You shall dwell in booths for seven days…. So that your [future] generations will know that I caused the people of Israel to dwell in booths, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God – Leviticus 23:42-43
When you hear the term “the official [car, airline, soft drink] of [the New York Yankees, FIFA World Cup, Vail Resorts],” do you ever wonder what that means?
Does it mean a team is so enamored with a particular camera manufacturer, for example, that it only uses its products to take official pictures? Does it suggest a federation is so pleased with one airline’s service that it does all its business through that carrier? That was what I first thought when I heard the term many years ago.
Over time, I came to view such monikers as endorsements purchased like any other advertisement; the “official” designation is meant to add status and distinguish the product from the pack (at the price of a small fortune, no doubt).
An “official” sponsorship is simply a business partnership between an organization and a product, in which the manufacturer hopes its formal association with the adored entity will elevate its status in the eyes of consumers and lead to more sales.
Of course, such labeling is misleading, at least for consumers with the naiveté I had as an eight year old. The term, if it is to be used at all (is does sound kind of ridiculous, doesn’t it?), should express a deep connection and a special bond that goes beyond financial considerations.
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Of all the Jewish holidays, I would say Sukkoth is far and away the least appreciated.
We value the High Holidays for the veneration and awe they inspire, for the opportunity to reconnect with our King and repent for past indiscretions.
We easily relate to the common themes of Chanukah and Purim: appreciation for divine deliverance from the throes of annihilation, whether physical or spiritual.
Passover's popularity stems from a similar redemption, not to mention the dramatic saga of an arrogant and tyrannical Egyptian nation receiving its collective comeuppance from the God of a beleaguered slave nation.
On Shavuoth, we conjure up the awesome image of Sinai, which culminated with the receipt of an invaluable gift that we continue to cherish some 3,300 years later.
In contrast, Sukkoth is the result of none of these singular, supernatural miracles or periods of open salvation, nor does it specifically focus us on strengthening our relationship with our Maker.
Simply, it serves to remind us of a wonderful period in Jewish history when our people enjoyed God’s continued protection and sustenance. To commemorate that experience, we are commanded to build booths, or sukkahs, of our own, and make it our primary abode for an entire week.
A deeper look, however, reveals a different picture. There was far more to this desert experience than the simple issue of transitory housing and daily provisions. Most notable was the Jewish people’s subsistence for forty years with no natural sources of food or water. For more than fourteen thousand consecutive days, man (manna) descended on the transitory Jewish camp, supplying our people with their daily rations. During that same period the Hebrew nation was also able to rely on the continued availability of fresh water from the well of Miriam, which provided for all its drinking needs.
Other basic life necessities, such as clothing and shelter, were also attended to without any effort from the people. For the entire period, the Jews had no need for new apparel as their clothing did not wear out. It also expanded as people grew. Nor did their shoes require replacement. Shelter was provided by each family’s personal sukkah, together with the external protection offered by the clouds of glory, which surrounded the entire Jewish camp.
As impressive as this all sounds, it still does not resonate with us in quite the same way as do the themes of the other special events in the Jewish calendar. Perhaps the reason for that is that we really do not appreciate what it is that God did for us during those years. The Torah does not spell out the true extent of the miracle – that a nation numbering approximately three million, approximately the size of many large modern municipalities, did not have to go shopping for food or clothing or worry about shelter for two whole generations.
The fact that the people were able to focus their energies entirely on spiritual needs, becoming the dor de’ah (generation of superlative scholarship and spiritual greatness), is certainly also deserving of our deep gratitude.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, in his masterpiece Horeb (pp.84-90), explains that each of the festivals represents a different aspect in the development of the Jews.
Passover represents the physical birth of our nation; for the first time, after centuries of servitude, we were able to begin developing as an independent people following our long-awaited Exodus.
In contrast, Sukkoth symbolizes the physical survival of the Jewish people. It was not sufficient for God to guide us out of Egypt, even with all the miracles He performed. In order for our salvation to be complete, God would need to continue to watch over us and provide for us, for the next forty years and beyond, so that we would have the wherewithal to achieve the lofty task He designated for us.
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In many ways, Sukkoth is a microcosm of the Jewish experience. Any true student of our history is well aware of its miraculous, providential character. We understand that the endless challenges that have confronted us in the four millennia since Abraham’s recognition of a singular divine entity – including slavery, harassment, attack, repeated exile and relocation, persecution and murder – should have spelled the end of our nation already at an early stage. But they have not.
Our nation, which has not been able to lay claim to such basic national “essentials” as a powerful military and a strong economy for more than a relatively small portion of our collective existence, was by no means a viable candidate for four thousand years of survival – let alone growth, success, and completely disproportional influence on the international landscape.
The fact that we have survived at all – never mind that we have done so while amassing so many accomplishments along the way – is a true indication that our history has been the beneficiary of a unique, divine oversight that has worked against all odds to ensure our total success and deliverance.
That is why I think of Sukkoth as the “official holiday of Jewish history.”
Many gentiles have expressed awareness and appreciation of the uniqueness of our survival. Literary icons such as Leo Tolstoy and Mark Twain penned poetic tributes to acknowledge it.
The Jew is the emblem of eternity. He who neither slaughter nor torture of thousands of years could destroy, he who neither fire, nor sword, nor Inquisition was able to wipe off the face of the earth. He was the first to produce the Visions of God. He has been for so long the Guardian of Prophecy and has transmitted it to the rest of the world. Such a nation cannot be destroyed. The Jew is as everlasting as Eternity itself. [Tolstoy, “What is a Jew?” Jewish World, London, 1908]
If statistics are right, the Jews constitute 1% of the human race. It suggests a nebulous, dim puff of stardust lost in the blaze of the Milky Way. Properly, the Jew ought to be hardly heard of; but he is heard of, has always been heard of. He is as prominent on the planet as any other people, and his commercial importance is extravagantly out of proportion to the smallness of his bulk…. The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded into dream-stuff and passed away; the Greek and Roman followed, and made a vast noise, and they are gone; other peoples have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, or have vanished. The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality? [Twain, “Concerning the Jews,” Harper’s Magazine, 1899]
Based on the “rules” of history the Jewish people should have been destroyed many times over or, at the very least, absorbed into other nations. How is it that we have managed to defy this trend? What is it that ensures our ability to continue on this incredible odyssey?
The answer is that our survival is in no way contingent upon our physical and numerical strength. Had it been so, we surely would have vanished from the world long ago.
Close to 350 years ago King Louis XIV of France asked the great French philosopher Blaise Pascal to give him proof of the supernatural. Pascal answered, “The Jews, your Majesty, the Jews.”
We are “an Eternal Nation” (Isaiah 44:7). Our survival has been directly linked to our covenant with God and our commitment to Him and His Torah. Such commitment is the sole guarantor of our national survival. In the words of the Talmud, “The nation that is tired out by intensive Torah study will not be delivered into the hands of her oppressor” (Sanhedrin 94b).
Of course, our survival is not simply a matter of defying the odds. Our continued presence and influence have allowed us to teach and exemplify Hashem’s prescribed religious and moral code to others. He charged us to remind other nations of His active presence in this world, and of our collective need to follow His will. The nation that grew out of Avraham’s personal quest has impacted the way in which the world approaches fundamental matters such as understanding God, spirituality, the human condition, and life itself.
The Jews gave us the Outside and the Inside – our outlook and our inner life. We can hardly get up in the morning or cross the street without being Jewish. We dream Jewish dreams and hope Jewish hopes. Most of our best words, in fact – new, adventure, surprise; unique, individual, person, vocation; time, history, future; freedom, progress, spirit; faith, hope, justice – are the gifts of the Jews. [Thomas Cahill, The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels, pp. 240-241]
In the process of surviving and sharing a set of eternal values with other nations, we also transmitted a powerful construct, one that presents God as the Overseer and Influencer of history. This approach adds an entirely new dimension to the study of history, seeing it as a controlled progression leading to a specific destination.
Our history is part of our ultimate destiny. History provides us with a road map in our quest for eternity, and the tools with which to uncover God’s goals for mankind.
This idea is also incredibly empowering. We know that we are involved in a pursuit and that we play an active role in reaching our destination, However, this concept also demands much of us. The duty to achieve its mission lies squarely on our collective shoulders.
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As we enter our sukkahs this year, let us take a moment to reflect on the true symbolic meaning of the simple structure that surrounds us. Let us value not only the open miracles that have come to frame Jewish history but also the steady, understated aspects of our national chronicles. Use the reflective time we possess during the next week to deeply contemplate the true extent of God’s continuous care and concern for our people, both during our time in the desert and beyond. In so doing, we will come to the same stark realization achieved by Pascal, who saw Jewish survival as a historical anomaly and the key proof of God’s existence and involvement in this world:
[The Jewish people] are not only of remarkable antiquity but have also lasted for an exceptionally long time…. For whereas the people of Greece and Italy, of Sparta, Athens and Rome, and others who came so much later have perished so long ago, these still exist, despite the efforts of so many powerful kings who have tried a hundred times to wipe them out…. They have always been preserved, however, and their preservation was foretold…. My encounter with this people amazes me.
Wishing all a joyous, meaningful holiday filled with the security and contentment that comes from looking up at the sky and appreciating the true Source of our protection.