One of the warmest memories in my mind goes back to the days I spent in the company of the dean of Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin, Rabbi Ahron Schechter. Rabbi Schechter, the oldest of America’s rabbis and heads of Yeshiva, has the beautiful custom of delivering his classes and sermons around the holiday or Shabbat table. This was not a practice he began our of nowhere, it has been the custom of his own Rabbi and master, the legendary Rabbi Isaac Hutner of blessed memory.
Not confined to the lecture hall or the podium, I was lucky enough to count myself among his students, sitting around his table, having the holiday or Shabbat meal, while listening to his thought-provoking insights into the holiday and its meaning. Putting political and ideological differences aside, we gathered to share in the wisdom and traditions of old.
Sitting in the Sukkah, in the New York fall, sometimes with coats, we crowded around to hear the Rabbi’s message on the holiday of Sukkot. With perhaps some seltzer and cake, we enjoyed the magic of his sparkling eyes, gracious smile, and inner inspiration. Often the Rabbi would share words he had heard, perhaps in a similar setting, from his own Rabbi, Rabbi Isaac Hutner. After sitting there for hours, I cherished what I had heard, scrambling to make notes, so I don’t forget what I had heard. Incomplete, but valuable, I look back to those notes and find the words to be inspiring today, as I found them to be a decade ago.
The Torah describes the holiday of Sukkot in two radically different ways—one historical and one agricultural—using two different names for the same holiday.
Looking at the first time this holiday appears in the Torah (Exodus 23), we are told:
“and the festival of the ingathering—chag ha’asif— at the departure of the year, when you gather in [the products of] your labors from the field.”
The holiday is described in strictly agricultural terms. It follows a simple cycle. Passover is the holiday of crops— Chag Ha’aviv—in the spring right after the winter’s rain the crops are all green in the fields, Shavuot is the time of harvest—Chag Hakatzir— this is in the middle of the summer when farmers harvest all the wheat in the field, and Sukkot is the time of ingathering—chag ha’asif— at this time the farmers have completed thrashing, grinding, and sifting all of their produce and are very proud to bring in all their profits and final products, preparing for the winter.
What we see from this is that Sukkot is a festival because of the time of the year and its place in the agricultural cycle. Indeed, this is exactly how the holiday is described in detail later in the book of Deuteronomy (chapter 16):
“You shall make yourself the Festival of Sukkot for seven days, when you gather in [the produce] from your threshing floor and your vat. And you shall rejoice in your Festival-you, and your son, and your daughter, and your manservant, and your maidservant, and the Levite, and the stranger, and the orphan, and the widow, who are within your cities. Seven days you shall celebrate the Festival to the Lord, your God, in the place which the Lord shall choose, because the Lord, your God, will bless you in all your produce, and in all the work of your hands, and you will only be happy.”
The same thing repeats itself in the book in Leviticus (chapter 23), with things taking a sudden twist:
“And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, Speak to the children of Israel, saying: On the fifteenth day of this seventh month, is the Festival of Sukkot, a seven day period to the Lord…. On the first day, it is a holy occasion; you shall not perform any work of labor…. But on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you gather in the produce of the land, you shall celebrate the festival of the Lord for a seven day period; the first day shall be a rest day, and the eighth day shall be a rest day. And you shall take for yourselves on the first day, the fruit of the hadar tree, date palm fronds, a branch of a braided tree, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God for a seven day period. And you shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord for seven days in the year. “
Up to this point the verse remains consistent with the seasonal and agricultural nature of Sukkot and of it being part of the three festivals—shloshet Haregalim—of the year. Yet the verse then continues with what is perhaps most known about Sukkot:
“[It is] an eternal statute throughout your generations [that] you celebrate it in the seventh month. For a seven day period you shall live in booths. Every resident among the Israelites shall live in booths, in order that your [ensuing] generations should know that I had the children of Israel live in booths when I took them out of the land of Egypt. I am the Lord, your God.”
We are now told of the historical nature of the holiday of Sukkot “in order that your [ensuing] generations should know that I had the children of Israel live in booths when I took them out of the land of Egypt”.
When and why did the Torah change the name of the holiday from just Chag Ha’asif to Sukkot?
Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk(1843-1926), known by the name of his magnum opus Ohr Same’ach, explains: the reason for the changing name of the holiday? the sin of the golden calf chete ha’egel. Rabbi Elijah of Vilna, the Gra, famously outlines the sequence of events. The Jews leave Egypt on Passover. Fifty days later they get the Torah on the 6th of the month of Sivan. Moses stays on the mountain for another forty days until the day of the sin of the golden calf—the 17th of Tamuz. At this point, the rabbis teach, the clouds of glory leave the Jewish people following the sin of the golden calf. Moses then “cleans up shop” in the camp, and goes up again on the 20th of Tamuz, asking for forgiveness of forty days—until the 1st of Elul. He then goes up to get the second set of tablets for another forty days, and is told on the 10th of Tishrei, Yom Kippur, that God has forgiven the Jewish people—salachti. He then tells the Israelites about the commandment to build the tabernacle—the Mishkan— and they begin assembling the materials for the Mishkan, leading to the return of the clouds of glory and the divine presence to the Jewish people. This is why the holiday is first described in the book of Exodus as the holiday of ingathering, Chag Ha’asif. It is part of the original cycle. Only later, after the reconciliation which followed the aftermath of chete ha’egel, the sin of the golden calf, does the holiday emerge as the holiday of Sukkot as well. This is because it is referring to Sukkot and shelter the clouds of glory provided to Israelites.
Rabbi Judah Lowe, known as the Maharal of Prague (1526-1609) beautifully captures all these perspectives, showing these agricultural seasons also correspond to the “growing” of the Jewish people. On Passover, just like all you have is the raw, green, not fully-grown stalks of wheat in the field, so too God had the Jewish people when we left Egypt, immature, not fully ready, yet with lots of potential. Similarly, on Shavuot, just the time the farmer goes at this time to harvest his fully grown wheat, God had the Jewish people at Sinai and gave them the Torah. We were now a fully-grown nation. Then came the sin of the golden calf, the Israelites coming close to destruction, God’s forgiveness on Yom Kippur and reinstatement of his clouds of glory and forgiveness on the 15th of Tishrei is akin to the farmer securing all of his holdings inside the silo preparing for the upcoming winter. God had placed his presence on us, and the Israelites began building the tabernacle, a place for God’s presence to dwell in their midst.
Rabbi Shechter added this is the reason the verse referring to the holiday of Sukkot says, “You shall make yourself the Festival of Sukkot for seven days, when you gather in [the produce] from your threshing floor and your vat”. It does not speak about gathering from your field or vineyard, it speaks of gathering of the final product, resembling the sealing in of the Jewish people and the divine presence once God’s glory rested on us. He added in the name of Rabbi A.Y. Kook, former Chief Rabbi of Israel that gathering from a threshing floor or a vat usually indicates gathering from materials that may seem disqualified or to be discarded. This is to show that no matter what a person’s situation is, there can always be something good to make of it just as Hashem has made a people of the Jewish people despite the sin of the golden calf. Rabbi Shechter added this is also why it is so important to establish the Sukkah as our place of dwelling because at this time God has set His abode on where we were.
As we celebrate this dual holiday of Sukkot, a time of both seasonal joy and historical significance may we see the good and beauty in every situation, find joy in our spirituality, and may we properly fulfill the biblical obligation of “and you will only be happy.” Chag Same’ach!