Tag Archives: Sukkot

Commentary for Sukkot

16 Oct

One of the oldest metaphors used to describe the relationship between the Jewish People and God is that of a marriage. Dating back to Biblical times, this comparison has itself spawned many others that extend this metaphor involving many facets of Jewish life, but one of the most well-known envisions the three pilgrimage holidays- Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot, as the stages of a marriage ceremony, with Passover representing the betrothal, Shavuot the marriage ceremony, and Sukkot the consummation.

 

Another, less well-known comparison, looks at this metaphor on a more individual level. It compares the relationship between God and each individual Jew at the time of the High Holidays as a marriage in crisis. We admit that we have done wrong, and on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we have an honest discussion with God to determine whether or not we want to put in the effort to make it work.

 

Coming a mere five days after Yom Kippur, Sukkot is our first chance to show God that we are truly committed to this relationship. Sukkot is a holiday of many mitzvot and customs, and many of them are geared towards helping us in this endeavor, either by prescribing actions that help us show our dedication directly or by serving as symbolic reminders of what we should be doing.

 

The Sukkot sacrifices show our willingness to give gifts to God, just as God has gifted us with the food that sustains us. In the Sukkah we expose ourselves to the elements, trusting in God that they will not harm us. The lulav, etrog, myrtle, and willow, which we are commanded to bring together on Sukkot, symbolize Jews of all different levels of knowledge and observance. Each night it is customary to sing songs and tell stories of biblical figures whose virtues we wish to emulate. We start on the first night with Abraham, who was renown for his generosity and for inviting others to dine with him in his tent, and so we also invite guests to dine with us in our sukkah, including the poor. Rabbi Moshe Bamberger teaches that the position of the s’chach (the roof of the sukkah)- constructed out of the leavings of the plant kingdom that are usually useless to humans for the purposes of construction or consumption- high above the bounty of the harvest being served on the table us teaches not to be haughty, take our position for granted, or look down on the poor, for we, too, may one day be in their situation. We have spent the past two weeks promising to be better. On Sukkot, we are given the chance to prove that we will be.

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Commentary for Emor

23 May

This week’s parshah contains many of the laws for the holidays. Among these is the mitzvah of waving the lulav and etrog bundle, which also includes the willow and the myrtle. Interestingly, despite being called by its Hebrew name “hadas” elsewhere in the Bible, the Torah here describes it as “anaf etz avot”– “the branch of a braided tree.” The Talmud in Sukkah 32b identifies this as the myrtle and explains that using three words to describe the branch in question when just one would have been sufficient teaches us that we need three myrtle branches in the bundle, but the use of the term “branch of a braided tree” has deeper implications as well.

 

The only other items in the entire Torah described as being “braided” are the golden chains used to attach the breastplate to the ephod- the special outer tunic- worn by the High Priest. In its commentary, Etz Chayim notes that the purpose of braiding the golden chains was to make them stronger so that they could hold up the breastplate, which was set with twelve precious stones to represent the twelve tribes.

 

There is a famous midrash that teaches that each of the four species waved on Sukkot represents a different kind of Jew. The myrtle, which has a smell but does not bear fruit, represents those who do mitzvot but do not study Torah, and is juxtaposed to the lulav, which bears fruit but has no taste, representing those who study Torah but do not perform mitzvot. After Sukkot is over, we tend to remove the lulav from our houses rather quickly, as all it will do is sit around and get moldy. The myrtle, on the other hand, we tend to keep around due to its pleasant fragrance.   Knowledge is important, but when not put to use it becomes fleeting and is eventually lost. Actions, on the other hand, stick with us, forming and strengthening connections in our minds. It’s easy to forget a fact but hard to break a habit. Just as the braided golden chains strengthened the physical connection between the High Priest and the breastplate with the stones that represented the people he served, so to does the lesson of the “branch of a braided tree” help us to strengthen our connection, both with Judaism and with others.

Commentary for Shabbat Chol haMoed Sukkot

2 Oct

This week’s Torah reading is a special reading for whenever Shabbat falls on a non-Yom Tov day of Sukkot or Passover. It begins with Moses pleading with God to forgive the Israelites for the sin of the golden calf. It then continues with God forgiving the Israelites, but once again warning them not to turn to false gods. It then concludes with a loose collection of laws related to Shabbat and holidays and holiday sacrifices before closing with the seemingly unrelated prohibition against boiling a calf in its mother’s milk.

 

This commandment appears in the Torah in three different places (Ex. 23:19, Ex. 34:26, and Deut. 14:21). Rabbi Ishmael on Chulin 115b teaches that the three appearances of this commandment are to teach us that there are three different aspects to this prohibition: the physical act of cooking them together, eating them together (even if someone else cooked it for you), and deriving benefit from the two being cooked together (you can’t own a restaurant that sells it even if you don’t do the cooking and you never eat the food).

 

Today, on Sukkot, we find ourselves in a very similar position to the one our ancestors were in at the end of this week’s Torah reading. Yom Kippur was barely a week ago. We have just been forgiven for our sins, and are ready to forge ahead into the new year, having promised to rededicate ourselves to God and avoid repeating the mistakes of the past year. Sukkot is our first big chance to do all of the positive holiday mitzvahs we can, but the “thou shalt” mitzvahs are usually not the ones that we struggle with the most. Our Torah reading ends with the negative commandment “do not boil a calf in its mother’s milk” to remind us to be mindful of the negative commandments as well, and because its three prohibitions serve as an example of how we can help ourselves from falling into old patterns of sin in the coming year: by not just following the letter of the law, but by removing ourselves from situations where such things would feel commonplace to us.

Commentary for Sukkot

8 Oct

Exodus 15:2, sung by the Israelites as part of the Song of the Sea, reads “This is my God, and I shall glorify Him.” This seems like a pretty straightforward verse, but in reality, it brings up some very interesting questions. One of these questions is asked by Rabbi Ishmael: “Is it possible for a being of flesh and blood to add glory to its Creator?” Rabbi Ishmael then answers his own question: “It simply means I shall be beautiful before him in observing the commandments. I shall prepare before him a beautiful lulav, a beautiful sukkah, beautiful tzitizt, beautiful tefillin (Shabbat 133b).” From Rabbi Ishmael’s statement, we derive the concept of hiddur mitzvah (beautifying a mitzvah). You could make Kiddush in a paper cup if you wanted, and you would still fulfill the mitzvah (provided that the cup is large enough to hold the minimum about of wine or grape juice required), but having a special, fancier cup that is only used for Kiddush makes the mitzvah more beautiful.

One of the ways that we perform hiddur mitzvah on Sukkot is by decorating our sukkah to make it more beautiful. These decorations can be anything from flowers to paper chains to plastic fruit to pictures of famous biblical scenes. The Lubavtich Chassidic sect takes a different approach to the idea of decorating the sukkah: “Our guest are our decorations.”

Sukkot is a holiday about community. It is one of the three pilgrimage holidays (along with Passover and Shavuot). When the Holy Temple still stood, Israelites would come from all across the land and gather together in Jerusalem to make offerings to God. Just as the Israelites gathered together back then, so too do we gather together in our sukkot today, enjoying hot food and warm company to help the walls of the sukkah keep out the cold.

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.

Commentary for Sukkot

18 Sep

The High Holy Day period can be a tough time. At the beginning of the month of Elul, a full month before Rosh Hashanah, we start to reflect on the past year. We dig up all of our sins, for the next forty days, we try to make restitution for them. We apologize to those we have hurt, and try to identify strategies for not making the same mistakes again. From the beginning of Slichot until the end of Yom Kippur we spent long hours in shul, praying for Divine mercy and humbling ourselves before God. We bow low before God. On Yom Kippur we forgo bodily needs such as food and water, and we say “before I was formed, I was unworthy, and now that I have been formed, I am still the same as if I had not been formed. I am but dust in my life, so surely I shall be dust in my death. Behold- before You I am a vessel filled with shame and humiliation.” We confess our transgressions and we acknowledge that our lives are in God’s hands. Obviously this is a necessary and important thing to, but that does not change the fact that it is usually quite depressing.

After the High Holy Days we can often be quite down on ourselves. Anyone would be after spending over a month going through the past year with a fine-toothed comb specifically to see what you have done wrong. While this attitude of extreme sadness and humility is desirable during the High Holy days, it is not something we should carry with us for the rest of the year. Five days after Yom Kippur comes Sukkot, referred to in it’s Kiddush as “the time of our happiness,” to help us find the right balance for the rest of the year.

Sukkot is a holiday all about balance. For most Jews, Sukkot is defined by its two major ritual objects: the sukkah and the lulav and etrog bundle. The sukkah is a meager shelter that takes a lot of effort to build. If it is too big or the roof is too good, it is unkosher. Living in this bare-bones hut, especially when it is right next to our nice, modern houses, symbolizes the humility we have come to know from the High Holy Day season, but the sukkah also helps to raise us up as well. While the sukkah is not allowed to be too big or to have too good a roof, a sukkah is also unkosher if it is too small, or if the roof is not good enough, or if the walls do not provide enough protection. While we might be humbled by it, the sukkah also reminds us that we are not nothing. We have put a lot of hard work into our sukkah, and it is okay to be proud of it.

The lulav and etrog bundle also symbolizes balance. It is made up of four parts; the lulav (date palm), the hadas (mertyle), the aravah (willow) and the etrog. The etrog both provides food and has a smell. The lulav only provides food, while the hadas only has a smell. The aravah does neither, but it is just as essential for the whole as the etrog, which does both. Compared to building a sukkah, acquiring a lulav and etrog bundle is quite simple. All you have to do is find someone who is selling them, and buy one. Despite this, we still take as much pride in our lulav and etrog as we do in our sukkah, and often pay for fancy holders for them and try to find etrogs that are as perfectly yellow as possible.

Sukkot, the time of our happiness, works to counteract the sadness that often comes with the High Holy Day Period. We try to retain our newfound humility, but we temper it with the sense of pride and joy worthy of a holiday, to help us get adjusted to the rest of the year.