Torah Commentary for Shabbat Chol Hamoed Sukkot

18 Sep

This week’s Torah reading seems to come a week too late. The story of Moses pleading with God to have mercy on the Israelites for the grave sin of the Golden Calf, and God relenting in His punishment seems to be a much better fit for Shabbat Shuvah, the Shabbat between before Yom Kippur. In fact, a significant amount of the text of the Yom Kippur service is drawn from Exodus 34:5-7, including the Thirteen Attributes which we invoke when we pray for Divine mercy. Now that the High Holy Day season is over, shouldn’t we be moving on to other subjects? While this is the reading for Shabbat Chol Hamoed of both Sukkot and Passover, Sukkot is mentioned only once, and only as a harvest holiday, rather than having any of its associated mitzvot mentioned. Why, then, is this portion about an accepted plea for Divine mercy read now, on Sukkot?

The first Mishnah in chapter three of tractate Sukkah starts: “A lulav that has been stolen or is dried out is invalid (to perform the mitzvah with),” and an identical statement is made about the etrog in 3:5. 3:6 lists all of the different blemishes that also invalidate an etrog.

The first of these restrictions, the restriction against using a stolen lulav or etrog, seems obvious, but the Rabbis wanted to make certain that no one would think that it was okay to steal for the purposes of performing a mitzvah. Especially after Yom Kippur, the Rabbis feared that one’s desire to perform the mitzvah of waving the lulav and etrog might be so great that it would drive him to steal a lulav or etrog if he could not afford one. For this purpose, the Rabbis codified the Halachic dictum that a mitzvah brought about through a transgression is unacceptable.

The source for this is Malachai 1:13, where the prophet declares God’s rejection the people’s offerings because they are bringing sacrifices that are either stolen or sick or lame. That the people would offer the worst of their flock to God, or would steal someone else’s animal to offer to God so that they do not have to give up any of their own property shows rejection of God. The people are willing to go through the ritual motions, but they are not willing to make a true sacrifice, not willing to give up something valuable for God. Just as a stolen lulav or etrog is invalid for performing the mitzvah, so too, is a dry lulav or etrog or a blemished or discolored etrog invalid for performing the mitzvah, because they are like the old, lame, sick, or blemished offerings which God rejects.

Malachai 1:6-14, and this verse in particular, has a very similar message to Isaiah 58:1-5, which is read as part of the haftarah on Yom Kippur. It is not enough to go through the ritual motions. If you do not cease to act wickedly, God will reject your prayers and you will not be forgiven.

One originally Kabalistic tradition that has been adopted by the rest of Judaism is that although Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement and the end of the Ten Days of Repentance, the last day on which one can change his or her judgment for the year is Hoshana Rabah, the last day of Sukkot. This week’s Torah reading, the laws of the lulav and etrog, the humility we show by living in a sukkah and forgoing to the protection of our houses to expose ourselves to the elements of nature which God commands are all a reminder to us that while the High Holy Days may have passed, we must now focus on ensuring that our words on Yom Kippur do not become the empty ritual that Malachai and Isaiah spoke out against. Now is the time when we must start proving ourselves worthy of Divine mercy that God shows us on Yom Kippur; the same mercy that he showed our ancestors in this week’s Torah reading.

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