Commentary for Shabbat Chol Hamo’ed Sukkot

12 Oct

This week’s parshah, the special reading for whenever Shabbat falls on Chol Hamo’ed (the intermediary days of Sukkot and Passover), seems to have very little connection to Sukkot. It tells the story of the aftermath of the sin of the Golden Calf, wherein Moses pleads with God to spare the Israelites despite their transgression, and God does so, then commands Moses to carve new tablets to replace the originals (which Moses had thrown down in anger upon seeing the people worship the Golden Calf), to serve as a symbol of the reforging of the covenant between God and the Jewish People. Sukkot is only mentioned in passing, first in 34:22, and then again in the next verse as one of the three pilgrimage festivals. Passover, the other holiday where this parshah is read, is mentioned several times, and some of its laws are laid out. Even the remaining pilgrimage festival, Shavuot, on which this parshah is not even read, gets more attention to paid to it than Sukkot does, as one of its important mitzvot, the bringing of the first fruits to the Temple, is noted. Sukkot, though, is only mentioned in passing, and none of its unique commandments are mentioned.

One of these commandments that are not mentioned by this week’s parshah is the mitzvah of eating in a sukkah. Because we are fulfilling a mitzvah, we try to make our meals on the sukkah more joyous and festive than any regular old meal would be. One of the ways that we do this is by inviting guests to eat with us in our sukkah, so we invite our friends and family to celebrate the holiday with us, and we perform the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim (welcoming guests).

In addition to our flesh-and-blood guests, there is also the custom to welcome spiritual guests into our sukkah. These seven great heroes of our past, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, and David, collectively know as the ushpizin, are welcomed into our sukkah each night of the holiday, with each taking a night to be the special guest of honor. This custom is first mentioned in the Zohar (103b-104a), which also tells us that the portion of food that would be reserved for the guest of honor should be given to the poor. Abba Shaul teaches that we can glorify God by acting as God does. Just as God as God takes care of the poor, so should we take care of the poor. Just as God visits the sick, so too should we visit the sick. Just as God is forgiving, so too should we try to be forgiving.

Kabalah teaches that although Yom Kippur has passed, the gates of atonement remain open through Hoshsana Rabah, the final day of Sukkot. In this week’s parshah, we see God’s attribute of mercy shining through, and just as God forgives the Israelites, so too must we learn to forgive those who have wronged us. From this parshah we learn the Divine attributes of God that we invoke on Yom Kippur: “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in kindness and faithfulness. Extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin (Ex. 34:6-7).” These are the attributes that we must learn to adapt, not only for the next few days, but for the rest of our lives.

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