Each year on Sukkot, we read these famous words of Ecclesiastes (Kohelet):
“A season is set for everything, a time for every experience under heaven. …a time for tearing down and a time for building up.” (Kohelet 3:1,3)
To speak of building during a holiday dedicated to erecting a temporary structure seems fitting. And yet, the order the ideas in this verse is at odds with our Sukkot experience. Surely, “a time for building up and a time for tearing down” would align more closely with sequence of the holiday. So why this order? And what exactly are “we tearing down and building up”?
The Torah portion for Shabbat Chol HaMo-eid Sukkot — Exodus 33:12-34:26 — can help us answer these questions. In this Torah portion, we are presented with a slice of a story — a short vignette of a significant moment in the history of the people of Israel that covers several key events. The portion begins with Moses’ request to “behold Your [God’s] Presence,” (Exodus 33:18), continues with the carving of the second set of tablets (Exodus 34:1), and concludes with a short summary of the three Pilgrimage Festivals (Exodus 34:18). At first glance, this somewhat disjointed section seems a strange fit for the Shabbat of Sukkot and appears to offer no answer to our questions about tearing down and building up. As we examine the narrative more closely, however, we realize that the story enacted in this text is indeed one of rebuilding — not of structures but of relationship.
In their original context, Exodus 33 and 34 occur in the aftermath of the sin of the Golden Calf. God is furious, Moses is distraught, and the people are in peril. Our small section is the coda to the entire episode — the events that transpire after Moses intercedes, God forgives, and the people are spared complete destruction. Here, God, Moses, and the people all try to move forward — to rebuild their relationship and their eternal covenant.
In just a few short verses, the Torah portion reveals a path to repair:
- Reassurance of God’s Presence: Moses asks God to lead the people and reveal God’s Presence (Exodus 33:12-18)
- Granting a Second Chance: God commands Moses to write the second set of tablets (Exodus 34:1)
- Restating the Terms of Relationship: God restates the conditions of the three Festivals (Exodus 34:18-26)
The incident of the Golden Calf creates a tear in the fabric of the relationship between God and the people of Israel. The postscript to this episode illuminates a process that leads to healing and restoration — a building up.
In the wake of Yom Kippur, we, too, have experienced a tearing down, and on Sukkot, we, too, now seek a building up. We have bared our souls on our Day of Atonement, and we are now beginning a path forward. As Rabbi Alan Lew reminds us, the road of tearing down that leads to Yom Kippur is long and hard:
We have spent the past many weeks stripping ourselves naked — acknowledging our brokenness, allowing ourselves to see what we won’t usually look at, embracing the emptiness at the core of our experience, reducing our lives to a series of impulses that rise up and then fall away again… We have invited ourselves to entertain the possibility that we might die.
(This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation [Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 2003], p. 265)
As we transition to Sukkot we begin to rebuild. And so, Kohelet reminds us in a proper order, that there is “a time for tearing down and a time for building up.” Our Torah portion for Shabbat Chol HaMo-eid Sukkot elucidates a process for that rebuilding. Even the halachah for constructing a sukkah reinforces the importance of the shift toward rebuilding, as we are reminded that “it is meritorious to start building the sukkah immediately after Yom Kippur” (Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, [Code of Jewish Law, Condenced], 134:1).
The contemporary poet and liturgist, Alden Solovy, expresses the multifaceted concept of our shift toward rebuilding in his poem for Sukkot, “The Season of Building:”
This is the season of building:
Of building tents of holiness,
Shelters of peace
In our land and in our hearts.
This is the season of rejoicing:
Of rejoicing in God’s bounty and grace,
In the radiance and splendor
In heaven and on earth.
This is the season of thanksgiving:
Of giving thanks for the gifts of the land,
For gifts yet to come
As we delight in the wonders of creation.
This is the season of building ...
(This Grateful Heart: Psalms and Prayers for a New Day [New York: Reform Judaism Publishing, CCAR, 2017], p. 61).
As we celebrate our holiday of Sukkot, our season of building and rebuilding, may we all be blessed with the assurance of Divine Presence, abundant second chances, and a clear vision of a path toward repaired relationships.
Every morning, my child and I go for a walk along the beach near our Seattle-area home. We began this ritual at the height of summer, when the early sun would wake him (and me) long before the rest of our household. We had visited this beach numerous times before, but it was on our early morning walks that I noticed a stunning collection of stacked and balanced stone sculptures along the rocky shore — dozens of them. They were a beautiful addition to the already stirring view of Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains beyond. I wondered about them as, day by day, they changed. Who built them? For what purpose? How long had they been there? We happened upon a possible answer one day when a fellow walker stepped off of the path and down into the rocky outcropping to create a monument of his own.
One morning we arrived to find that the entire field of rock statues had been leveled. My heart sunk and I let out an audible gasp as multiple thoughts and questions ran through my head once again. I wondered if they had been razed in an act of violence and vandalism, or perhaps meticulously deconstructed during the night as part of a larger ritual. As we walked along the path, I could see small remnant stones strewn around on the ground, evidence that these sculptures had indeed been there. I also wondered if their purpose was, in fact, to be, and then to not be, and that not-being was as important to their message as the beautiful being was.
The Book of Ecclesiastes, Kohelet, famously begins with the words, “Utter futility! ... All is futile!” (Kohelet 1:2). The text goes on to list all of the pursuits of life that the author had sought, gained, and ultimately turned away from. Some find it to be a hopeless and depressing text, but there is also room for it to offer a profoundly inspiring and nourishing worldview. We read Kohelet during the harvest festival of Sukkot — our last harvest before winter, the final chance to bring in all of the nourishment that we will need for the long, dark months ahead. It is a celebratory time, but with a coolness in the air (especially in the Pacific Northwest) that reminds us that retreat, hibernation, and indeed, mortality, are just around the corner. The symbol of Sukkot, the sukkah itself, is a perfect representation of the impermanence of the season. We begin to build it the day after Yom Kippur, and put a lot of pride and effort into decorating and making it feel special. We dwell in it for eight days and nights, we welcome guests, we make memories, we connect with each other and with the world around us. And then, we tear it down.
Perhaps more famous than the opening words of Kohelet are its verses about time:
“A time for being born, and a time for dying, ...” (Kohelet 3:2) .
As I pondered the entire experience of witnessing the rock sculptures, this refrain began playing in my head:
“A time for tearing down, and a time for building up… a time for throwing stones and a time for gathering stones… A time for keeping and a time for discarding.” (Kohelet 3:3-6).
These stone sculptures to which I had no personal connection struck a chord within me. Their beauty helped me to appreciate the splendor of their setting. When they were no longer there, I mourned their loss, and came to appreciate the fullness of life and loss that they so quickly came to represent.
Sukkot is a time for gathering, for embracing, for celebrating, and, as Cantor Sacks teaches, for rebuilding. It is also a time for remembering. We turn into this season, the last bastion of light and warmth in the Northern Hemisphere, and we remind ourselves of the bounty that exists around us, while at the same time, knowing that it will not last forever.
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 657–661; Revised Edition, pp. 592–596
The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, pp. 508–512
Haftarah, Ezekiel 38:18–39:7 (39:16)
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,640–1,641; Revised Edition, pp. 1,443–1,444
Book of Ecclesiastes (Kohelet) is read