Just to make it absolutely clear, this is not a standard Torah commentary based on the teachings of the rabbis that one would obtain in a yeshiva. My background is in English and Comparative Literature and what we will be doing in this series of articles is examining the Torah in a similar fashion one might examine the writings of Shakespeare. Accordingly, if you wish to make a comment on the article, I would like to request that you present your arguments utilizing an academic format, based on the text, and not quote outside sources. It is the purpose of these articles to introduce an alternative and, hopefully, a fresh perspective to what is written in the Torah and not merely to reheat and serve up the same ideas that have been presented again and again during the last thousand years. Finally, I would just like to add that the inspiration for these articles comes from the works of the English psychologist Maurice Nicoll and that the source I used for the Torah was the website: http://www.hebrewoldtestament.com/
In the general introduction I mentioned Maurice Nicoll, but I did not discuss him in the previous articles of this series due to space considerations. Basically, Maurice Nicoll was a psychologist from England and his writings are usually associated with George Gurdjieff, and P.D. Ouspensky. Maurice Nicole did not believe that the Bible was literally true (Neither the Old or the New Testaments), nevertheless, he felt they contained great spiritual truths and, accordingly, were worth while studying. Here then we must then ask: Why not both? Why shouldn’t the Bible be considered literally true as well as containing great spiritual truths? Although people such as the well known comedian Bill Maher like to ask: “You don’t really believe snakes can talk, do you?” The celebration of Sukkoth presents its own problems in regards to taking the Bible as literal truth.
In short: We are told that, once escaping from slavery, the Israelites were immediately reclassified as soldiers and that their numbers exceeded six hundred and forty thousand men. In addition to this there was the tribe of Levi and “the strangers”. If we assume that more than halve the men were married and that each family had at least two children then we are getting pretty close to two million people wandering around the Sinai desert for forty years! There are two problems with this: a) there is no historical or archeological record of such a huge migration. b) Where would six hundred and forty thousand families find green branches in the Sinai desert, year after year, for forty years?
One last problem to consider, although this is not directly related to the story of Sukkoth, is that in Korea in 1951, General MacArthur, using tanks, machine guns and jet fighters, was just barely able to prevent only four hundred thousand Chinese, using human wave tactics, from over running his forces. How then, after the incident with the ten dishonest spies, were a few local Canaanite tribes, using only bows, arrows, spears and rocks, able to turn back an invading force of six hundred and forty thousand men? Also keep in mind that Alexander the Great conquered a well defended Middle East, all the way up to the borders of India, with a force of less than one hundred thousand men.
Therefore, based on the assumption that the story is not literally true, why then is it so important that it is included in the Torah? Furthermore, why are we commanded to construct little houses out of green leaves and to eat and sleep within their walls for seven days? What do the green branches symbolize?
We have mentioned in the previous articles that the rabbis have for centuries claimed that the Torah is the bread of life. If this is correct, then one might be permitted to speculate that a wheat field would represent a religious school and that Joseph, who was placed in charge of Pharaoh’s wheat production, was a religious scholar. To reinforce this conclusion, one might further ask: Of all the women in Egypt, why was Joseph given the daughter of a priest to marry, unless he was some type of spiritual leader?
Most modern encyclopedias draw a connection between university professors and lecturers receiving a Sabbatical every seven years with the law given in the Torah about allowing a field to lie fallow every seventh year. Furthermore, the question: “What is your field of study?” can still be heard in colleges all over the world. Also, in the Book of Genesis, the tree in the center of the Garden of Eden is actually called “The Tree of Knowledge…..”, thus implying that a tree represents a source of teachings. Finally, in the previous articles, we also touched upon the connection between: fruit, sons and the word of God that is made during the celebration of the Festival of Shavuot.
In modern times, when talking about fathers and sons, we still say: “An apple does not fall far from the tree.” When we discussed Yom Kippur I tried to show that the original meaning of the word “sin” was an archery term which meant “to miss the mark” and that the word Torah is a variation of the Hebrew verb to shoot. In addition to this I tried to show that the primary function of Abraham was to teach God’s ways to his seed. Thus a good apple, one might say, is one which grows up to be a tree just like its father. Hence, it was my conclusion that Yom Kippur had to do with maintaining the purity of God’s teachings and was not so concerned with fasting to atone for bad behavior.
Here I would just like to interject that I imagine some people reading the previous paragraph and saying to themselves: “What chutzpah ! If this person is so concerned with maintaining the purity of the teachings, then why does he make so many references and write so many articles about the New Testament?” In short, the answer is that I consider the New Testament, especially the gospels, to be an internal argument/dialogue amongst Jews. Therefore, just in the same way one might study the works of Christopher Marlowe to learn more about the way the English language was used in the writings of Shakespeare, it is my opinion that, by studying the metaphors and images presented in the New Testament, one might be able to gain insights into the meaning and usage of Ancient Hebrew. Regardless, since I am not a Christian, I don’t have any desire to make you one…
If all this is acceptable, then it would seem logical to set up a cycle: the land represents a school, the tree represents the master of the school, the branches represent the student/teachers, the fruit represents the knowledge produced in the school and the seed in the fruit represents the ideas passed along to the next generation. Thus, if we have a pure cycle of teaching, then the ideas of the next generation will be exactly the same as the preceding generation. Since this is clearly not the case in Modern Judaism, I would say we all have a great deal to atone for…
Okay, so since we have shown that a branch represents a source of teaching, then living within the branches for seven days suggest: “adapting one’s lifestyle according to the teachings”. This then suggests that when the Children of Israel were living in the wilderness of Sinai they were learning God’s ways. One indication that this is the correct interpretation is that the word Sinai actually means scholarship and the Hebrew word midbar, usually mistranslated as desert, actually means: a place for grazing sheep. In ancient Hebrew the word for grass also meant ideas and the Children of Israel are always described as sheep in the Bible. Thus, as we also mentioned in the previous articles, the argument between the servants of Abraham and the servants of Lot about grazing lands was NOT about something as mundane as whose animals were eating too much grass. It was a debate about which ideas (i.e. which direction) would the Children of Israel follow in the future and it is very significant that the direction Lot chose was down into the valley.
We have already talked about the Torah being the bread of life and the fruit from the tree of knowledge. In short: each type of food in the Bible is a metaphor for a different type of knowledge. We have already established that a field represents a school and even in modern times we say “the earth is a school”, hence the land of milk and honey is a metaphor for a school of spiritual wisdom.
Accordingly, if food represents knowledge, then eating represents studying. This is easily confirmed because even today we speak of digesting information. Thus, eating our meals within the braches of a tree is a metaphor for studying within the parameters established by God’s ways.
The second part of the commandment has to do with sleeping and here we must recall that the bed, traditionally, is associated with communication with God. For centuries little children have said their prayers at their bed side, which suggests that the bed is a type of altar. In addition to this, God actually told Miriam, the sister of Moses, that he spoke to people thru dreams and Joseph told the same thing to Pharaoh.
Naturally, there is one other activity that is associated with the bed and we have already shown the connection between first born sons and the word of God in Shavuot. If the father is the tree and the apple represents the seed of the father, then mother earth is the medium by which the new tree (i.e. the son) comes into fruition. Thus “the battle” between Rachel and Leah was not about who could produce more children, but rather had to do with the ability to channel messages from God for Jacob. This is clear from the phrase found throughout the Bible “whoring after other Gods”. Furthermore, when God tells the Children of Israel about the seven nations that were living in Canaan he clearly states that they are being expelled from the land for sexual offences (i.e. they perverted the prayer rituals).
To conclude this discussion I would just like to touch upon the number seven and ask: Why is this holy festival seven days long? Why not, for example, eight days long like Chanukah? The number seven, of course, is associated with the Sabbath and it is also associated with the six steps leading up to the throne of Solomon. In future articles I shall discuss numbers in more detail, but, very briefly, I would just like to say that in my opinion the chronological order of birth of Jacob’s sons is not the important factor. The status of each son is based upon the legal standing of his mother, hence, Leah’s sons represent the numbers one thru six and Rachel’s sons, because she is the second wife, should be associated with the numbers seven and eight. This I believe is clearly indicated in the blessing of Jacob where he describes Joseph as the brother set apart, which is very similar to the way the Sabbath is described. Since Joseph is almost always associated with interpreting dreams, and Solomon speaks to his people from the seventh level of his throne, it was my conclusion that the Sabbath represents the day in which God speaks to his people. Thus on the Sabbath it is forbidden to search for food and we have already discussed that food is a metaphor for knowledge.
If these conclusions are correct, then what this suggests to me is that if one successfully immerses oneself in the lifestyle of learning God’s ways and focuses all of one’s attentions during this festival to studying and praying to God, then, at its conclusion, one is in a much better condition, on a spiritual level, to receive communications from God via dreams or some similar type of venue…
Dror Ben Ami is the author of the book: THE MISUNDERSTANDING: An Introduction to Metaphors, Images and Symbols Found in the Old and New Testaments.