Sukkot is a holiday full of color and conviviality, from the brightly decorated makeshift huts that give the festival its name to the assortment of flora we wave and weave, to the nightly gatherings for dancing, singing and maybe a bit of traditional fire-juggling.
There’s just one part of the holiday that seems a bit drab: the Torah reading. Let me give you a taste (Num. 29:13-20).
And you shall offer a burnt offering, a sacrifice made by fire, of a sweet smell to the LORD; 13 young bullocks…
And on the second day you shall offer 12 young bullocks…
And on the third day 11 bullocks…
And that is the most exciting part, the only detail that varies from day to day, as we read the same verses FOUR TIMES in a row.
But then you get to the special psalm for today, the third day of Sukkot, as we recall offering the 36th of 71 Sukkot bulls. In Psalm 50, Asaph speaks powerfully of God calling Israel to judgement at “Zion, the perfection of beauty… Gather my saints together to me; those that have made a covenant with me by sacrifice.” And what is the ruling?
10For every beast of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills. 11I know all the fowls of the mountains: and the wild beasts of the field are mine.12If I were hungry, I would not tell you: for the world is mine, and the fullness thereof. 13Will I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of goats? 14Offer to God thanksgiving; and pay your vows to the most High:
There’s also a message for the wicked:
16 What have you to do to declare my statutes, or that you should take my covenant in your mouth? 17Seeing you hate instruction, and casts my words behind you.18When you saw a thief, then you consented with him, and have been partaker with adulterers. 19You give your mouth to evil, and your tongue frames deceit. 20You sit and speak against your brother; you slander your own mother’s son. 21These things have you done, and I kept silence; you thought that I was altogether such an one as yourself: but I will reprove you, and set them in order before your eyes.
Asaph’s version of the Heavenly Court seems far more interested in bullying than bullocks, an appropriate thought for a day exactly one week after Yom Kippur. There is only one offering which is praised in Psalm 50: the toda, thanksgiving.
23Whoever offers to God thanksgiving honors Me, and whoever sets the path I will show the salvation of God.
Perhaps this is reflected in the Midrashic teaching that in the future, all sacrifices will be discontinued except for the toda (Lev. R. 9:7). However, there is another interpretation (ibid. 1), that toda here means what it does in Joshua 7:19: confession.
Grant honor now to Lord God of Israel, and give Him toda: tell me what you did, do not hold back from me.
Confession and thanksgiving are really two sides of the same coin. But they cannot be the be-all and end-all. To earn salvation, we must take action and “set the path,” as the Midrash goes on to explain:
“Whoever sets the path” — these are those who maintain the roads.
“Whoever sets the path” — these are those who faithfully teach the youth the written word and the oral tradition.
“Whoever sets the path” — these are the storekeepers who sell to the public after giving the poor their portion (R. Jose be-R. Judah in the name of R. Menahem be-R. Jose)
“Whoever sets the path” — these are those who illuminate the public thoroughfares.
Sukkot is the Season of Our Joy, but it is also a time of judgement. What better time to ponder what sacrifice truly means? Whether the bullocks et al. of Sukkot are literally reinstated or not, we know what it takes to restore the honor of Zion.