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Sukkot 5778 — 10/07/2017

Sukkot 5778 — 10/07/2017

Koren Publishers/Maggid Books has just come out with another volume of R. Jonathan Sacks’ writings, this time on the holidays of the Jewish Year. It is called Ceremony and Celebration, ISBN 978-1-59264-025-6, and like everything else R. Sacks has written, it is well worth reading. I will probably use it for several years, as one little drash of mine barely scratches the surface of what R. Sacks has to say.

R. Sacks points out that there are two major cycles of holidays in the Jewish year. The one we are more familiar with is the yearly cycle of the three pilgrimage festivals: Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot. These festivals commemorate the birth of the Jewish nation: Pesach commemorates the Exodus from Egypt, where we gained physical freedom; Shavuot commemorates the giving of the Torah, where we gained spiritual freedom; Sukkot commemorates the 40-year sojourn in the desert (the Sukkah is reminiscent of the Clouds of Glory that sheltered the nation during its wandering, and of the temporary structures in which they dwelt in between marches), where our relationship with Gd matured and came to fruition with our entry into the Land of Israel. This cycle of holidays is particularistic – it relates to the Jewish people specifically, to our national mission and to our particular relationship with Gd.

The other cycle is the cycle of holidays in Tishri – Rosh haShanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot. These holidays are focused more on nature. Rosh haShanah is traditionally the day on which the world was created. Sukkot is the quintessential agricultural festival, where we celebrate the harvest. The Four Species (“lulav and etrog”) are symbols of our connection with nature. In addition, this is the time when “the world is judged for rain” – that is, whether we will have abundant crops or famine. This is a universal aspect of Sukkot – nature is the same for all nations. In addition, the 70 bulls that are offered over the 7 days of Sukkot are taken to be an offering for the betterment of the “70 nations” of the world. In other words, they are an affirmation that our particular mission includes universal values – the betterment of all humankind.

Sukkot of course takes part in both cycles. It celebrates both universality and the individuality of the Jewish people. The Jewish people is a part of nature of course, but we also have, at least when we are at our best, an aspect that is “above Nature” in the expression of our Sages. It is clear that to some extent at least we must be “above Nature,” for a people as small as we are would never have survived what we have gone through in the past 2500 years or so without some special Divine intervention. The Rabbis explain it this way: when Israel does Gd’s Will, then Gd takes care of us. If we don’t, then Gd lets nature take care of us. This makes sense – when our connection to Gd is strong and we are, by our actions, furthering the course of history in the direction Gd has chosen, then naturally the reaction is positive. Of course the opposite is also true.

This melding of individuality and universality is, ideally, reflected in our own lives. We are, of course, individuals, but we have a level of universality at our basis. We are a soul essentially – and the soul is a piece of Divinity – infinite, eternal, unbounded. It is the universal part of our individuality. Unfortunately, most of the time the incessant activity in which we are engaged clouds our experience of this unbounded aspect of our inner nature. We need to allow this activity to quiet down, so that we can become settled enough to perceive our universality. This is the process of t’shuvah, with which we have been quite busy since the beginning of Elul, but which really should be a regular, ongoing process. Every time we do t’shuvah, in the sense of returning to our Divine root, that universal Divinity gets more and more established in our awareness, even while we are acting in the world. T’shuvah is thus a process of progressively harmonizing the universal and the particular, the cosmic and the individual. Perhaps that is the message we are supposed to get from Sukkot.

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Commentary by Steve Sufian

Sukkot: Open to the Sky, Open to Gd, Open to Ourself.

To me, every aspect of Torah and our religion is a means to dissolve the boundaries that limit our experience to the small and block our awareness of the Infinite, the One, which is all there is.

The openness of the Sukkah roof and the fragile, temporary nature of it allow us to experience the Joy of opening to that which is greater than the man-made.

There are many ways to look at the symbolism of the Four Species which we wave: one is given by Gal Enai Institute (inner.org):

  • The lulav branch symbolizes the human backbone;
  • The myrtle leaves symbolize the human eyes;
  • The willow leaves symbolize the human lips;
  • The etrog fruit symbolizes the human heart.

Together, Gal Enai points out, they symbolize that the human is created in Gd’s image – though Gd is unlimited He appears within limits and these limits symbolize the reality that though Unlimited, Gd can be perceived; though Unlimited, Gd Sees all; though Unlimited, Gd speaks and can be heard; though Unlimited, Gd has a heart that is compassionate and guides us by expanding our awareness when we do the mitzvot and narrows our awareness when we stray.

Waving the Four Species, I look at as a way we are given to express the reality that we can move the image of Gd, ourselves, and move the air around us, a blessing of Gd, and imperceptible until we move it, or a wind blows and we feel it or see the results of its motion, in the stirring of branches and leaves, grass, and dust.

I always experience great Joy just being in the Sukkah with other members of our congregation, happy people, good people. And the Joy deepens as the service progresses.

Sukkahs and Sukkot are wonderful gifts of HaShem to us.

Thank, you Gd!

Baruch HaShem