Eliza Dolittle, in My Fair Lady sings: Words, words, words, I’m so sick of words. Well, it’s a good thing that she wasn’t Jewish, because we Jews love words. Ironically, those lyrics were written by a Jew, Alan Jay Lerner, who as a librettist and lyricist actually loved words very much. So, I hope that he would appreciate my attempt to understand the holiday of Sukkot better through the importance of two terms to that festival’s celebrations. The two expressions are HOSHANA and HALLEL.
The special added prayers of Sukkot, of course, are Hoshanot. The word HOSHANA seems to mean ‘save, please’. Probably, ‘save’ in a spiritual sense, rather than HATZILU, ‘save me’ physically, like from drowning. But ‘save’ from what, and why is it connected to Sukkot?
The Rav once said that the three expressions from the YA’ALE V’YAVO prayer, right after we mention the specific occasion refer to the three holidays of Tishre. ‘Remember us (ZACHREINU) upon this occasion for life’ is Rosh Hashana, ‘visit us (U’FAKDEINU)…for blessing’ is Yom Kippur, and ‘Deliver us (HOSHI’EINU)…for life’ is Sukkot.
Rosh Hashana is Yom HaZikron, Day of Remembrance when both our sins and God’s Covenant are recalled, and on Yom Kippur, God ‘visits’ us with SELICHA, forgiveness. But, again, what is the ‘deliverance’ of Sukkot? When you read through the Hoshanot prayers, two answers emerge. We discuss the service of the BEIT HaMIKDASH and the agricultural success of the nation. So, I would assume that we want to be saved from famine and the lack of our national religious center.
However, I’d like to make another suggestion from a different text. When one reads Psalms 113 through 118, which we call Hallel, a fascinating picture emerges. Chapters 113 & 114 are clearly describing the Pesach events. Then look at Psalm 115, and it says that we are not like other nations, because we worship the real God and not idols. That’s a Shavuot-Ten Commandment message. But what about chapter 116?
We discuss our love affair with God. ‘I love God‘, ‘Gracious is God’, ‘How can I repay God’, ‘I lift my cup of salvations (YESHUOT)’, ‘I offer up Thanksgiving offerings…in the precincts of the House of God’. That’s Sukkot, and how we should feel after the Days of Awe, and as we bring in the harvest.
BTW, chapter 117 (the shortest in Tanach) is also Sukkot related, ‘Praise the Lord, all you nations! Exalt Him, all you peoples!’ (117:1). Remember that Zechariah teaches that in the future all nations will celebrate Sukkot. That’s the Haftorah for the first day of Sukkot. But I want to focus on chapter 116.
The custom is to split this poem into two. The first eleven verses, which are skipped on the days of Half Hallel (Rosh Chodesh and the last 6 days of Pesach), discuss how God has saved us from the ‘bonds of death’, ‘the anguish of the grave’ and ‘from death, from weeping, and from stumbling’. What was the threat which caused us such pain, and required God’s intervention to rescue us? No enemies or threats are mentioned. I would like to suggest those grave fears refer to the dread faced by pious Jews during the High Holidays, as clearly specified in the famous U’NITANI TOKEF prayer. So, now we’re ready to praise God for relieving us of those concerns by forgiving us for our mortal sins.
This brings us to verse 12, which begins: MA ASHIV L’HASHEM. That opening phrase is normally translated as, ‘How can I repay God?’ Most commentaries explain that this is a rhetorical question expressing our feeling unable to repay God for all the largesse. Instead, we bring thanksgiving offerings (verse 17) and praise God, HALLELUKA (verse 19).
But what if ASHIV doesn’t mean ‘repay’. Rather it refers back to verse 7, SHUVI NAFSHI L’MENUCHAICHI, ‘return (or restore) my soul to Your calm.’ Then we’re not talking about how to pay back God for all the Divine bounty. We’re asking what can I do after the Days of Awe to fulfill my promise to do TESHUVA. How can I return back to You, O my God? You’ve given me peace of mind, but now I must ‘return’ to You.
Well, observing Sukkot is a good start. The Sukkot festival isn’t just about sitting in gazebos and waving plants. It’s about the words we mentioned at the beginning of this piece: HOSHANOT and HALLEL. We recognize that only God can ‘save’ us, and we praise God for all the bounty we have received. The flimsy Sukkah reminds us that our relationship with God is the only protection we have from the vicissitudes of this world; the Lulav waving is reaching out to God, Who occupies all four directions, plus above and below.
This waving is specifically done during Hallel. We are praising God with all our might and utilizing all the elements of our world within our grasp. This observance should be joyous and heartfelt, not just mechanical or technically accurate.
There are actually two more key words in this reunion with our Maker, namely HATZLACHA and HODA’AH, success and thanksgiving, but those terms will have to wait for Shmini Atzeret and chapter 118.