Are we going to dwell in huts, booths, tents, tabernacles? or succot? On Tishri 15, 5768, the Jewish Community celebrates the harvesting feast of the Booths. They are commended to gather and bring all samples of the numerous produce of the land before - slow-slowly the grounds may take a one-year leave wherever possible though it is a law of the shemittah, rest for the grounds.
A succah is and only can be a sicce and Succot can only be "Sicces". This Shabbat is called "Shabbat chol HaMoed Sukkot - Shabbat of the (ordinary) weekdays of the Feast of Succot", intermediate days that may occur for Pesach and "Zeman Simchatenu - the time of our rejoicing", i.e. "the Feast of the Tabernacles". As decades, years and shemittot (years of remittance) pass, this festival grows into a widely popular and rejoicing time, beside the fact that a lot of Israelis would then decide to travel abroad. The reading portion is taken from the Book of Vayikra / Leviticus 22:26-23:44 that recounts the time of "appointed festivals - moadim - pl. of "moed" (Lev. 23:4). This tracks us back to the creation of the world: God had set up the "me'orot birkiyah hashamayim - lights in the dome of the sky" to distinguish as a sign "le'otot lemoadim - for the appointed times of encounter" (Gen. 1:14). Days and years pass, "moed - moadim" are appointed - invariant times of special encounter between God and the beings. Just as the Shabbat, Pesach - Shavuot (Spring New Year and first harvest of Passover-Pentecost), Rosh HaShanah-Yom HaKippurim (Autumnal New Year and Day of Atonement) and Succot (Feast of the Booths - Autumnal New Year Harvest). On these Fall harvesting days that developed into the Canadian and then American Thanksgiving Days also related to the local late harvests, the Jews chose to reckon salvation. Judaism starts New Year in accordance with the Sumerian, Chaldean and Gilgamesh computing system based on return, pardon and assembling the whole Community of Israel. There was a time when New Year started with Pesach and the Law-giving Pentecostal harvest. Curiously, it makes more sense for the South hemispheric countries, from Argentina, South Africa to Australia as they reach Springtime…
Succot is a good period for reflecting with insights on Jews and Judaic, Judean and Jewishness. Succot is also the perfect seven-day period to allow speculating upon non-Jews, Gentiles, Nations of the world, others, “not us” indistinctively. Then, the problem is that we still thoughtfully interrogate ourselves about who we are and not how we are linked to others and vice versa.
To begin with, we have very poor soil produce memorizing capacities. From the time of the exile in Babylon, we have been city-addicted or compelled to reside in towns. We know what “apartheid” means because like in the Cape of Good Hope, we were compulsorily fenced in townships (Afrikaans: pondokkies), our “shtetlech” and their ghettos. But “by the rivers of Babylon, (as) we were sitting and wept” (Tehillim 137:1; cf. Blessing after Meals), we apparently forgot about the feast of the Booths and progressively got astray from hut-building, even the limited three wall sample (Succa 3a). No hut, no booth, maybe some tent in specific oriental areas and this absence of Succot celebrated lasted quite a long time. “Tabernacles” really sounds “Gentile” at the present because it means a place or ornamental box for the Divine Presence (Eucharist), especially in the Roman Catholic world while the Byzantine speak of a “Tsiyon – Zion” that is placed on the offering altar in the Eastern-Orthodox Churches.
The produce would rather be used in the synagogues and we do have a lot of accounts written by Christians comparing the lulav – palm branch with the palm branches waved during the Christian Holy Week. Still, in the long periods of dispersion, the Jews forgot the taste and flavor of the produce required in Eretz Israel - Holy Land : the lulav – palm branch (strictness / flexibility in faith), etrog – big lemon – citrus (big heart, love to every/anybody, gentleness and delicacy/good smell), hadas – myrtle (charm and seduction, sweet heartedness but no persistency) and aravah – willow (thirst quenching and fear to get bone dried) that should be gathered together and waved in a special way (Succa 37b): toward the four winds, the heavens, the earth, symbolizing the overflowing wealth and prosperity, abundance of Divine love for each creature and human being as chanted during the Hallel (cf. Tehillim 118:188.8.131.52).
The Jews could hardly enjoy all these produce outside of Eretz Israel. And there is undoubtedly no need to build some succot during the Feast of Passover or even on Shavuot / Pentecost days. As mentioned in a previous article, it is interesting to note that the Feast of Succot does not exist per se in any Christian Church or denomination, contrary to all the other Jewish festivals that got included into the Christian festive calendar. The Christian scholars and traditions would show that all things got “accomplished” in Jesus of Nazareth. Both the Eastern Orthodox and Catholic liturgies insist on the (Second) Coming of Jesus in glory, which corresponds to the two Messiahs: (the suffering) Ben Joseph and (glorious) Ben David of the Jewish tradition. The Gospels recount the conception and birth of Jesus of Nazareth. They might also suggest that he was born during the Feast of Sukkot. This is simply based upon the calculation of time starting with Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father, who accomplished his priestly service as a member of the Abijah order in the Temple (always in August), the visit paid by Mary to her cousin Elisabeth, Zechariah’s wife, at Eyn Karem. She was pregnant for five months and, in the sixth month, Mary also became pregnant (Luke 1:1-33). This shows the delays and allows calculating the possible birth of Jesus in the time of Succot.
For the Jewish Community, Succot is thus not the feast of some huts or booths. It is the festival that prolongs the journey throughout the wilderness of a world that may ignore God’s Presence. Strangely enough, it is appealing that some Christians would join Succot (as Shavuot) because of the strong impact of harvesting thanksgivings in the North American Christian culture. On the other hand, it includes the mitzvah of hospitality to all the ushpizin (guests) from those who were the pioneers and paved the way for redemption and the end of ages (Yevamot 61b). During the Transfiguration at Mount Tabor, Jesus was speaking to Moses and Elijah. Both disappeared while Shimon-Peter asked Jesus if he could not build three “dwellings – sukkot”: “one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah” (Matthew 17.4); “not knowing what he said” adds the proselyte Evangelist (Luke 9:33).
Indeed, Succot is the “tsel tsila – overshadowing shade” feast of a trip trough eternity. Shades cover shades and “fencing or wall separations” are definitely not the point, in this festival. True, Jews can recall that they dwelt under tents in the desert. But is it credible to think backwards as we a new year starts and introduce humankind into brand new days, weeks and months? The Jewish tradition usually adds a “megillah – a scroll” reading to the major Festivals. These scrolls underline that Redemption and God’s reign concerns every nation. At Shavuot / Pentecost, Megillat Ruth explains how a Moabite woman and Noemi joined the community of Israel. At Kippur, the Book of Jonah described how the Ninivites turned to God and repented under ashes.
When there is a Shabbat between the beginning of the feast of Sukkot and its conclusion on Shemini Atseret (Day of the joyous assembly), it became a custom (minhag) to read the Megillat Kohelet, the Book of Ecclesiastes. It is considered as a scroll and it seemingly depicts a plain if not dubious attitude toward faith in God and the lack of hope in this world. Say it sounds a bit blasé. Just as some people would love to show off at times. There were long disputes as whether to include or not this megillah/scroll into the canonical Books of the Scriptures. Interestingly, Judaism and Christianity did not feel at ease with the Song of the Songs too. As if extreme love and doubt could defy God’s existence and presence. Is Kohelet a preacher, eventually the son of David (Eccl. 1:1, 2:7,9)? Or, is it the “gathering call, the one call that assembles the faithful”? Is “hevel – vanity – hevel havalim – vanity of vanities” a worldly nonchalant and disillusioned repeated motto for empty and futile senselessness? This question is real and deeply affects a large part of Israeli society. “Absurd” is now a common word in English as it is also in Russian. On the other hand, the Feast of Sukkot is a time of rejoicing. It is possible for some people to be caught up in the dizzy aspect of festivities, food, pleasures even when joy can be felt in the study of the Scripture. “Hevel” also means “vapor”. Latin and Greek don’t presuppose a positive interpretation of the word. Hebrew could eventually be interpreted in the sense of “a light existing spirit” that can be sustained.
There is more: Succot means encountering, dating and freely share the treasure we receive and can share at any minute like glimpses compared to shades that do make sense. Just as we are normally called to pardon anybody on Yom Kippur, we can feel as a special gift to meet and welcome each other under a sukkah. Each of us embodies something of the time & space limited framework of palm roofs that meet with others. “The end of the matter; all has been heard – sof davar hakol nishma’” (Eccl. 12:13) induces that every divine matter and parole can be heard and thus accomplished to the full. Fear God and keep His Mitzvot for this is the whole (duty of) man – ki zeh kol ha’adam” (Eccl. 12:13b).
“Mah yitron – what advantage is there for man (Eccl. 3:9)?” is a general tempo that runs along the scroll. But the Mitzvot cannot be compared to any advantage. We have the task to question ourselves about who we are, where and with whom we go? And to put the question mark on who the other humans are. The response is – if we follow the Hebrew text of Kohelet – that all the Mitzvot embody the human beings. The Commandments make sense and gather all humans without exclusion. And that! Wow! This is more than any dreams, fancies, free hugs and “make love not war”. Booths allow overshadowing branches to make bread and butter out of futile vapors and get hooked to unfailing hope.
Chag Sukkot sameah! Happy Feast of Succot!