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A Sukkot Magical Mystery Tour

Snippets for Sukkot from my Facebook posts

From Yom Kippur to Sukkot

We move from the severity and sombreness of Yom Kippur to the joy of Sukkot. Quite a transition!

Rav Steinsaltz relays a beautiful Habad teaching based on the verse in Shir Hashirim 2:6: "His left hand under my head; His right hand embracing me" Israel is speaking of her relationship with God.

In Kabbala, the left side represents Judgement - Din; the right hand represents Hessed - giving, love, generosity.

So "His left hand under my head" is Rosh Hashanna and Yom Kippur - the days of judgement. "His right hand embracing me" refers to Sukkot. Sukkot is when the love is visible and manifest.

We may visualise God's embrace in the laws of the Sukka. If you take an embrace of an arm/hand, you have the upper arm, the lower arm and the hand - two longer limbs and one shorter one. Rav Steinsaltz says that this is the halakhic requirement for the Sukka to consist of 2 primary walls and one short tefach-length wall. The Sukka is the embodiment of God's loving embrace, as we feel enveloped by the Divine!

The Sefat Emet notes a powerful and evocative connection between Yom Kippur and Sukkot.

On Yom Kippur the high priest enters the Holy of Holies with a "cloud" of incense. In the place of greatest revelation, the cloud offers protection. We speak of "וירד ה' בענן" as God reveals the protective "13 attributes of mercy" in a cloud.

That very cloud, imbued with revelation, grace and protection, becomes the canopy of the Sukka, which is a representation of the "Clouds of Glory" - God's protective presence in the wilderness.


מצות הסוכה אחר ימי תשובה... לכן יורד אח"כ הארה מזיו כסא כבודו וסוכך. וגונן עלינו... וזה הענין הי' ג"כ בזמן המקדש שנכנס הכה"ג לפני ולפנים ביוה"כ בענן הקטורת. לכן המשיך הארה שישרה ענני כבודו על בנ"י אח"כ בימי החג.

Chag Sameach!

Buying my Etrog

I am always excited to go out and purchase Arbaah Minim the morning after Yom Kippur.

And it is always associated with a certain tension. Will I find a nice set for a decent price? You check lulav after lulav. Is it straight? Is the central leaf intact? The shape of the etrog... is it marked in any way? What color? The Hasidim choose an etrog with a "gartle" ... an indented "belt". So much Halakha, so much religious symbolism.

I was busy choosing my 4 Minim this morning.

The guy next to me was examining the etrogim fastidiously.

I said to the seller: "I don't check the etrog too exhaustively. After Yom Kippur yesterday, I won't inspect the etrog too closely, and maybe God won't examine me too closely!"

The man next to me responded with genuine sweet and sincere distress at my words:

"Exactly the opposite! You are buying your heart (the etrog)! You are buying your spine (lulav), your eyes (hadasim)! Who wouldn't want to select the best produce; perfect, without a flaw!?"

The Sukka represents the Mikdash.

As we say daily in Tehillim ch.27

אַחַת, שָׁאַלְתִּי מֵאֵת ה'...

שִׁבְתִּי בְּבֵית ה'... וּלְבַקֵּר בְּהֵיכָלוֹ.

כִּי יִצְפְּנֵנִי בְּסֻכֹּה בְּיוֹם רָעָה

יַסְתִּרֵנִי, בְּסֵתֶר אָהֳלוֹ

So God's "house", His "Heichal" or His "tent", is equated to His "Sukkah".

Indeed in the Holy of Holies, the wings of the angelic Cherubs transcribed the area in which God's voice would emanate: "The cherubim shall have their wings spread out, shielding - סוככים - the cover with their wings...There I (God) will meet with you (Moses), from above the cover, between the two cherubim." (Ex. 25:22)

The verb that describes the canopy created by the wings of the angels, that canopy under which God meets Moses, is the verb סכ"כ - the verb form of the noun Sukkah.


  • The Sukkah is a space much like the Holy of Holies in which humans may take shelter in His canopy and in which we aspire to encounter God.

  • The Talmud derives the minimal height for a Sukkah - ten handbreadths - from the height of the Aron/Ark in the Holy of Holies.

  • On Yom Kippur, the High Priest represents all Israel, entering that inner sanctum, the forbidden chamber, to seek God's forgiveness.

On Sukkot, God invites all Israel to create a Holy of Holies in joy, not fear and to reside inside it. To, in a metaphorical manner of speaking, create a shelter in which we sense our self-made protection, our immunity, a little less; and we might be more attentive of God's protection. In this sense, we build a "tent of meeting", an arena in which to encounter the Divine, this time not in the fear and tension or dread of Yom Kippur, but in the love of the knowledge that God led our ancestors for forty years to realize their destiny, to establish their national home, ensuring that His people could fulfill their ideological aspirations.

As we sit in the "shade of faith" - our Sukkot - may we turn our hearts and minds to the Divine Presence in our life, may we hear the call of God. As we praise God for the good that He bestows upon us, may we allow this "meeting", this encounter, to elevate us, to help us comprehend more clearly, to appreciate and advance our God-given mission in life, that spans so many dimensions of being - the spiritual, the interpersonal, the social, the national, and even the universal.

Chag Sameach!

Chol Hamoed #2

Sukkot is the "Time of our Joy". Why? Because it is our "Ingathering" festival, when the farmer would have a barn filled with grain, wine, dried fruit, (and soon) Olive Oil, and he would be secure in the knowledge that he had enough food and fuel to survive the winter. After the harvest comes Sukkot, our "Thanksgiving."

But Sukkot also looks ahead to the winter with nervousness. Will it rain? Will next year's yield be as good as this one?

And so we say הודו לה' כי טוב to praise God for all the goodness that we have.

But also אנא ה' הושיעה נא as we anxiously anticipate the arrival of the rain... or as we say when we make our Lulav circuit - הושע נא - "Save us"! Part of the ritual of shaking the Lulav is according to the Talmud, to induce the winds which will bring the rain: "מוליך ומביא – כדי לעצור רוחות רעות, מעלה ומוריד – כדי לעצור טללים רעים" (Sukka 37b).

I have presented this in agricultural terms. But it is true for anything. We all can praise God for our health but we might also be concerned that this good state continue.

We praise God for our families and since we know that we can take nothing for granted, we hope and pray that we will be safe and happy into the future.

The lulav is depicted by the Torah as כפות תמרים but what does that mean? If Sukkot were only about the Ingathering, only about our thankfulness, about bounty and plenty, then we would use a lush open palm - what Hazal call חריות של דקל - where all the leaves are full and open (like the Christians wave in the Palm Sunday procession in Jerusalem.) Instead we use an unripe, young palm that is yet to open. And Hazal in the Talmud undrestand that כפות refers not to the fact that the palm be bound (in which case it could be an open palm) but that by its very nature, the leaves be closed.


What does this express?

Hazal by defining the form of the Lulav in this way were focusing less on the bounty/thanks aspect of the festival and more on the lulav as a branch which express our prayers for the new year; as the leaves have emerged somewhat but are yet to sprout, this directs our minds to all the projects and hopes that we hope will yet develop, grow, flourish and come to fruition, producing fruits of blessing for the coming year. In this way the Lulav becomes an instrument of prayer, a portal to the upcoming year with our hopes for life, prosperity and blessing.

Moadim lesimcha!

Rain on Sukkot

Rain. Curse or Blessing?

Last night it rained. The wind blew off half the s'chach from our sleeping sukka upstairs. The truth is that here in Gush Etzion, I think it rains every other year on Sukkot, but nonetheless, it isn't pleasant to be woken at 4am by the rain!

Many remember the Mishna that views rain on Sukkot as sign of divine annoyance:

"The Sages told a parable: To what is this matter comparable? It is comparable to a servant who comes to pour wine for his master, and he pours a jug [kiton] of water in his face." And we certainly want to sit in the Sukka, not in the house.

But here's another perspective. Sukkot is about rain. The 4 species are shaken in all directions to reflect the winds which will bring the rain: “We shake it back and forth in order to stop the bad winds... up and down in order to stop the bad dew" (Talmud Sukka). The Temple "Water Drawing" ceremony would seem to reflect the waters of Eden which watered the world. And God grew a garden in Eden. (Gen 2:5): "Mist came up from the earth and watered the whole surface of the ground." On Hoshanna Rabba: אָדָם וּבְהֵמָה‎. ..‎‏ חִדּוּשׁ פְּנֵי אֲדָמָה‎…‎‏ מִטְרוֹת עֹז לְסַמְּמָה‎…‎צְמָחִים לְגָשְׁמָה On Sheminni Atzeret we recite "Geshem" - the rain prayer. We are praying for the winter rains to come!

And last night we received our first rains in six months! Wow!

And so, when I turned to a friend and mentor - a former kibbutznik - this morning after shul and said: "So what do you say about the rain?" he responded: "We asked God: 'Hosha Na! - Save us Please!' ...And He did!!" And he flashed a huge smile!

Sukkot Chol Hamoed #3

Can you meet God face to face?

Yes you can!

In fact, that is what our Chag is all about!

Our Torah reading on Shabbat Chol Hamoed focuses on God’s face and Moshe’s face. The word ‎פנים\פני‎ ‎appears 20 times, more than any other word, in this passage.‎

So, a short powerful comment from Rabbi Prof. Joshua Berman on this. He discovered ‎striking parallels between the Torah’s laws, and the legal texts of the times. The Torah uses societal ‎metaphors to express the texture and nature of the human-God encounter. And the encounter with God during the chag is a face-to-face engagement.

‎“We saw earlier the treaty with the subordinate king Sunashshura, in which he was obligated to “come ‎before His Majesty and look upon the face of His Majesty.” Again, the visit of Sunashshura is a state ‎visit replete with honor, as the Hittite king’s nobles must rise in his presence. We also note that such a ‎formal court appearance is referred to throughout the Bible as well as an act of “looking upon his ‎face.”‎

Yet precisely this language is used with regard to the common Israelite’s obligations with respect to ‎God. We find it, for example, in the stipulations of the covenant narrative of Exodus. “Three times a ‎year,” we read, “all of your males shall be seen by the face of the Lord”(Ex. 34:23)—referring to the ‎duty to make a pilgrimage to the central shrine of Israelite worship. Nearly ubiquitous throughout the ‎Bible is the notion that God may not be seen by mortals. Were they actually to behold God, they ‎would die

‎…Yet when seen in the context of the Hittite treaties, the meaning is clarified. The command that each ‎Israelite male make a pilgrimage is patterned after the requirement that a subordinate king visit the ‎court of his sovereign, to “look upon the face of his majesty.” What is most instructive here is that this ‎is enjoined upon all adult males—whereas in the Hittite political treaties, only the subordinate king is ‎called upon to visit the sovereign. Indeed, it would be beneath the dignity of the sovereign to receive ‎all of the commoners subject to the subordinate king.‎

‎…By recasting the encounter between man and God as a covenant modeled on the political treaties of ‎the surrounding world, the Bible articulated a relationship in which honor could be reciprocally ‎bestowed between God and the common man of Israel, enacting thereby a reformulation of social ‎and political thought of great proportion. The common man was transformed, perhaps for the first ‎time in human history, from a mere servant of kings to nothing less than a servant-king, who stood in ‎honor before the Almighty Sovereign. This elevation of the individual in the eyes of God may well ‎represent the most profound political teaching, and most lasting political legacy, of the Hebrew Bible.”‎

Day 4. Chol Hamoed

Chol Hamoed in Israel has a unique quality.

My recollections of chol hamoed during my years living in the UK are of a rather pallid experience, which could range from a nuisance at worst, to a sort of sideline at best.

The mild nuisance would be Sukkot with no Sukka for lunch, or the inability to buy coffee at my regular cafe on Pesach. (Once at LSE, chabad put sukka up. It was 3 walls that surrounded a park bench right outside the main library, just about the most busy corner on campus. The front of the bench was completely open, fully exposed; just the sides of the bench and its back were enveloped by walls. It was like a clichéd joke: How many Orthodox Jews can fit on a park bench! ...exceedingly embarrassing!)

But really, far more problematic was that Chol Hamoed felt more "chol" than "moed," more ordinary than festive. My Dad went to work, I attended college, and the chag shrank to prayer-times and mealtimes. The pervasive feeling of the chag, as felt for example on Yomtov, was strikingly elusive.

Not so in Israel where the entire country is on holiday! Today's main headlines were the traffic jams caused by a whole nation on vacation. People hike on nature trails and greet strangers with "chag sameach" greetings; even the newscaster opens the day's news with "moadim lesimcha!" Here it feels more "moed" than "chol" as one cannot be but aware that these are festive days, one gains a sense of the nation as one hikes the country, drives the roads, and visits tourist sites along with throngs of others.

It is really special. It is genuinely a seven day festival.


Moreover, in ancient times, the three pilgrim festivals ("regalim") were celebrated en masse with all Israel. We gain an inkling of that "am yisrael" experience in Israel today.

Both Pesach and Sukkot begin with a day of YomTov followed by intermediate days, as they end with a YomTov day. It is as if we take an intense shot of the chag at the start, then continue by experiencing the chag  at a more normal level of intensity over the duration of a single week, a basic building block of time, allowing the practices of the chag seep in, penetrate the psyche. Then, we emerge into the final Yomtov to simply bask joyfully in the energy that the chag has generated by the preceding days. (-Both on Sukkot and Pesach, the final day of chag has no particular unique practices and seems as if it is there to gather and absorb the riches that the festival have has created.)

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