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Parashat 09/23/2010

Sukkot 5771
submitted by Robert Rabinoff

A Reminder  — We’re starting the cycle of Torah readings anew next week!
I started writing these drashes a couple of years ago, not with the intention that it was going to be “Bob’s Drasha Column” in the newsletter, but rather to encourage everyone in the community to take the time to read the Parashah and to engage with it.  Remember, a wise man once said: “the mind can’t make a mood on an abstract basis.”  One very good way to react to and be affected by the text is to write about it.  And incidentally, Shabbat is an excellent time to read (but not write about!) the Parashah — the quiet and holiness of the day are especially conducive to more profound thinking and understanding.  I have those little post-it arrows that they put on contracts to show you all the places you have to sign, and I put them on the places in the text or the commentary that I want to remember after Shabbat.  In fact, I find more and more that my week revolves around Shabbat and the Parashah, and less about things of lesser value (like whether the Yankees will win their division).  Whatever you do, your thoughts and understandings are more than welcome in the newsletter.  Please join the discussion — it’s been going on for 3300+ years now and we each have a unique point of view to add.
Sukkot 5771

This Shabbat is the Shabbat of the Intermediate Days (Chol HaMoed) of Sukkot.  The Torah readings for Sukkot all have to do with the details of the offerings made on the various days, an interesting topic in its own right.  However on the Shabbat of Chol HaMoed Sukkot we additionally read Kohelet (Ecclesiastes).  What is the significance of this reading in the context of this holiday?

I believe we can only understand Sukkot in the framework of the High Holiday season.  Indeed, the last day of Sukkot itself (Hoshanah Rabbah) is often explicitly linked to Yom Kippur as the last opportunity to set things right between Gd and the individual.  Rosh HaShanah is often referred to as the day on which we coronate Gd as our King; we accept Gd’s sovereignty over the whole universe, and over our individual lives.  (This latter by the way, since it affects us directly and sometimes inconveniently, can be much harder than the former!)  At this stage we acknowledge both the existence and the primacy of Gd, the transcendent, ultimate reality.  However that reality is perceived as being outside ourselves as it were, separate from our individual existence.  This is of course a valid perception if we are focused on our individual body and mind, as we must be to some extent anyway.

On Yom Kippur we take this a step further.  Now we strip ourselves of our individuality as much as we can.  We don’t pay any mind at all to the needs of the body – no eating, no drinking, not much sense perception outside of the prayerbook.  We also don’t pay much attention to our individual mind; rather the day is spent in prayer, focused on the holy words that have come down to us through thousands of years of tradition.  Yom Kippur is a day spent in the transcendent; the metaphor is immersing in a mikveh, the ritual bath from which we emerge purified.

Virtually as soon as Yom Kippur is over we have to begin preparing for Sukkot.  The agricultural aspect of Sukkot is the harvest festival, when we gather in the fruit of the year’s labors and rejoice with them.  We are specifically commanded to be joyful on this festival, and to make others joyful as well – the poor and the vulnerable especially.  In the liturgy Sukkot is called z’man simchateinu, the time of our joy.  However there is another aspect of Sukkot, from which the holiday derives its name, and that is that we leave our comfortable, and seemingly permanent, houses and go live in makeshift huts for a week.  And we read Kohelet.

For those not familiar with Kohelet, it was written by King Solomon and discusses his attempt to find something of permanent value in the world.  Whether it was wisdom or partying, Kohelet comes to the same conclusion: All is vanity (hevel).  Now one way to read this expression is to emphasize on the ephemeral nature of material creation, and even the subtler, more spiritual levels, which are also not permanent in the way the transcendent is.  This is certainly a valid reading, for the material world is indeed ephemeral.

I’d like to take a bit of a different tack.  The word hevel at its root means “breath.”  Just as a breath is about as ephemeral as you can get, so the word has taken on that meaning.  But there is another feature of a breath – it is transparent (except maybe on a cold winter’s day).  And being transparent, it has no clear-cut boundaries – a breath, as it were, becomes one with its surroundings.  Similarly the Sukkah – for a week we leave the solid walls of our houses and live in a hut, a structure in which the boundary between inside and outside is not so very clear.  What we seem to be doing is putting ourselves in a situation where either physically (Sukkah) or intellectually (Kohelet) we are learning to take the unbounded transcendent and to evaluate boundaries in terms of the unbounded.  That is, on Rosh HaShanah we acknowledge the unbounded, but as separate from the world of boundaries.  On Yom Kippur we internalize the experience of unboundedness directly into our minds and hearts.  Finally, on Sukkot, we learn to view all boundaries as nothing other than expressions of the boundless.  Rather than understanding ephemeral in the negative sense of impermanent, we evaluate it as ethereal, light, permeable – something that doesn’t block our perception of Divinity.  Instead of being a garment that cloaks and hides the infinite, the finite reveals the infinite it all its endless possibilities of expression.

The holiday of Sukkot calls to us to leave the world of rigid boundaries and to re-evaluate the nature of the individual in relation to the universal.  It calls us to see the world as it really is, almost as Gd sees it, as an infinite ocean of being rising in waves while never losing its essential nature as ocean.  When this becomes our reality, Sukkot will truly be a season of unadulterated joy!