Shabbat Sukkot

Shabbat Sukkot

By Joel Goldstein, October 15, 2022, 15 Tishrei 5783

Shabbat shalom, moa’dim l’simcha. 

I want to explore two problems: the timing of Sukkot on the 15th of Tishrei and the lack of a festival to celebrate the culminating event of the book of Exodus: the building of the Mishkan. Using a comment of the Vilna Gaon’s on Song of Songs, I want to solve both of those problems and use that solution to reframe (no pun intended) Sukkot to give it some additional meaning.  

The timing of Sukkot is strange. I understand that it is a harvest festival – חג האסיף – according to its first two mentions in Exodus, one of which is included in today’s Torah reading. But in neither of those mentions is a date given for the festival. Further, once we get to Leviticus and the holiday becomes about the sukkot in which God caused us to dwell in the desert, there is no necessary reason given for the holiday to be in Tishrei. It should probably be in Nissan, in springtime. 

Sukkot should be in springtime because that is the moment when God first made us dwell in sukkot. Traditionally, there is a Rabbinic debate between Rebbi Eliezer and Rebbi Akiva (who has which position depends on the text) regarding these sukkot. One opinion, which notices that the first place the Israelites go after leaving Ramses in Egypt is “Sukkot,” sees this not merely as a place name, but actual sukkot, actual huts, the Israelites dwell in before being pursued by the Egyptians and crossing the sea.  The second opinion sees the place “Sukkot” as merely a place name and the “sukkot” we dwelled in in the desert as the protection of God’s Clouds of Glory. The Shulchan Arukh rules on this debate that these “sukkot” were not actual sukkot, but actually God’s Clouds of Glory. However, those Clouds of Glory first appear as the people leave the place Sukkot and head for the edge of the desert. Either way, God has us dwell in “sukkot” immediately after the Exodus before crossing the Reed Sea. So the holiday of Sukkot should be part of Passover! Every spring we should be eating our matzah and reclining under skhakh while nervously watching for rain. So why is Sukkot on the 15th of Tishrei?

Before we deal with that question, I have a second question. If we look at the book of Exodus, there are three major, positive events in the relationship between God and the nascent people of Israel: the Exodus, Sinai, and the building of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. That these three are the major events in the God-Israel relationship is mentioned by Nachmanides in his introduction to his commentary on Exodus. The first has a holiday celebration explicitly in the Biblical text: Passover. The second has a holiday celebration with Biblical origins which is connected in Rabbinic texts to the Sinai moment: Shavuot. The third, the building of the Mishkan, a portable home for God, seems to lack a holiday, despite its seeming importance. Sure, we do give it a minor celebration by not saying Tachanun starting at the beginning of Nissan when the Tabernacle was completed and first put into service. But surely an event as momentous as building a home for God deserves a holiday! So why doesn’t it have one?

Both of these questions are answered by a comment of the Vilna Gaon’s in his commentary on Song of Songs (1:4). He starts by mentioning my initial question: if the holiday of sukkot is about recalling God’s Clouds of Glory in the desert, why does the holiday take place on the 15th of Tishrei? Why not celebrate it in Nissan when the Clouds of Glory first appear? He answers that the Clouds of Glory left the Israelites at the sin of the Golden Calf, traditionally seen as occurring on the 17th of Tammuz. Several midrashim which add up the time it took for Moshe to clean up the mess of the Golden Calf, beg God for forgiveness, and spend another 40 days on Sinai receiving the second tablets, places God’s verbally forgiving the people and Moshe returning with the second set of Tablets on Yom Kippur, the tenth of Tishrei. If you look carefully at the text, the Vilna Gaon points out, on the next day is when parashat Vayakhel occurs, when Moshe gathers the people to explain the building of the Tabernacle. Since the text tells us that the people brought their donations for the Tabernacle “בבקר בבקר”, “in the morning, in the morning,” he concludes it must have taken two days for the donations for the building project. (That’s a standard every shul wishes they could meet!) That brings us to the thirteenth of Tishrei. On the fourteenth all of the artisans who were working on the project sorted through the donations to ensure the proper amounts and weights. On the fifteenth of Tishrei, the first day of Sukkot, they began their project. According to the Vilna Gaon, it was only then, on the fifteenth of Tishrei, that the Clouds of Glory returned to protect the people in the desert. Which is why we celebrate Sukkot on the 15th of Tishrei!

With this commentary, the Vilna Gaon has accomplished several things. First, he has connected our building temporary dwelling places for ourselves with our building a temporary dwelling place for God. And it answers my second question at the beginning of this sermon: we now have Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot each as a celebration of one the fundamental events in the God-Israelite relationship in the book of Exodus. 

What strikes me most about the Vilna Gaon’s suggestion is how he answers my first question. According to his interpretation, Sukkot is a holiday connected to a point towards the beginning of the process of reconciliation, but neither the beginning nor the end. It is neither the point when, midrashically, God verbally forgives us, nor the point of the completion of the Tabernacle when the relationship seems to be fully repaired. Instead, it occurs at the start of construction of the Tabernacle, a point when the Clouds of Glory return, a sanguine omen that there is hope for the future God-Israel relationship.

But the Mishkan is barely started and far from completed. This reframesSukkot. Sukkot is no longer, as I am usually inclined to see it, as the last holiday in the holiday cycle. Instead, it is the first physical manifestation of the hope that the relationships we broke last year and have spent time since Elul fixing, relationships which are just beginning to show the fruits of their repair, will remain unbroken. In that sense, the sukkah and the holiday of Sukkot become a celebration of hope that the newly restored relationships with God and with our fellow people will work out even though we don’t know that they will. We don’t know that all of the work we did over the High Holidays will last through the year. They may look good now, just as the return of the Clouds of Glory and the initial building of the Mishkan looked good for the Israelites and God.

But just as I suspect the Israelites and God (כביכול) did not know that their newly remanifested relationship would survive through the completion of the Tabernacle, we don’t know that our newly repaired relationships will survive until Passover. Likewise, every year we put up our sukkot not knowing if the weather, the bugs, or any other impediments will allow us to use them or God will chase us from them like a master throwing their drink back in a servant’s face. Nonetheless, every year we once again try to repair our relationships and we rebuild our Sukkot, just as the Israelites began building the Tabernacle not knowing how things will end. Even though this is a moment of unsurity, we make it into a moment to celebrate the beginning of possibility. And at this moment, I wish for all of you that your renewed relationships, with yourselves, with your fellow Jews, with your fellow humans, and with God will remain strong through 5783.

Shabbat shalom and moa’dim l’simcha. 


שמות פרשת משפטים פרק כג

(טז) וְחַג הַקָּצִיר בִּכּוּרֵי מַעֲשֶׂיךָ אֲשֶׁר תִּזְרַע בַּשָּׂדֶה וְחַג הָאָסִף בְּצֵאת הַשָּׁנָה בְּאָסְפְּךָ אֶת מַעֲשֶׂיךָ מִן הַשָּׂדֶה:

שמות פרשת כי תשא פרק לד

(כב) וְחַג שָׁבֻעֹת תַּעֲשֶׂה לְךָ בִּכּוּרֵי קְצִיר חִטִּים וְחַג הָאָסִיף תְּקוּפַת הַשָּׁנָה:

ויקרא כג

(מב) בַּסֻּכֹּת תֵּשְׁבוּ שִׁבְעַת יָמִים כָּל־הָאֶזְרָח בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל יֵשְׁבוּ בַּסֻּכֹּת:

(מג) לְמַעַן יֵדְעוּ דֹרֹתֵיכֶם כִּי בַסֻּכּוֹת הוֹשַׁבְתִּי אֶת־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּהוֹצִיאִי אוֹתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם אֲנִי יְקֹוָק אֱלֹהֵיכֶם:

במדבר סיני כד

(ה) מַה־טֹּבוּ אֹהָלֶיךָ יַעֲקֹב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶיךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל:

ספרא אמור פרשה יב

למען ידעו דורותיכם כי בסוכות הושבתי את בני ישראל בהוציאי אותם מארץ מצרים, רבי אליעזר אומר סוכות ממש היו, רבי עקיבא אומר בסוכות ענני כבוד היו, בהוציאי אותם מארץ מצרים, מלמד שאף הסוכה זכר ליציאת מצרים.

שולחן ערוך או״ח תרכה:א

בסוכות תשבו שבעת ימים”  וגו’ “כי בסוכות הושבתי את בני ישראל” , הם ענני הכבוד שהקיפם בהם לבל יכם שרב ושמש.

רמב”ן שמות הקדמה

וכשיצאו ממצרים אף על פי שיצאו מבית עבדים עדיין יחשבו גולים כי היו בארץ לא להם נבוכים במדבר וכשבאו אל הר סיני ועשו המשכן ושב הקב”ה והשרה שכינתו ביניהם אז שבו אל מעלות אבותם שהיה סוד אלוה עלי אהליהם והם הם המרכבה ואז נחשבו גאולים ולכן נשלם הספר הזה בהשלימו ענין המשכן ובהיות כבוד ה’ מלא אותו תמיד:

מדרש תנחומא (ורשא) פרשת כי תשא

פסל לך, אימתי ירד משה מן ההר, אמר רבי יהודה בר שלום ק”כ יום עשה משה אצל הקב”ה כיצד בחדש השלישי לצאת בני ישראל וגו’ בששה בחדש נתן להם עשרת הדברות וכתיב בו ומשה עלה אל האלהים ועשה שם ארבעים יום כ”ד מסיון וי”ו מתמוז הרי מ’ יום, ירד בי”ז בתמוז ראה את העגל ושבר את הלוחות ורדה את הסרוחין י”ח וי”ט, וחזר ועלה בעשרים שנאמר ויהי ממחרת ויאמר משה אל העם אתם חטאתם חטאה גדולה ועתה אעלה אל ה’ וגו’ וכתיב וישב משה אל ה’ ויאמר אנא חטא העם הזה חטאה גדולה וגו’ עשה שם עשרה מן תמוז וכל חדש אב הרי ארבעים יום, עלה בר”ח אלול כשא”ל פסל לך והיה נכון לבקר וגו’ ויפסול וישכם משה בבקר ויעל, עשה שם אלול כלו ועשרה מתשרי וירד בעשור והיו ישראל שרוים בתפלה ותענית ובו ביום נאמר לו למשה סלחתי כדבריך וקבעו הקב”ה יום סליחה ומחילה לדורות שנאמר (ויקרא טז) כי ביום הזה יכפר עליכם לטהר, ומיד צוה לו למשה ועשו לי מקדש…


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