The emotional high of the Days of Awe is still an uplifting memory as Sukkot arrives. We have attempted to cleanse our souls, and if we are really honest with ourselves, we might admit that we are feeling pretty good about the experience. Ironically, perhaps we might even be feeling a bit smug. Sukkot is important in helping overcome this tendency.
Our Torah portion for the first day of Sukkot begins with the reminder not to profane God's name. We are called upon to live our days through actions that sanctify our existence. The concepts of "profaning God's name," chilul HaShem, and "sanctifying God's name," kiddush HaShem, introduce our special Torah passage from Leviticus. The separation between these two concepts is often a fine line. Our High Holy Days experience has hopefully helped us gain insights that will inspire us to sanctify our daily lives, thereby elevating our sense of humanity. Yet when we bask in the glow of our own holiness, we profane its very meaning in our lives. Our tradition says that the righteous praise God's glory. This is the nature of kiddush HaShem .
The parashah moves from the ethical principles just mentioned to a comprehensive description of the sacred festivals and holy days of the Jewish year. This juxtaposition is important because it offers us a clear and practical way that we can sanctify our lives and, by so doing, sanctify God's name. Each of these holidays should be acknowledged as a holy convocation: a time for us to gather together, put aside our daily tasks and routines, and affirm our commitment to the uniqueness of the covenant of Israel. Each sacred occasion comes with its obligations, and the fulfillment of these rituals strengthens our resolve to live lives hallowed by the faith of Israel. The last of the festivals described is Sukkot.
The two distinct tasks of the weeklong celebration of Sukkot are the selection of four specific species of vegetation (as stated in Leviticus 23:40: ". . . you shall take the product of hadar trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook . . . ") and the building of the sukkah (as stated in Leviticus 23:42-43: "You shall live in booths 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, I the Eternal your God").
There is a midrash that relates each of the four species to parts of the body. The product of the hadar tree (the etrog) resembles the heart, which the Rabbis understood as the place of understanding. The branches of the palm (the lulav) have a likeness to the spine, symbolic of uprightness. The boughs of the leafy trees (the myrtle branches) model the eyes, which are for enlightenment. The willows of the brook (the willow branches) recall our lips, which we can use in prayer. The midrash uses these bodily references to remind us that we can sanctify life with our whole beings.
What a fine balance we struggle with each day! We know that the heart can be the seat of understanding, but it can also become hardened and leave us compassionless. We know that when we perform deeds of loving-kindness we walk upright, but there are moments, too, when we act spinelessly. We are aware that with our eyes we can see visions of how to make the world a better place, but we also know, as our siddur states, that we often walk sightless among miracles. And we are all too aware that while our lips may offer prayers, sometimes we use them to speak words of cruelty and disrespect. These symbols of our Sukkot harvest remind us that the choice is ours. We have the ability to sanctify or to profane. Which will we choose?
Perhaps it is the symbol of the sukkah that reminds us of the urgency of the choice. The frail, impermanent booth that provides some shade but hardly offers any protection from the elements is, ironically, our symbol of faith. It serves as the counterbalance to our self-righteousness, our post-High Holy Days smugness. Lest we too quickly forget the message of the Un'taneh Tokef, the sukkah reminds us of life's fragility. We do not know the length of our days, but we do have the ability with the time afforded us to make each and every day have meaning. As we grow older, the sukkah's fragility is a reminder of our own mortality.
This Shabbat, as we begin Sukkot, we also read the Book of Ecclesiastes. Its message reflects the uncertainties of life. Chapter 11 opens with the verse "Cast your bread upon the waters, for you shall find it after many days." The Rabbis understand this verse to mean that in the face of life's challenges, the practice of goodness and caring will offer its own reward. In our cynical moments, we are prone to say, "No good deed goes unpunished," indicating that the kindness we offer may not always be acknowledged as we hoped that it would. Yet, it is the author of Ecclesiastes who admonishes, "In the morning sow your seed, and in the evening do not withhold your hand. . . . Walk in the ways of your heart, and in the sight of your eyes; but know that in all of these things God will bring you judgment" (Ecclesiastes 11:6, 11:9).
Life's vulnerability can seem very frightening. What is even scarier is the self-delusion that leads us to believe that we are invincible. Our High Holy Days machzor offers this passage before the reading of Torah:
Many have said to the works of their hands: you are our gods.
Strange, then, to see the emptiness in those who cast You out!
. . . Strange that men and women grow smaller without You,
smaller without the faith that You are with them. . . . Teach us
to add our strength to Your love, that we may fulfill our destiny and redeem this world.
(Gates of Repentance, ed. Chaim Stern [New York: Central Conference of American Rabbis, 1978, rev. 1996], p. 120)
We build our sukkot knowing that in a week's time we will take them down. We live our lives knowing that our days are finite and that we will return to the dust from which we came. But in the meantime we have a choice. May we choose wisely so that our days will have meaning and our acts will exemplify kiddush HaShem.
Sukkot Day 1, Leviticus 23:33‒44
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 930‒931; Revised Edition, pp. 827‒828
The Torah, A Women's Commentary, pp. 736‒737