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Sukkot 5774 — 09/18/2013

Sukkot 5774 — 09/18/2013

Next week we begin the next cycle of Torah readings with Bereishit, and I have some new source material which will remain a closely guarded secret until then.  For this, the last Shabbat of the current cycle, I would like to return to a theme we’ve been exploring for the past few months, viz. the relationship between human action and Divine action.  The Sfas Emes (R. Yehuda Aryeh Leib Alter, 1847-1905, the second Gerrer Rebbi) dealt with this in two of his Sukkot drashes, which are quoted in the anthology of his writings called The Three Festivals, translated by R. Yosef Stern and published by Artscroll.  It is a book that is well worth having and reading (more than once).

The Sfas Emes distinguishes between the characteristics of Pesach and Sukkot, by pointing out a slight difference in the language used in describing the ritual of each.  In the case of Pesach, we are commanded to take an eizov (hyssop) branch and use it to put the blood of the Paschal lamb on the lintel and doorposts of our houses.  This particular taking is basically a passive, almost defensive undertaking.  We are to put the blood on the lintel and doorposts, and then simply wait in our houses for Gd’s salvation to unfold, as it does with the slaying of the Egyptians’ firstborn.

On Sukkot, on the other hand, we are told to take for yourselves the arba minim (the “4 species,” i.e. the lulav and etrog).  This indicates a more active “taking,” and indeed, we don’t use the lulav and etrog as a kind of blood ladle, rather it is something that we actively use in the Sukkot davvenning for the full 7 days (except on Shabbat).  We shake, rattle and roll the lulav-bundle in a ritual in which it is likened to a sword or a spear that destroys the forces of negativity.  The Sfas Emes writes:

One important distinction exists between the eizov and the lulav. Whereas we are told merely to take the eizov, concerning the lulav the Torah says ul’kachtem lachem, take for yourselves, implying that our taking is in our merit.

   This comparison shows the great progress made by the Jewish people. At the time of the Exodus, Israel was not deserving of Hashem’s kindness, as we find in the description of the prophet Yechezkel (16:7), v’at eirom v’eryah, and you were naked and barren (we may understand naked to mean that the Jews lacked merit). Thus, on Pesach, we commemorate Hashem’s outpouring of love for us, despite our lack of merit.

   The taking of the lulav on Succos, however, emphasizes Israel’s merit. In the aftermath of the repentance of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Jewry has earned Hashem’s kindness. In fact, the transition from Pesach to Succos can be perceived as an advancement from taking the lowly eizov (symbolizing our lack of merit) to the exalted level of the Four Species, well deserved by the newly rededicated Israel. The liberation of Pesach, dependent on Divine kindness, is preparation for Succos, which is enjoyed by Israel because of its own merits.

When we think about it, the idea that we can merit anything vis-à-via Gd is quite remarkable.  Gd is, after all, infinite, and the Creator of the universe and the source of our life and our very being.  We, on the other hand, are finite creatures, all too prone to mistakes and willful rebellion.  How can we merit the infinite?

I think the Sfas Emes is telling us that it is the link between “the repentance of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur” on the one hand, and Sukkot on the other, that provides an approach to the answer.  Repentance is t’shuvah in Hebrew, from the root shuv which means to return.  While we are finite in our body, since we are created beings, our minds and our souls are substantially less bounded than that.  Our mind can expand, encompassing more and more of Creation within its purview, and our soul can cling to its Source in Gd – these are the paths of knowledge and of devotion – and both lead us, finite creatures that we may be, back towards the infinity from which we individuated.

The beginning of Redemption can surely come only through Divine Grace; there is nothing we can do from our side to overcome our finite nature.  As our Sages put it, “the prisoner cannot free himself.”  However, built into the Divine Grace is the opportunity for us to earn merit, at least once the process has started, by seeing the process through to completion from our side.  This means following the guidelines, the life plan, that Gd has set out for us in our Torah and Tradition.  It means keeping our priorities on our spiritual development, with all that this entails, both in terms of overtly “spiritual practices” (prayer, ritual, meditation, etc.) that work directly on the mind and soul, as well as “mundane practices” (honesty in business and interpersonal relations, acts of kindness, etc.) that refine the heart and senses.  As we have been reading every week in the little epilogue to each chapter of Pirke Avot, “The Holy One Blessed be He wished to convey merit to Israel, therefore He gave them much Torah and many mitzvot.”  In other words, we were given many avenues by which to gain the merit of being close to Gd.  In the case of every person, some of those avenues will fit well with their individual nature.  This Sukkot, let’s be very sure to seize every opportunity we are given to cleave to our Creator!

Chag Same’ach to all!