David Harbater
Author, educator and scholar

A Sukkot message for our times

The holiday of Sukkot is known in the Torah by two names: Chag ha-Sukkot– (חג הסוכות) -the Feast of Booths (Leviticus 23:34; Deuteronomy 16:13, 15) and Chag ha-Asif– (חג האסיף) – the Feast of the Ingathering (Exodus 23:15, 34:22). If we read the text carefully, however, we will discover that these are not merely two names for the same holiday, but two different holidays that were merged into one.

The first, the Feast of Booths, commemorates God’s providing us with “booths” (either actual booths or the clouds of glory. See BT Sukkah 11b) in which to dwell after we departed Egypt and began to traverse the desert. By building booths, we are expressing our appreciation to God for ensuring our safe passage through the desert on our journey toward the land of Canaan. The importance of the holiday, thus, lies in the realm of biblical history. In this sense, Sukkot is linked to Pesach, the latter marking our gratitude to God for freeing us from Egyptian slavery, and the former marking our gratitude for His role in protecting us as we travelled through the desert after our exodus from Egypt.

The second, the Feast of the Ingathering, is an expression of our gratitude to God for the bounty of the land and for ensuring a successful harvest. In this sense, Sukkot is linked to Shavuot, or Chag ha-Katzir– the Feast of the Harvest, the latter marking the completion of the wheat harvest at the beginning of the agricultural cycle, and the former marking the gathering of the processed grain and new wine into storage at the end of the cycle. The question is why was it necessary for the Torah to combine these two distinct holidays into one?

Perhaps the Torah is trying to teach us that the God of history is also the God of nature. In other words, the God who, out of concern for our survival and welfare, intervenes in the course of history is the same God who, in His effort to sustain us, makes His presence felt within the rhythms of nature.

Furthermore, the two holidays represent two related periods in our collective history: the desert experience followed by our entry into the land. Just as we must thank God for protecting us in the desert, we must thank Him for providing for us after we have entered the land and enjoyed its’ blessings.

Finally, following Rashbam (commentary on Leviticus 23:43), God wants us to recall our travails in the desert at the same time that we celebrate the bounty of the land. This is to address God’s concern lest, once we have begun to enjoy the good life in the land, we will take its’ blessings for granted and forget Him, the source of all goodness. Recalling our dependency on God for our survival during the difficult times of the past serves to deepen our awareness of our dependency on, and appreciation of, God even in the good times of the present.

The creation of the State of Israel and the return of our people to its historic homeland after centuries of discrimination, persecution, expulsion and the Holocaust is the greatest miracle and blessing of our generation. Yet, after 75 years, there are those among us who have begun to take Israel’s existence for granted as if our future in the land is assured. Instead of working together to build a society that respects the diverse cultures, values and religious practices of the many people who inhabit this land, some of us are spending their time and energy vilifying, casting aspersions, and disregarding the dignity and rights of those who are different from themselves, thus, putting the future of the entire enterprise in peril.

The holiday of Sukkot is, therefore, a crucial reminder for us to be grateful for the State of Israel despite its many imperfections, to extend a hand in friendship and love to our brothers and sisters, and to find a way to work together to ensure not just Israel’s survival but its’ flourishing, for now and for generations to come.

Chag Sameach!

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. David Harbater's recently published book "In the Beginnings: Discovering the Two Worldviews Hidden within Genesis 1-11" is available on Amazon and at book stores around Israel and the US. He teaches Bible and Jewish thought at Midreshet Torah V'Avodah, at the Amudim Seminary, and at the Women's Beit Midrash of Efrat. Make sure to follow him on Facebook and LinkedIn for more interesting content.
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