THE ALCOHOLICS ANONYMOUS OF THE JEWISH YEAR
The Torah reading on Shabbat Chol Hamoed Sukkot is Parshat Vzot Habracha. Why?
Vzot Habracha, contains a list of blessings for the various tribes of Israel. These blessings lay out the ideal situation for Israel, an ideal that has been very rarely reached. For example, the tribe of Reubenís blessing reads "Let Reuben live and not die in that his men become few." Reuben was the first tribe to be eliminated. For Zebulun and Issachar it says: "Rejoice, Zebulun, in thy going out and, Issachar, in thy tents. They shall call people unto the mountain; there shall they offer sacrifices of righteousness; for they shall such the abundance of the seas, and the hidden treasures of the sand." I donít know a lot about ancient Israeli history, but the times of peace and prosperity were quite rare. Torah study, was far less common than idolatry, and peace and wealth far less common than war and poverty. Clearly, these blessings are pronouncements of the best that could be, not pronouncements on what actually was.
So, why do we read it on Sukkot?
To answer that, letís step back a few thousand years from our present position. We will also need to travel a bit to the northwest, as coastal Australia a few thousand years ago, isnít, from our point of view, where the action is. Instead, we are ancient Israelites. For the sake of argument, letís say weíre Reubenites, and weíre not doing too good. Weíre on the wrong side of the Jordan and weíre getting attacked regularly and basically the picture isnít pretty. It doesnít look like weíll be around for long. Then, Sukkot comes along. What do we do? We move into temporary huts and live like we did before we conquered the land. We live like we did when the blessings of Vzot Habracha were given.
What are we thinking? Why are we doing this?
I think the explanation is pretty simple. Weíre saying to Hashem, "Look, we want it to be like it was when those blessings were given. And to show you, weíre sitting in these huts like we did back then" We are basically, to use a modern day term that has been repeatedly butchered in the Mideast, carrying out a "confidence building measure". And what is Hashem to do in return? Well, for one thing it would be best if it didnít rain during dinner. But on the first night, even if it does rain during dinner, we still sit outside. After that, we go inside and abandon our temporary huts because our confidence building measure hasnít been returned. Weíre basically saying to Hashem, take us back to the days of old, because weíre willing to go back even if you wonít initially accept us -- and weíd like it if youíd demonstrate a similar sentiment.
On Yom Kippur I often find myself less than impressed with the repentance process. Perhaps youíll understand where Iím coming from. Basically, I feel a little bit like an alcoholic begging a family member for money. "I swear, Iíll be clean from now on. Iím sorry. Iím really really sorry. I wonít do it again. Your such a nice guy, you can understand my predicament. Iím sorry, Iím sorry. I screwed up, Iím sorry!" For your benefit, Iíll cut it short there. But leading up to Yom Kippur, we keep going like that for days and days. The alcoholic probably keeps it up for a while too.
And when the relative loans him a few bucks, the alcoholic goes and blows it on cheap whiskey. His repentance, even if it was sincere when it was given, is hardly awe-inspiring. And, the next time he comes begging, his money tree wonít help him -- although Hashem seems to be quite a bit more patient. This is the reason Yom Kippur doesnít do it for me -- even if I am sincere, thatís a long ways away from actually changing my behavior.
Then Sukkot comes along. Sukkot is the Alchoholics Anonymous of the Jewish year. With Sukkot, you put your pleading into action and actually bring your relationship back to how it was when those blessings were given. You stay clean, so to speak. And once youíve been clean, living in huts for the bulk of Sukkot, you ask Hashem to return the favor and to grant you rain and a fruitful year. Your request is a whole lot more likely to be met.
The Neilah prayer service on Yom Kippur, rumor aside, isnít the final closing of the gates. Simchat Torah, where you actually get the chance to start all over again and do it right, is. Simchat Torah, after a festival of confidence building, a festival of showing Hashem you really want it to be like the days of old and youíre ready to stay sober for at least a week, is when the decree is finalized.
So, this festival of Sukkot is incredibly important for people like me. It isnít important as a vehicle for begging for forgiveness or as a time to throw ourselves at the feet of a relative with a steady job. Instead, it is important as a opportunity to demonstrate that we can stay sober. It is important as an opportunity to establish a track record and to show Hashem that we can get it right.
If we do get it right, then Vzot Habracha wonít be ancient history anymore. Instead, as we were those thousands of years ago, weíll be blessed with times of joy, of success, and of peace.