Back to Eden

Sukkot 5781.

Sukkot is such the harvest festival, we celebrate by praying with plants while living inside of a tree. That image is so primal, in fact, that Sukkot brings humanity back to our origins in Gan Eden, holding–of all created phenomena–a tree, as if we must return to our beginnings annually and hold that tree of knowledge and life close to us, waving it in all directions. Those wavings might be just that: humanity waving to our Creator, saying, “We’ve come home! We have returned! We are prepared to re-live the experiences of Eden so that when we re-emerge into the world of distance and alienation, we can have a re-vivified memory of how to appreciate and protect the environments we inhabit without destroying them completely.

I say that Sukkot brings humanity back to our shared origins, and not merely the Jewish people, because of all the pilgrimage festivals, Sukkot is the most universalistic. Indeed, the 70 bulls offered over the course of the holiday correspond to and evoke our awareness of the 70 nations of the world. This metaphor for humanity projects an image of all human beings, every culture, every language, every size, shape and color of humanity, living together in a Sukkah to recognize our common Creator and task as custodians of the world.

This notion that when I enter the sukkah holding a tree–whose fruit I might be forbidden to eat but responsible to protect and nourish–I participate in the re-birth of humanity, is set within the context of the pilgrimage cycle. That cycle starts with Pesach, proceeds to Shavuot, and then culminates, as I have already noted, with Sukkot. All of these festivals ground us in the rhythms of the natural world, rhythms from which many of us have become disassociated and disconnected, but which nourish us in deeply spiritual ways. After commanding us to celebrate the occasion of our freedom from oppression by offering the Korban Pesach and rejoicing in Chag haMatzot, the Torah says:

The LORD spoke to Moses, saying:

Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: When you enter the land that I am giving to you and you reap its harvest, you shall bring the first sheaf of your harvest to the priest.

Until that very day, until you have brought the offering of your God, you shall eat no bread or parched grain or fresh ears; it is a law for all time throughout the ages in all your settlements. And from the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation offering—the day after the sabbath—you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete: you must count until the day after the seventh week—fifty days; then you shall bring an offering of new grain to the LORD. (Vayikra 23:14-16)

In other words, already during chol haMoed Pesach, we are commanded to bring an offering of the first fruits from the barley harvest. That is the measure of barley called the omer. Fifty days later, after seven weeks, during Shavuot, the Torah commands another grain offering. This time, we bring the first fruits of the Spring wheat harvest, in the form of two large fresh loaves into the mikdash. Having completed these harvests of early grains, our connection to the natural world immediately assumes a social and political dimension:

And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I the LORD am your God. (Vayikra 23:22)

Rashi asks: why insert this mitzvah of leaving food for the poor here, in the middle of a description of the Jewish calendar and the sacrificial offerings? Powerfully, he connects sanctity with giving, and in particular, with giving to those who are dependent upon the majority, empowered population: Anyone who fulfills the mitzvah of the corners of the field and the gleanings and the forgotten sheafs it is as if that person built God’s holy sanctuary. 

In the reiteration of our calendar in parashat Re’eh, Moshe is even more explicit about the intrinsic connections between harvest, holiness, gratitude, joy and social responsibility. There, in Re’eh, Moshe is speaking to the second generation of the wilderness. Those Israelites had no direct experience with the miracles of Egypt, with the splitting of the sea, or with the initial Manna from Heaven. We will live lives of bounty. We will know security and blessing. We will be fully integrated into a society with vision, manifested by a commitment to justice, truth, righteousness and compassion. Moshe describes all the pilgrimages and emphasizes that there can be no joy without giving, no gratitude without humility, no society without recognizing the source of our power and well-being:

You shall rejoice before the LORD your God with your son and daughter, your male and female slave, the Levite in your communities, and the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow in your midst, at the place where the LORD your God will choose to establish the Divine name. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt, and take care to obey these laws. After the ingathering from your threshing floor and your vat, you shall hold the Feast of Booths for seven days. You shall rejoice in your festival, with your son and daughter, your male and female slave, the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow in your communities. You shall hold a festival for the LORD your God seven days, in the place that the LORD will choose; for the LORD your God will bless all your crops and all your undertakings, and you shall have nothing but joy. Three times a year—on the Feast of Unleavened Bread, on the Feast of Weeks, and on the Feast of Booths—all your males shall appear before the LORD your God in the place that HaShem will choose. They shall not appear before the LORD empty-handed, but each with his own gift, according to the blessing that the LORD your God has bestowed upon you. (Parashat Re’eh, Devarim 16:10-17)

What a set of associations: You will be blessed. Therefore, care for those who are not blessed as you are. And when you care for those who are disenfranchised, you will feel joy. And when you feel joy, give more. And when you give, come together. For there is no greater joy than giving. Rambam taught this by saying: Anyone, however, who locks the doors of his courtyard and eats and drinks along with his wife and children, without giving anything to eat and drink to the poor and the desperate, does not observe a religious celebration but indulges in the celebration of his stomach.(Mishne Torah Laws of Yom Tov 6:18)

We have been blessed. Our community enjoys the blessing and bounty of well-being, security, and integration into society in all aspects of life. Now more than ever, let us enter our sukkot in order to re-emerge into the world with renewed dedication to caring for the world God has created. The message and secret to Jewish spirituality seems so simple. Joy comes from giving. We celebrate by giving to immigrants, to the forests, to the air, to the water, to the poor, to the disenfranchised, to the neglected, to the hungry, to the homeless, to the general health and well being of every human being with whom we interact. As we re-enter Gan Eden, and hold the four species in our hands, may we acquire the vision of the tree of life, and the knowledge that our mandate is to give more than we receive.

Shabbat Shalom & Chag Sameach,

Rabbi Dov

About the Author
Rabbi Dov Lerea is currently the Head of Judaic Studies at the Shefa School in NYC. He has served as the Dean and Mashgiach Ruchani at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, as the Director of Kivunim in Jerusalem, as the Dean of Judaic Studies of the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in New York, and as the Director of Education at Camp Yavneh in Northwood, New Hampshire. Rabbi Dov has semicha from both JTS and YU. He is married and is blessed with sons, daughters-in-law, and wonderful grandchildren. He loves cooking, biking, and trying to fix things by puttering around with tools.
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