There are lots of strange Jewish customs throughout the year, but Sukkot is the holiday with arguably the most visible, wackiest practices. We spend significant sums on a set of four meticulously chosen vegetables, and then we proceed to shake them vigorously, and parade around with them. We build (already a strange, rare activity for your average Jewish boy or girl) a rickety hut to eat and sleep in, and we decorate it with more vegetables and Christmas tinsel (not a Biblical requirement, but the widespread custom, at least here in Israel). In fact, the holiday should really be celebrated in the spring; it was moved to the beginning of fall to guarantee maximum strangeness; even in Israel, it’s not ideal patio weather. It’s a holiday that demands doing what is unpopular, uncomfortable (have you ever tried balancing all those vegetables and a siddur, while navigating a crowded room of people with long, sharp spears?), a holiday which demands a backbone, like that of the lulav we carry.
One of the greatest examples of backbone in the Bible is Kalev ben Yefuneh, who returns to the stage of history in Yehoshua, chapter 14, after a long hiatus. For Yehoshua, Moshe’s trusted understudy, to stand up against the other spies’ negative report about the land of Israel was entirely unsurprising. But how did Kalev have the strength to go against the grain, to remain loyal to his own understanding, against the consensus?
The answer may lie in Chevron, the city of giants which Kalev now requests from Yehoshua, his old comrade. “You heard, on that day, that giants were there,” Kalev reminds him. The reactions of the other spies is a central part of their report to the Jewish people. “And there we saw the Nefilim, sons of the giant, and we were in our own eyes as grasshoppers, and so too were we in their eyes” (Bamidbar 13:33). The spies’ great mistake lay in judging themselves by the imagined standards of the giants. Kalev had the ability to evaluate himself, and the situation, independently, based on his convictions and beliefs, not on how he imagined others saw him. Only thus could he say “Let us rise up and inherit it, for we can succeed” (Bamidbar 13:30). Only thus could he say, as an 85 year old man “my strength then is equal to my strength now.”
From whom did he learn to do this? From that ancestral inhabitant of Chevron, the “great man among giants” (Yehoshua 14:15, see the Midrash), who stood on one side of the river while the whole world stood on the other- Avraham, the first guest we welcome into our sukkah, the booth of Jewish backbone.
This is a blog of short, English reflections on the 929 project’s daily chapter of Tanach. Join the journey! Learn more at 929.org.il