AT HOME IN THE SUKKAH
Throughout the Jewish year we celebrate various festivals in order to commemorate momentous occasions which occurred in the lives of our ancestors. These days also provide us with an opportunity to relive their experience in our present lives.
Throughout the Jewish year we celebrate various festivals in order to commemorate momentous occasions which occurred in the lives of our ancestors. These days also provide us with an opportunity to relive their experience in our present lives. Two of the festivals described in this week's Torah portion - Passover and Sukkot - parallel each other in several ways. For example, they are exactly six months apart, they always occur on the 15th of their respective months, and both commemorate the exodus from Egypt and its aftermath. In fact, they are the only two festivals to which this week's Torah portion refers as "chag," or festival. There is, however, a striking difference between the two: Regarding Sukkot, the Torah clearly says, "On the 15th day of this seventh month is the Festival of Sukkot (Chag HaSukkot), a seven-day period for Hashem" (Leviticus 23:34). This means that every day of the festival is called by the Torah "Chag HaSukkot."
On the other hand, regarding Passover the Torah states, "On the 15th day of this month is the Festival of Matzot (Chag HaMatzot) to Hashem" (ibid. 23:6). The Torah is informing us that the "Festival of Matzot" begins on this day, but we don't find that the other six days of the festival should be explicitly called by this name. Rather, the Torah continues in the same verse, "you shall eat matzot for a seven-day period," implying that matzah is eaten during the entire festival, but the rest of the holiday isn't called the "Festival of Matzot". The same is true whenever the Torah discusses Passover.
This difference between these two otherwise similar festivals is not only in a detail or two, but is actually an indication of an essential difference in the structure and dates of these festivals. The 15th of the month of Nissan, the commencing day of Passover, is a special and unique day. It is the actual day on which the Jewish people left the land of Egypt, and this is the reason for the festivities and the requirements accompanying it, such as the eating of matzah. Passover does not become a festival through the commandment to eat matzah; eating matzah is merely included in the celebration of the exodus from Egypt. The 15th of the month of Tishrei, however, the commencing day of Sukkot, is a festival only because this is the day Sukkot begins. Nothing special or unique occurred on this day; only that beginning with this day we are to dwell in a sukkah for seven days to commemorate the protection provided by the miraculous Clouds of Glory while the Jewish people were traveling through the desert. It is only through dwelling in a sukkah that these seven days are unique and special. (Incidentally, this explains the widespread custom, Kabbalistic in origin, of specifically making the blessing on the lulav and etrog - the other mitzvah of Sukkot - in a sukkah, too.)
Yet, the Torah still calls (the first day of) Passover "Chag HaMatzot", which would indicate that the eating of matzah on Passover is an important focal point, and gives great insight to our understanding of this holiday. The explanation is that eating matzah is a Torah commandment, and this is the only reason why we involve ourselves with it. Without the commandment we would not engage in this activity. By contrast, the mitzvah of dwelling in the sukkah requires no special change in diet, no major upheaval in what we do. We just have to "be ourselves" in the sukkah, transferring our homes into the sukkah.
This difference in the mitzvot of the festivals reflects the seasons in which they occur: Passover occurs on the threshold of the summer (in the Holy Land and in the Northern Hemisphere). Summer is the time when life is liberated and rejuvenated. As the days become longer and the sun warms the world, nature is filled with bountiful energy and life. The world seems to be invigorated with a sense of renewal. It is a time when the task of acknowledging and connecting to Hashem - the source of the world, nature, and life - should not be too difficult. Guiding and assisting us in this exercise are special mitzvot - such as the eating of matzah - which enable us to become more holy and spiritual.
The festival of Sukkot, on the other hand, occurs on the threshold of winter. At this time the world is about to become a cold, wet, and dark place. Much of nature's animals and plants will not remain much longer in the open, preferring to hibernate and remain dormant. In a time like this, when we may begin to feel distant or even removed from life and vitality, we are told to make ourselves "at home" in a sukkah. We are given a mitzvah, indeed the only mitzvah of its kind, to surround ourselves, our food, even the dirt on the bottom of our shoes, with a holy mitzvah. Thus, we enter the winter with a powerful shelter and protection of spiritual life and energy. Having an opportunity to "be ourselves", and at the same time be in a spiritual and holy confine, is the balance we are to ultimately fulfill in this world.
Rabbi Yossi Lew is a rabbi at Congregation Beth Tefillah, director of outreach at Chabad of Georgia, and a teacher at the Greenfield Hebrew Academy middle school.
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