yearly cycle of Jewish history – Pesaḥ, Shavuot and Sukkot – the year that begins in Nisan, the month of the exodus in which Jewish national history began. But it also belongs to the seventh-month cycle that represents creation and nature: Rosh HaShana, Yom Kippur and Sukkot. The year of nature begins on Rosh HaShana, the anniversary of creation itself. Hence the double joy, and the twofold symbolism.

The “four kinds” represent what is universal about Sukkot. They are about nature. They are the only time we do a mitzva with natural objects: a lulav, etrog, and myrtle and willow leaves. They are about humanity’s dependence on nature, and nature’s need for rain. That is why Zechariah foresaw that when all nations acknowledged God, they would come together in the seventh month to pray for rain on Sukkot. The sukka, by contrast, has nothing to do with rain. It has to do with history and what makes Jewish history unique. We have undergone repeated experiences of exile. Too often Jews have known that where they are is only a temporary dwelling. Jewish history has often been a long journey across the wilderness of time.

Something else about Sukkot, in this case common to both the “four kinds” and the sukka, also points to this duality. The “four kinds” are unprocessed products of nature. The covering of the sukka must also be made of materials that were once growing and are now detached but not yet turned into crafted objects of a kind capable of contracting tuma, impurity. Both the “four kinds” and the sukka covering represent the boundary between nature and culture, what Levi-Strauss called the “raw” and the “cooked.” Nature is universal. Culture is not. Once again we feel the tension between our common humanity and our religious specificity, between what makes us the same and what makes us different.

Our differences shape our identity. Our commonalities form our humanity.

More than any other festival, Sukkot represents the dual character of Jewish faith. We believe in the universality of God, together with the particularity of Jewish history and identity. All nations need rain. We are all part of nature. We are all dependent on the complex ecology of the created world. We are all threatened by climate change, global warming, the destruction of rain forests, the overexploitation of non-renewable energy sources, and the mass extinction of species. But each nation is different. As Jews we are heirs to a history unlike that of any other people: small, vulnerable, suffering repeated exile and defeat, yet surviving and celebrating.

Sukkot thus represents the tension at the heart of Judaism in a way not shared by any other faith. The God of Israel is the God of all humanity. But the religion of Israel is not, and will not be, the religion of all humanity. Even in the Messianic Age, Zechariah tells us, the nations will celebrate only Sukkot together with Israel, not the other festivals – despite the fact that on that day God will be One and His name One.

This is one of the most important truths Judaism offers the world: Humanity is formed out of our commonalities and differences. Our differences shape our identity. Our commonalities form our humanity. We are neither completely different, nor all the same. If we were completely different, we could not communicate. If we were all alike, we would have nothing to say. Our differences matter. But so too does the truth that despite our religious differences, we share a common humanity. Sukkot is thus the festival of a double joy: at being part of this people, yet also participating in the universal fate of humankind.

The Gross Family Edition of the Koren Sacks Sukkot Mahzor completes the entire Koren Sacks Mahzor series. It is available in Standard and Compact sizes online and at local Jewish bookstores.

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