This Shabbat is known as Chol HaMo-eid Sukkot. The very description is curious. Sukkot is a holiday that lasts for seven days. The entire festival is designated as holy time, with special commandments-shaking lulav and etrog, sitting or dwelling in a sukkah-to be performed throughout. Yet, the first and last days of the festival are distinct from the interim days, which are considered both holy and ordinary. On all seven days of Sukkot we must participate in rituals unique to the holiday, yet we are allowed to work on all but the first and last days (an activity expressly forbidden on Shabbatot and holidays).
It is this very in-between quality that is the essence of Sukkot. For Sukkot, more than any other holiday, reminds us of the human ability, indeed the human necessity, to simultaneously hold and experience opposites. From its most well-known symbols and customs to its most esoteric and perplexing scriptural readings, Sukkot challenges us to recognize fragility and loss while we are simultaneously commanded to rejoice.
As we hold the lulav and etrog in hand, surrounded by a well-decorated sukkah, reminders of harvest and bounty, we take a last look at produce that will not be growing locally again for many months. For those of us who live in climates with distinctive seasons, this may be our last outdoor communal gathering until early spring. We feel a hint (or a blast) of the impending change of season. Exposed to the elements, as we catch a glimpse of the stars through the sukkah's thatched roof, we are reminded how vulnerable we are to the variability of the natural world and to the unpredictable world of human creation. We intentionally leave the security of our homes and remember, through reenactment, the vulnerability of our ancestors as they wandered in the desert, between slavery and the Promised Land.
Each day of the holiday we read a section of Torah focused on the sacrifices made by our ancestors to fulfill the obligations associated with Sukkot. And on this Shabbat, which falls on an in-between day of the holiday, we read one brief verse that references all three Pilgrimage Festivals. Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot were celebrated with trips to the Temple in Jerusalem and sacrifices. The text does not distinguish Sukkot from the others, except by name. And most curiously, this single reference is found within the story of Moses's first ascent on Mount Sinai.
There God is introduced as"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). During his encounter with God, Moses receives the first set of commandments. This awe-inspiring moment, a moment of potential joy for the entire community, is fleeting; Moses descends with the commandments only to find the people with the Golden Calf they have built. In his anger, Moses smashes the tablets.
This Shabbat, as we break from our weekly routines to rest and rejoice, and continue celebrating Sukkot, a time we are commanded to rejoice, we read one of the most devastating portions in the entire Torah. We read of fear and anger overriding trust and joy. And yet, we still hear the words of God's steadfastness and compassion ringing in our ears.
The customary haftarah, Ezekiel 38:18-39, offers a picture of punishment and destruction for Israel while promising a longer-term punishment for Israel's enemies and a renewed positive relationship between God and Israel. In the face of destruction and pain, we are challenged to retain our abiding hope.
Finally, we read Ecclesiastes, whose opening lines compare our lives to mist. As Tamara Eskanazi, a colleague of mine at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles, has taught, mist can only exist when hot and cold are found in the same space at the same moment. Mist is a symbol both for the holding of opposites and for what is ephemeral.
In an early midrashic collection on the Song of Songs, Shir HaShirim Rabbah (3:11), and in the midrashic collection P'sikta de Rav Kahana (1:3), the Rabbis comment on the meaning of the description of God as Oseh shalom bein habriyot, "The One who makes peace among the things that are created." In these midrashim, God is the Creator of things that we perceive as mutually exclusive, things that we humans tend to think of as either at war with each other or as things that cannot coexist: love and hate, heat and cold, darkness and light, sun and rain, joy and sadness. The midrash shows that God created each thing so that its integrity, its essence, never needs to be compromised. By doing so, God created a world in which things, even opposites, must and can coexist-mist, hail, rainbows, and so on.
Created by God in God's image, we, too, can find ways to hold two seemingly disparate things at the same time. We can live with uncertainty and ambiguity and still find a sense of peace and wholeness in ourselves and with the world. Our lives, fleeting as mist, brief and unpredictable, challenge us to experience as much as we can, as fully as we can: to hold opposites while retaining our integrity, to cry bittersweet tears at a wedding, or to laugh during shivah when recalling a humorous moment with the deceased. And as we celebrate that we live and are sustained to celebrate the harvest season, we acutely feel the absence of those who are no longer alive to share with us. In communal recognition of this human experience, we gather as the holiday ends to support each other in our grief as we observe Yizkor together.
And so, on Sukkot, we read of destruction and distractions and failures as we fulfill the commandment to rejoice. We celebrate the harvest without knowing what the next planting season holds. And we celebrate at the time of the full of the moon, as we know that it too, in the continuous circle of nature, will wax and wane. As the poet wrote:
'Tis a fearful thing
to love what death can touch.
A fearful thing
to love, hope, dream:
to be-And to lose.
A thing for fools, this, and a holy thing,
A holy thing to love.
For your life has lived in me,
Your laugh once lifted me,
Your word was gift to me.
To remember this brings painful joy.
'Tis a human thing, love,
a holy thing,
to love what death has touched.
Rabbi Nancy H. Wiener, D.Min., is clinical director of the Jacob and Hilda Blaustein Center for Pastoral Counseling and adjunct professor of Pastoral Care and Counseling at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City. She is also the rabbi of the Pound Ridge Jewish Community, a Reform chavurah, in Pound Ridge, New York.
In this week's d'var Torah , we are reminded that the sukkah inevitably contains contrasting impulses. Inside the sukkah, we discover the security of love, friendship, and hospitality even though we dwell in a shaky, temporary, and vulnerable habitat. In synagogue, we listen to words of reproach from the prophet Ezekiel, though the prayers in our mouths proclaim Sukkot as our greatest time of rejoicing. Our darshan is teaching us that there is something sacred and poignant in the essential"in-betweenness" that envelops Sukkot.
Perhaps it was this same powerful lesson about the sukkah's antipodean nature that prompted a talented (though little-known) American Hebrew poet named Gershon Rosenzweig (1861-1914) to compose a thought-provoking poem titled "Sukkat David," or "David's Tabernacle" (Poems [Hebrew] [New York: S. Levine Printers, 1893], pp. 27-29):
An ancient sukkah that was built long ago
was collapsing from below like a shaky fence.
Its walls were frail and its roof was barely adequate;
in place of sound material, there was clay and plaster.
The poem's title is based on a famous messianic verse found in the Book of Amos (9:11-12): Bayom hahu akim et sukkat David hanofelet . . . uv'nitiha kimei olam, "On that day, I will raise up the Tabernacle of David that has fallen . . . and I will rebuild it as in the days of old." Traditionally, we are taught that when the messianic era arrives the fallen Tabernacle of David will be rebuilt. Sukkot reminds us that despite the conflicts we live with, we must still seek the path that leads us to a more perfect world!
Suddenly, I saw a throng of people standing all around.
They gathered together and appointed two leaders.
And I heard a voice:"Come let us figure out a way
to prevent our sukkah-our ancestral inheritance-from tumbling down."
Rosenzweig's poem invites us to examine yet another conflicting phenomenon-the divergent and discordant methods that Jews use to achieve that better world. The sukkah symbolizes our Jewish heritage, but who are the contending groups in the dream? Why do they disagree with one another? Can we Jews hope to repair the world, Rosenzweig seems to ask, if we cannot work together to prevent our ancestral tabernacle from collapsing?
Rabbi Gary P. Zola is the executive director of the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives and Associate Professor of the American Jewish Experience at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Chol HaMo-eid Sukkot, Exodus 33:12–34:26
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 657–661; Revised Edition, pp. 592–596;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 508–512