Chapter 23 of the Book of Leviticus outlines two mitzvot associated with the festival of Sukkoth. In verse 40 it says
“On the first day [of the festival] you shall take the product of hadar trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook…..”.
These are the four species of vegetation that we today know as the etrog, lulav, myrtle and willow. The Rabbis taught that we hold the four species together, and wave them in all of the directions of the compass, as well as upwards and downwards. In this way, we mobilize the winds that blow from all directions to bring rain to Israel for the new season of sowing and harvest.
In Leviticus 23: 42-43 we read,
“He shall live in booths [Sukkoth] seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in booths, in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt…..”.
These sukkoth must have a roof (s’khakh) made of natural untreated materials, and through which the rain can penetrate. To carry out this mitzvah, every Jewish household is expected to spend time in a sukkah over course of the week of the festival.
One explanation behind these two mitzvot, waving the lulav and etrog, and dwelling in a sukkah, is, to bring us into a closer relationship with nature than we ordinarily and possibly experience it through the rest of the religious year.
Rabbi Greenberg, provides an interesting theological insight into Sukkoth in his book “The Jewish Way”. Greenberg contrasts Sukkoth with Pessach. As he points out, Pessach celebrates a single, intense moment of freedom in the life of the Jewish people. At the exodus from Egypt, he continues, the divine presence came into human experience. Pessach is therefore a season of miracles. At the exodus the people were required only to take the first step, and God did the rest.
Sukkoth, on the other hand, does not celebrate a moment of miracle, a moment when ordinary time ceased. On the contrary, Sukkoth calls to mind a long period of wandering, a longer period in time. I like this thought. At Sukkoth, God is, as he was back then when our people wandered through the desert, hidden in the everyday, the day-by-day experiences.
Sukkoth reminds us of 40 years during which the people of Israel had to deal with the basic requirements of an everyday existence: water, food, clothing, a roof over the head.
Rabbi Greenberg’s insight is that these two festivals, Pessach and Sukkoth, are two sides of the same coin. As human beings, we seek moments of “divine enthusiasm”, moments taking us out of time, beyond the everyday, in a more uplifted realm. Such moments deepen our spiritual appreciation for life; they give us a sense of God’s grandeur. On the other hand, we spend most of our time while we are alive journeying through uncharted territory, facing the everyday demands and needs life places upon us.
It is an act of faith on our part to believe that life’s road does indeed lead somewhere: That there is indeed a deeper meaning, and a pattern to life. I think this I a remarkable thought.
Just as Pessach and Sukkoth represent two sides of the same coin, so they fall at opposite ends of the Jewish year: Pessach on the 15th day of the first Hebrew month (Nisan), and Sukkoth on the 15th day of the seventh month (Tishrei). Our lives revolve around these two poles of the Jewish year, which represent our longing for the miraculous, on the one hand, and our everyday experience of reality, on the other.
The two mitzvot of Sukkoth focus on the basic needs of everyday life: water (represented by the waving of the four species) and shelter (represented by the sukkah). Ironically, these needs, once met, most quickly distract us from acknowledging the role of God in providing for them.
The Torah itself recognises that once we have water and food, the clothing and the “fine houses” (Deuteronomy 8:12), which we need to keep us secure and warm, we misinterpret their origins and imagine that it is “by the strength of our hands” that we achieved them.
On Pessach, when we recall how the natural world was overturned and we were freed from slavery, it is easy to acknowledge the impact of the divine on the life of our people.
Sukkoth reminds us that even in the absence of such dramatic moments of magnificent miracles, God is still at work in our lives. Remember, all these “small wonders”, whom we have just lost sight of, like the water, the food, the clothing, and the dwellings, none of which is a given, and needs to be sustained.
I would like to think that even more so, as we wander year by year through the wilderness of our lives, even at those times when our journey seems dark and most uncertain, God is there, providing for us.