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 Four Secrets of Fulfilling Your Mission

There are two outstanding mitzvot (commandments) that Jews fulfill on Sukkot: 1. Sukkah (a booth that becomes a temporaya home recalling the booths of the Israeliotes in the wilderness) 2. The Four Species (a palm branch, willow branches, myrtle branches and a citron that are waved during a synagogue ceremony).

The Torah, regarding the Four Species, commands "And you shall take for you on the first day the fruit of ..". Why, asks the rabbinical commentary, does it say "the first day" when, in fact, it is the fifteenth day of the month? From here, they say, we learn that the first day of Sukkot is the first day of the "accountings of sins."

In other words, the five days from Yom Kippur until Sukkot do not count towards our "sin account". Does this mean that we have a free pass? And why, many ask, does this idea relate to mitzva number 2, the Four Species, and not mitzva number 1, the sukkah? What is it about the Four Species that re-activates our sin accounting, our repsonsibility for our actions?

The answer contains a beautiful insight to help us fulfill our missions. The name of the citron (etrog in hebrew) is given as "The fruit of a pleasant tree". Our tradition teaches us that the etrog and the tree that bears it basically taste the same. This is significant.

According to the midrash commentary on Genesis, God commanded all of the trees as he created them to be this way, with their fruits and their trunks, branches and leaves all sharing the same taste. All except one, the etrog, failed to accomplish this. They may have wonderfully tasty fruits, but would one eat the wood, it would be different.

How, we may ask, do the trees created by God not fulfill this Divine directive, and dare to have varying tastes? Perhaps this midrash is teaching us a valuable lesson in disguise. For what is the tree and what is the fruit in this equation? The mission and the fulfillment. All of the beautiful trees in the world save one do not fully complete their mission. The fruit, while it may be great, is not as great as it could have been, is not what it dreamed it would be.

Well, then, what is the etrog's secret? We all want to know!

I think there are four keys. Four elements of this mitzva may help us follow the etrog's example:

  1. The etrog is taken together with the branches of the palm, willow and myrtle trees. In other words, it realizes that any mission in life must be connected to, and with the support of, a community. We need famiy, friends, society. After all, hard-wired into our very existence is the need to fix the world, to contribute. No worthwhile mission does not improve the world, so how could one ever fulfill it without involving and inspiring others?

  2. The etrog is held in the oposite hand as the other three. In other words, one must be a leader, one must have the ability to take one's one direction. If my mission is to write a Torah commentary, for example, I can't allow important distractions to keep me from fulfilling my mission though neglect. I need to know when to separate and say "no" if my mission is at risk. All the more, I should never allow the bad influence of others to weaken my resolve IF the mission is a worthwhile one.

  3. The Four Species must be shaken in six directions: East-South-West-North-Up-Down. In other words, we learn two things here. We must be in motion, we must always be a mover and a shaker. No mission gets fulfilled through laziness and sloth. Secondly, we must be thorough, hitting every possible angle. Once we start to compromise on the mission, we are finished.

  4. Each movement starts at our heart (chest), moves out, and returns back to our heart. Perhaps the most influential aspect, we must be emotionally invested in this mission, and we must renew that investment contstantly, with each movement of the Four Species. I believe the flow of success is hinted at here as well: When I am excited to start my mission, and I accomplish a small step, it returns to my heart and builds even more excitement and motivation. The sages say, "A mitzva brings along another mitzva..".

So there are the four lessons of the Four Species to show us how to fulfill our resolutions and our mission. Connection to others, leadership, constant and thorough motion, and emotional investment.

So it is not that we get a free pass from Yom Kippur till Sukkot at all. This midrash is referring to our mission fulfillment. We can't be held accountable until we have learned the message of the etrog and the Four Species. Once that has happened, the race has started. Thus, Yom Kippur is the time for registration. The days in between are when we are to arrive at the starting line. The moment we shake the Four Species on that First Day is when the call is heard:


The Life-Changing Perspective of Ecclesiastes

The rabbis wanted to keep this book out of the canon because of so many of the verses that give a wrong impression. However, when they saw the final verse of Ecclesiastes, they relented. What does this verse say? "At the end of the matter, after all has been heard, you should fear the Lord and observe His commandments, for this is the totality of man."

In other words, since the book ends on an unambiguous note of piety, it is okay for the masses to read. Really? Does one verse at the end undo all of the problematic verses that precede it?

A commentary, the Ketav Sofer, elucidates one verse which gives us the key to understanding all of these verses. "What advantage does one gain from all of his work that he will labor at under the sun?" He asks our question, that there is certainly benefit for work! No, because at the end of the day, King Solomon tells us, the wise man and the fool, the rich man and the pauper, will meet the same end. After life is over, no one has any advantage.

That is what happens when one labors "under the sun." But if one labors for "over the sun," for the sake of Heaven, there is tremendous benefit. This is hinted at by the use of the future tense, "that he will labor under the sun." It is not commenting on the work he has already done, but his intentions for the future. If his intentions are to collect earthly toys, he will never see that advantage last. But if he labors for the sake of Heaven, for that place which is above the sun, he will most certainly have an advantage.

Rabbi Norman Lamm, the former president of Yeshiva University, expounds on this book beautifully. King Solomon, according to the Aramaic commentator Yonatan ben Uzziel, wrote this book with an element of prophecy. There is a profound difference between wisdom and prophecy. The former can indeed give happiness! Knowledge demonstrably improves our quality and effectiveness in life. These are key elements in happiness, and this cannot be dismissed. King Solomon himself pursued wisdom to the end of his days.

Prophecy, on the other hand, contains the seeds of depression. Why? Because King Solomon saw that everything he had built in his kingdom would be squandered and destroyed in future generations. In his son's time, the kingdom would split in two. Centuries after, the entire nation would be exiled and afflicted. And, yes, every accomplishment one makes in this world eventually disappears after we are gone. Who knows if our great-great-grandchildren will even know the most basic things about us, let alone our talents, our accomplishments, our loves, our dreams.

Wisdom looks at our present and immediate future, while prophecy looks way down the road. Wisdom can give us short-term optimism in happiness. Prophecy shows us how futile everything is. Or so it seems...

Then comes that final verse, that magical conclusion to Ecclesiastes, "At the end of the matter, after all has been heard, you should fear the Lord and observe His commandments, for this is the totality of man." This verse is not just putting a kashrut certificate on a questionable work! It is giving us the whole context! And that is: if everything you do in this world is sanctified by dedication to the fear of the Lord, it is of value and will last forever.

One's great-great-grandchildren may not know the details of their life, but God certainly does! And God is eternal. All of the verses in the book that seem to make light of important values such as wisdom, piety, labor, joy and love, do so when they are dedicated to worldly success, to happiness "under the sun." All of that is vanity indeed. But when they are dedicated to God, when they are sanctified to heaven, which is "above the sun," they become eternal.

As I first contemplated the depressing aspects of this book, I found myself feeling down. I love to get excited about a new project, and here, King Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived, is telling me to get depressed, not excited, because it's all vanity and worthlessness. And then I went to take a nap in my sukkah. It was there that I felt this answer to these questions.

The sukkah is the physical embodiment of the book of Ecclesiastes. Its walls are flimsy, its roof is porous. Nothing about it will last, except that it symbolizes the eternity of the Jewish people. And that is because it is dedicated to God. The Talmud tells us that God's Name is written into the very fiber of the sukkah. And then I cheered up, because I understood that by dedicating all of my exciting projects to fulfilling God's purpose in the world, happiness and love and wisdom and wealth have tremendous value.