The Torah reading for the Shabbat of Sukkot (Exodus 33:12–34:26) includes the reconciliation between God and Moses following the Golden Calf, the inscription of the second set of the Ten Commandments, and the verbal covenant that accompanies this second giving. Two brief sections have direct connections to the holiday of Sukkot. The first is God’s response to Moses’s request for more knowledge of the Divine Essence. Moses, in essence, has said to God, “I can’t go on unless You tell me more about Yourself.” This answer has been parsed as the Thirteen Attributes of God, and is included as a liturgical addition to the Torah service on festival mornings:
“The Eternal! The Eternal! a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin—yet not remitting all punishment, but visiting the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations” (Exodus 34:6–7).
The second section with connection to Sukkot is a listing of the three—or more—festivals themselves. The mention of the festivals is part of what may be seen as an alternative (older?) version of the Ten Commandments. This is a summary of Exodus 34:10–26:
- I make a covenant with you.
- Do not make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land; do not worship their gods—nor make molten gods for yourselves.
- Observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread, (Chag HaMaztot) eating matzot for seven days.
- Every first issue of the womb is Mine.
- Six days you shall work, but on the seventh you shall cease from labor, even at plowing and harvest time.
- Observe the Feast of Weeks (Chag Shavuot) of the first fruits of the harvest.
- Observe the Feast of Ingathering (Chag HaAsif) at the turn of the year.
- Do not offer the blood of My sacrifice with anything leavened; the sacrifice of the Feast of Passover (Chag HaPesach) shall not be left lying until morning.
- Bring the first fruits of the soil to the house of the Eternal.
- Do not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.
This covenant reflects a time when the Feast of Passover/Pesach and the Feast of Unleavened Bread/Matzot were two distinct holidays. The Feast of Pesach includes a single practice: the offering of a sacrifice (its name is “the pesach”) that must be eaten before morning. It is a one-day festival. The Feast of Unleavened Bread, a seven-day festival, is part of a trio of three agricultural festivals, perhaps our most ancient holidays upon which the historical experiences of our people are layered.
My husband, David Elcott, a gifted educator and storyteller, found a way to convey this idea to religious school students and their parents in a story that I will now paraphrase.
Grandfather Yaakov had been born in the desert. His parents had been slaves in Egypt, and all across the desert trek to the Land of Israel, Yaakov had heard the stories of what it was like to have been a slave, and the miraculous and scary experiences of freedom. His parents had died in the desert, but Yaakov had made it to the Promised Land. He married, had children and grandchildren—fields of wheat, vineyards, and orchards of olives. Life was good—but something was missing. Every now and then, Grandfather Yaakov tried to gather his family together and tell them about life in the desert, and the stories his parents had told him about slavery and freedom. But each time his children and grandchildren would say, “Pops, let it go. Those were hard times—but it was a long time ago. Life is good now. Can’t you just enjoy being with us? Don’t miss all these good times thinking about the past!”
It made sense—but not completely.
It was the end of summer, and the family had begun the fall harvest, the time of the ingathering of the crops. They only had a week in which to complete this harvest. There was no time to go all the way home after each days’ harvest; they would sleep in the fields, in small huts, where they could keep an eye on their harvest and rise early in the morning for the next day’s work. Grandfather Yaakov was too old to be out in the fields; he stayed in the hut and guarded the harvested crops. Grandfather Yaakov looked out onto the baskets of deep red pomegranates and clusters of purple grapes. And all of a sudden, an idea occurred to him.
That evening, as the family marched tiredly back toward their hut, from a distance they could see that something was different. Sheaves of wheat and palm branches decorated its sides; grapes and pomegranates and clusters of dates hung from the roof. Grandfather Yaakov was seated on the earthen floor, a lamp of olive oil casting a warm glow in front of him. Slowly, his children and grandchildren took their seats in a circle in the hut. Grandfather Yaakov lifted a leather flask of wine, took a big sip, and passed it around. “Let me tell you,” Grandfather Yaakov began, “how we came to this beautiful land.” And he began to tell the story of his family—the story of our family.
Other families out in their huts saw what was going on the sukkah of Grandfather Yaakov—and they, too, began to decorate their harvest sukkah, to drink wine and to tell the story of the Jewish people.
Fiction, fantasy—certainly. Dreams and stories are not “true” in historical or scientific ways—but they carry the truths upon which we build our lives. The Feast of the Ingathering becomes the Feast of Sukkot; its earliest celebrations were of harvest—and then sacrifices. Perhaps in Babylonian exile, the holiday expanded yet again—with fruits of the hadar tree, branches of palm, boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook, and living in sukkot for seven days.
Most important, the lived drama of Sukkot—indeed, of all our holidays—becomes an extraordinary way to tell our story. Our Sukkot story continues to unfold: many of us do not use perishable fruit in our sukkah, for to use edible fruit when so many are going hungry seems antithetical to the mitzvah of remembering and including the stranger and the vulnerable. The fragile structure of the sukkah is a vivid reminder of the ongoing homelessness that is the life of so many on this planet. We tell the story—each year—of where we come from and why we are here. We were strangers in the land of Egypt and God freed us, so that we could do the work of freeing others. This is the festival of our joy—z’man simchateinu. How great it is to be alive and to have a story to tell! Chag sameach!
Rabbi Shira Milgrom is a rabbi at Congregation Kol Ami and is part of a unique rabbinic partnership of two co-senior rabbis in White Plains, New York. She is the author of articles about Jewish spirituality, education, healing, and women in Judaism, and is the editor of a unique siddur used now for two decades in settings across the continent. She is blessed to learn continually about loving from her husband, children, and grandchildren.