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Sukkot: What is your heart’s desire?

After the deep spiritual introspection of the High Holidays, a harvest festival feels incongruous, especially if you're not a farmer
Illustrative. Etrogs (citrons) growing. (Official website of the City of Menton, France)
Illustrative. Etrogs (citrons) growing. (Official website of the City of Menton, France)

After Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, days spent in deep spiritual introspection, Sukkot feels incongruous. Are we really supposed to follow up our intense prayer and fasting with a harvest festival? Especially for those of us who are not farmers, the holiday can sometimes feel foreign: we will happily eat in our sukkot and wave our arba minim, but the meaning of the holiday can feel inaccessible. Is this really the culmination of our year of holidays and rituals? Is waving a lulav and etrog truly the pinnacle?

A close reading of the language describing the commandments of Sukkot can offer another perspective. In Leviticus 23:39-43, the Torah introduces the commandments of the four species and sitting in the Sukkah.

Mark, on the 15th day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the yield of your land, you shall observe the festival of the Lord [to last] seven days: a complete rest on the first day, and a complete rest on the eighth day.

On the first day you shall take the product of hadar trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the LORD your God seven days.

You shall observe it as a festival of the Lord for seven days in the year; you shall observe it in the seventh month as a law for all time, throughout the ages.

You shall live in booths seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in booths,

in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I the Lord your God.

These verses seem to deliberately echo another Bible story — and yet also turn it upside-down. In Genesis, chapter 3, the story of Adam and the Woman in the Garden of Eden, there is abundant vegetation, but there is one tree from which they are forbidden to eat: the Tree of Knowledge (da’at). The Woman “takes” the fruit of the tree (vatikach mipiryo) against the divine command, and shares it with Adam. Immediately after she and Adam eat, they cover themselves and try to hide from G-d (mipnei Hashem), shameful of their nakedness and disobedience. They are given consequences to limit their creativity: Adam in terms of his agricultural productivity, and Woman in terms of her reproductivity, with the word “etzev” (perhaps best translated as painful uncertainty) repeated three times.

In the description of Sukkot above, we also find ourselves in a time of abundant vegetation during the harvest season. Here the similarities end. We are told affirmatively to take (u’lakachtem lachem) the four species — not to desist from eating the fruit. We are told to experience happiness before G-d (u’semachtem lifnei Hashem) — as opposed to hiding from G-d, and experiencing etzev. We are told to sit in sukkot, so that future generations will know (yed’u) of G-d’s kindness to us — as opposed to the serpent’s promise of G-d-like knowledge if we eat from the Tree of Knowledge (Da’at). Even the word “ach” that opens these verses reminds us of G-d’s calling out to Adam: “Ayeka?”

Perhaps Rabbi Abba d’Ako was thinking of these parallels when he declared that the fruit that Adam and the Woman ate from the Tree of Knowledge was an etrog (Bereishit Rabbah 15:7). Nachmanides (Leviticus 23:40) also argues for this position, explaining that the words hadar (used to describe the Sukkot fruit), hemdah (used to describe the Tree of Knowledge), and the Aramaic word etrog should all be translated as desire. Adam and the Woman disobeyed G-d by taking the fruit of their desire, but we are commanded on Sukkot to take the fruit of desire.

This is puzzling. If taking the fruit in the Garden of Eden was so catastrophic, why should taking the fruit on Sukkot be an affirmative command?

In the Garden of Eden, humans choose to satisfy their own desires rather than consider the damage their choices will have on their relationships with G-d, and with each other. When they eat from the tree, they immediately experience a new sense of separateness: they feel shame, cover up their nakedness and hide.  Even when G-d offers them the opportunity to re-connect by asking “Ayeka?” (where are you?), they do not return. Instead, they double-down on their separateness and Adam blames Eve (and Eve blames the serpent). They prioritize their unexamined desires at the expense of their oneness with G-d, and with each other.

The choice to eat the fruit, and then to blame others rather than return, is very human. We sometimes make choices that separate us from G-d, from other people, and from ourselves. And often, after we make those choices, our goal can be simply to hide from our choices and blame others. As time goes on, though, we feel the pain of disconnection and alienation brought on by our choices.

The gift of teshuvah (repentance), and, in particular, the months of Elul and Tishrei, give us another way of dealing with this human-ness. We are told that we can return, and we are given the opportunity to grow and change. In fact, Rabbi Abahu teaches: “In the place where penitents stand, even the full-fledged righteous do not stand.” (Berakhot 34b) During this time, we respond to the question of Ayeka and remember ourselves, doing the necessary work to carefully examine our true desires and right our past wrongs. We start to re-examine what we truly need.

Beyond helping us change our actions, teshuvah helps us clarify our desires. We realize that what we thought we had wanted in fact led us to be alienated, separated, and lonely. We reconsider what it important to us. We come to realize that our true desire is to reunite with ourselves, with G-d, and with those from whom we are alienated. We desire wholeness.

On Sukkot, the hard work of Elul and the High Holidays comes to fruition. This time, we are affirmatively told to take the fruit of our desire, because it has ripened and matured as a result of our experiences and soul-searching. In turn, our taking the fruit this time leads to different results: we rejoice before G-d, rather than experiencing the pain of distance and hiding from G-d.

May the hard work that we have done this High Holiday season give us the ability to reach for our repaired-heart’s desires with confidence and wholeness this Sukkot and throughout the year.

About the Author
Aliza Sperling teaches Jewish texts and thought to adults and children in the Washington DC area, and designs innovative text-based curricula and educational programs for various Jewish schools and organizations. Aliza is a third-year student at Yeshivat Maharat, a faculty member of the Wexner Foundation, and an iCenter fellow. She is currently working on a halachic analysis of whether a blind person may read the Torah for the congregation in Braille.
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