The missing story of the Sukkot

A further indication of the mystery of when these sukkot actually were provided by God, as indicated by the above-quoted verse, is the fact that two great scholars debate what these sukkot actually were. One, Rabbi Akiva, claims they were actual sukkot, like the ones we use today. Rabbi Eliezer, on the other hand, claims they were the "Clouds of Glory" that tradition holds surrounded the Israelites in the wilderness. How can there even be such a debate if this were a clear historical event?

For these reasons, I wish to propose a different reading of the verse from Vayikra. "You shall dwell in sukkot (the booths) .. for I caused the Children of Israel to dwell in Sukkot (the place) when I brought them out of Egypt." The clear historical event being referenced is the arrival of Israel in Sukkot, their first stop as a free people. This moment was as important, if not more so than the Exodus itself. How so? Why have a major festival about it?

Because the Torah is telling us that Sukkot is, in a manner of speaking, Yom HaAtzmaut. It is the day we became a nation and the day we began our journey throughout history to "fix the world in the Kingdom of the All-Powerful." The verse starts off telling us, "YOU must dwell in booths," and continues in the third person, "because I caused the ISRAELITES to dwell (be established) at Sukkot."It could have said "because I caused YOU to dwell etc..." My reading of the verse is, then, that we live in booths on this holiday because God established the Nation of Israel as an independent nation with a Divine mission at Sukkot. Why there? Because this was our first encampment as a free people. This was the very beginning of our national journey.

But it was a false start. We stumbled just a few months later with the Golden Calf, which caused Rabbi Eliezer's Clouds of Glory to be taken away, not to return until the 15th of Tishrei, i.e., our Sukkot date. It was then that the journey truly began and has not been interrupted since. For this we celebrate. We commemorate Israel's founding, which is certainly up there with the Exodus and the Revelation.

Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Eliezer, who argue whether the actual sukkot in which we dwelled during those first decades of our national journey, are in reality debating HOW we are to go about this national mission. The goal is bringing God's Kingship to all of humanity. Are we to achieve this passively, observing the commandments and waiting for God to transform the world? Or are we to be proactive partners in this all-important mission? Are we witnesses or participants?

Rabbi Eliezer says that Sukkot are actually Clouds of Glory. That kind of sukkah is made by God, and we are simply the witnesses to God who dwell in that heavenly sukkah. In this, he is true to form. Rabbi Eliezer consistently sees man's role as to be the recipient of Divine wisdom and direction, and not as a co-creator of that wisdom. Thus, in a famous Talmudic story, Rabbi Eliezer seeks to prove his point in a Jewish legal debate by invoking signs from Heaven. He calls forth a heavenly voice, which proclaims, "What have you (other rabbis) against Rabbi Eliezer, whose opinion is always followed in Jewish law?" Rabbi Joshua, another scholar participating in this spirited debate, rebukes the Divine voice. "The Torah is no longer in Heaven!" he declares. But Rabbi Eliezer feels that it is.

Rabbi Akiva, on the other hand, believes in man as full partner with God in fixing the world as God's Kingdom. His approach to Jewish law is one of interpreting and extracting laws by analysis. He, therefore, suggests that the sukkot we had after we left Egypt were, indeed, sukkot made by man, with materials from the Earth, not from Heaven. His approach is most appropriate for Jewish relevance, as it enables the scholars of each generation to adapt to changing times and societies with an authentic Judaism.

We need both approaches. We need the traditions of Rabbi Eliezer to ensure that Judaism remains authentic. We need the exegesis of Rabbi Akiva to ensure that Judaism remains relevant. At the end of the argument cited above, the Talmud tells us that another rabbi, Rabbi Nathan, encountered Elijah the Prophet and asked him how God felt about being "overruled (as all of Rabbi Eliezer's divine signs did not carry the day)." God smiled, replied Elijah, and said: "My children have conquered Me." Rabbi Norman Lamm translates the reply differently, changing the word "conquered" to mean "made Me eternal." (Lenazeach is to defeat, whereas laasot nizchi means to make eternal. They both can be seen in the word used, "nitzchuni.")

Thus, Sukkot celebrates our arrival in freedom, our national founding at Sukkot. We then embarked on our world-fixing journey, dwelling in either Clouds of Glory from above, or earthly sukkot from below, depending on whom you ask. Either way, Sukkot now has tremendous importance, for it is no longer a commemoration of the past (as are Pesach and Shavuot), but a celebration of the Jewish future!

The Rebellious Son and School Safe Spaces

This commandment is a deeply troubling one, and commentaries have been wrestling with it from time immemorial. It is the commandments of the Rebellious Son. This child refuses to listen to his father and mother, and despite their disciplining him, he persists in his ways. He is to be brought to the court, and, possibly, given capital punishment.

The rabbis have worked hard to make this seemingly excessively harsh commandment makes some sense. First of all, they teach us that the Torah has limited application of this commandment so much that, perhaps, never such a case arose. By interpreting every word, we receive requirements such as: the child must be exactly at the bridge age of maturity, a period that lasts about three months, and he must have stolen a certain amount of meat and consumed a certain amount of wine, and that his parents must have similar voices, and that they must be able to walk.

Yet, even by limiting it, it still seems a difficult commandment to understand. Where is the guilt? Why is this child / man being put to death? The sages claim that it is a preemptive punishment. Based on these behaviors, it is a certainty that this young man will grow up to be a criminal of violent nature. It is better for him to die now, while he still is innocent. In this, the sages see a strong proof of the concept of reward and punishment in the world to come.

Nonetheless, this answer raises the question of free will versus God's foreknowledge. How can we be sure that the child will grow up to be a violent criminal, if there is free choice? Perhaps he will repent! One commentary suggests that the phrase, "He doesn't listen to his father's voice and his mother's voice," does not just referred to his biological father and mother. His Father, refers to Our Heavenly Father, and his mother refers to the assembly of Israel. In other words, this child has already rebelled against God and against the people of Israel.

But still, perhaps he will repent? Should we kill him and remove that possibility?

There is a verse in the Psalms that reads,."..[God] Understands to all of their actions." It does not say, "God understands all their actions," rather, "TO all their actions." In other words, God's knowledge of each person is so complete that he can know with certainty how they will behave in every future situation. It seems that the same is true of the rebellious son. The Torah is telling us that, if these symptoms are in place, there is no chance that he will not become a violent criminal.

The commentary Ohr Hachaim points to one word which may be the key to this entire, unusual, mitzvah. The rebellious son, "does not listen." In truth, however, the word for this is mistranslated. Literally, it means, "he is not someone who hears." It's to be compared to the King's guards, who are robbing the citizens. When the citizens come to complain to the King, will these guards allow them in? Of course not. This is what happens when one allows one's evil inclination to be one's ruler, such as is the case with the rebellious son.

I believe that this is the hidden message in the requirement that the rebellious son have eaten a certain quantity of meat and consumed a certain quantity of wine. The eating of meat itself is no great sin! When it is stolen, it becomes a sin. But when the young man drinks wine, he is drowning the spark of conscience with it. This is how he ensures that he will never hear "the voice of his father and the voice of his mother," whether it refers to his biological parents or to God and the Jewish people.

To be sure that indeed it is the young man himself that was the problem, the Torah requires the parents to be speaking with a unified voice. It requires them to attempt to discipline this child. And it requires them to be physically capable of carrying out such discipline. Clearly, their parenting was not perfect, since they are victims of the young man's punishment as well. But it is the young man who has chosen, despite being given an opportunity to grow up in a proper educational environment, to stop listening. If the parents were negligent or incapable of disciplining the child, he would not be deemed a rebellious son. That rebellion must come from within, must include a conscious decision to listen to no one but his own desires.

As we prepare for Rosh Hashanah, the message of this commandment is clear: Listen! Seek out lectures on ethical improvements, on Torah values. Listen to the needs and insights of those close to you. And, most of all, listen to the sound of the shofar, for the shofar is the voice of conscience.