During the week of Sukkot, we are instructed to read various Torah passages that reference the festival. On the Shabbat that falls during the intermediary days of Sukkot (Chol HaMo-eid Sukkot), we read from Exodus 33:12-34:26, which begins with an encounter between Moses and God immediately after the transgression of the Golden Calf. Their intimate rapprochement ends with Moses carving a second set of tablets to replace those that he shattered. New commandments are given to the Israelites, among them the observance of Three Pilgrimage Festivals.
"You shall observe the Feast of Weeks, of the first fruits of the wheat harvest; and the Feast of Ingathering at the turn of the year. Three times a year all your males shall appear before the Sovereign Eternal, the God of Israel" (Exodus 34:22-23).
This "Feast of Ingathering"(Chag HaAsif) is identified with Sukkot. It is the only reference to Sukkot in the prescribed reading for Chol HaMo-eid Sukkot, and it is an oblique reference at that.
Other passages in the Torah enlarge our understanding of Sukkot by enlarging the observance. Leviticus 23:33-43 mentions practices we associate with Sukkot: eight days of sacred observance in the middle of the seventh month of the Jewish year, dwelling in booths, and rejoicing with certain branches and fruits (later stylized as the lulav and etrog ). The Book of Deuteronomy adds that on Sukkot "you shall have nothing but joy"(Deuteronomy 16:15), which may have prompted the Rabbis to call this festival Z'man Simchateinu, "Season of Our Rejoicing."
But in today's reading, Sukkot is nothing more than Chag HaAsif,"the Feast of Ingathering,"one of three annual pilgrimage festivals. (Pesach and Shavuot are the other two.)
From the embellishment of the Sukkot observance over the course of the Torah, we can infer an important Jewish teaching that applies not only to Sukkot, but also to our lives. That teaching is known as hidur mitzvah.
Hidur mitzvah means "to make a commandment beautiful."The concept comes from Exodus 15:2, "This is my God and I will enshrine Him."The Rabbis interpreted the call to "enshrine"God as an invitation to fulfill mitzvot not in a perfunctory way, but in a beautiful way.
You could say that the Torah itself engages in hidur mitzvah with regard to its embellishment of Sukkot. First, it conveys the bare-bones essence of Sukkot in this week's passage-giving us the austere phrase "Feast of Ingathering"(simply meaning a harvest festival). Later, it embellishes the observance through the ritual appropriation of booths and natural produce. Rabbinic tradition further beautified our observance by explaining the specifics of building a sukkah, by giving us inspiring teachings about the lulav and etrog , by asking us to host festive meals in the sukkah, and by providing us customs like ushpizin ,in which our biblical ancestors are symbolically invited into the sukkah.
What begins as an unadorned statement in Exodus gradually evolves into the festival we know and love through hidur mitzvah , the beautifying and embellishing of a commandment. (Most holidays, by the way, evolve in like fashion. The seder ritual for Passover is but one dramatic example.)
Plenty of mitzvot can be beautified. In fact, Sukkot itself provides us with an ideal case study in hidur mitzvah. We all know the commandment to build a sukkah, but we don't stop with the basic frame and thatched roof that constitute its essential requirements. We embellish it with ornamental touches-fruits and vegetables, flowers and garlands. We take a mitzvah and we make it beautiful.
The Torah scroll in your synagogue took a full year for a sofer to write, because the scribe beautified the script with elaborate calligraphy. Take a look at the ornamental crowns capping the letters-it was a labor of love. We carefully enrobe the Torah scroll in its embroidered mantle and crown its rollers with gleaming finery. We take a mitzvah and we make it beautiful.
The Torah tells us to affix fringes (tzitzit) to our garments. But look around at the dazzling array of colors and woven-work patterns on the tallitot of your congregants. We take a mitzvah and we make it beautiful.
The Judaica in your home-candlesticks, Kiddush cups, chanukiyot -these put hidur mitzvah on display for others to see the pride and joy we take in our tradition.
Hidur mitzvah teaches us never to treat opportunities for sacred service as rote responsibilities, something merely to "get through." Hidur mitzvah teaches us to take the time to make the deeds that elevate and sanctify our lives as beautiful, special, and meaningful as we can. Through hidur mitzvah, we come to see that thoughtfulness and creativity applied to Jewish observance fill our lives with splendor, inspiration, and love for our tradition.
At its best, Reform Judaism is itself a manifestation of hidur mitzvah. Reform Judaism, rooted in the heritage of the prophets, decries ritual observance reduced to mechanical obedience, the performance of mitzvotout of hope for reward or fear of punishment. Early Reformers lamented that prayer services had become a sterile exercise, dry and devoid of inspiration. Services became an obligation to get through rather than a moment to connect with the majesty and tenderness of the prayers. Many of the earliest reforms aspired to enhance the beauty of worship-particularly through music. Aesthetics became a pathway to spiritual awareness and joy in religious observance.
Hidur mitzvah also teaches us about the human condition. The sukkah is a fragile nature hut. To be kosher, that is, ritually fit, a sukkah cannot be too durable. The roof needs to have gaps, to be susceptible to the elements, so that even while standing inside we can feel the wind and rain come through. Life too is fragile and fleeting. No life escapes bruises. When we stand still long enough, something will come through to sting us.
An unadorned sukkah is a naked, frail thing, just a rickety frame that sways in the breeze.
That is why we approach the sukkah in the spirit of hidur mitzvah. We take the poor sukkah, this temporary little home, and we make it beautiful-almost in holy defiance of its basic nature, almost as if to compensate for all its deficiencies.
We take a naked, frail thing and we make it beautiful.
And that, in the end, is really what life is all about: taking what life gives us, with all its brokenness and deficiencies, and making it as beautiful and meaningful as we can.
Rabbi Jonathan E. Blake is senior rabbi of Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, New York.