Sukkot: The Three Festivals –
Seasons of Freedom, Torah, and Joy
by HaRav Dov Begon, Head of Machon Meir. [From the book, “Israel Redeemed.”]
The three pilgrimage festivals, Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot, are one chain linking the Jewish People to their past and their future. They are mentioned in the Amida prayer, as “the time of our freedom;” “the time of the giving of our Torah;” and “the time of our rejoicing”.
Pesach is the season of our freedom. The Jewish Nation was formed at that time, a unique, exclusive creation of God. As we find in Scripture: “I created this people for Myself that they might tell My praise” (Isaiah 43:21). We were created and we emerged from slavery to eternal freedom, by means of miracles, signs and wonders, God’s handiwork for all to see. On Pesach the Jewish People, like a baby emerging from its mother’s womb, is revealed as the firstborn son of the Master of the world. They are the nation chosen from amongst all other nations, not just in the past, but also in the present and for eternity. As we recite daily in our prayers: “Blessed are You God, who chooses His people Israel with love.”
Shavuot was when we received the Torah. It is not enough to emerge from slavery to political freedom, just as it is not enough to merely be born. Rather, we must develop and uncover the lofty soul hidden in the newborn infant, through providing the child with a fine education and teaching him/her Torah, with love. As our sages said, regarding the giving of the Torah, “Read not that the writing was engraved [charut] on the Tablets (Exodus 32:16), but that there was cherut – freedom through the Tablets.” Just as God blew life into Adam, so He give us the Torah from Heaven at the Sinai Revelation, the same Torah that is the soul of the Jewish People down through the generations. This is the import of the blessing over the Torah asher bachar banu, “who chose us from all nations and gave us His Torah.” That blessing is not only history, it is a living reality in the present as well, as we say at the end of that blessing in the present tense: “Blessed are You, O Lord, who gives us the Torah.” In addition it will be realized for eternity:
As for Me, this is My covenant with them, says the Lord: My spirit it is which shall be upon you, and My words which I have put in your mouth, shall not depart from your mouth, nor from the mouth of your children, nor from the mouth of your children’s children, says the Lord, henceforth and forever (Isaiah 59:21).
Sukkot is the season of our joy. We commemorate that “God caused Israel to dwell in sukkot when He took them out of Egypt” (Leviticus 23:43). Rashi interprets “sukkot” as referring to the clouds of glory (kavod.) This signifies a particularly warm and intimate closeness we achieved with Hashem, as He then described “You saw what I did in Egypt, carrying you on eagles’ wings and bringing you to Me” (Exodus 19:4). Similarly we find in the Ha’azinu song as well “Like an eagle, arousing its nest, hovering over its young, He spread His wings and took them, carrying them on His pinions” (Deuteronomy 32:11). The angels sing of God’s glory as we sing in the hymn “Kel Adon” – “Grandeur and Glory [kavod] they give to His name” and on Sukkot we focus on the fact that we merit to see God’s goodness and bask in the splendor of His divine presence.
The Three Festivals – Present, Past and Future
Only by delving deeply into the historic roots of the Jewish People can we appreciate what we are meriting to see, and gaze ahead to the future that awaits us. The establishment of the Jewish State represents an emergence from two thousand years of exile to political freedom, and it parallels Israel’s exodus from Egypt, “the time of our freedom.” The return to Torah and to Jewish tradition which is taking place nowadays amongst tens of thousands of our people, both behind the scenes and openly, parallels how we received the Torah at Sinai, and are tantamount to “the time of the giving of our Torah.” As we progress toward a renewed spiritual freedom, we will soon merit the completion of the redemption process with the coming of our righteous Messiah and the rebuilding of the Temple, speedily in our day. We rejoice “at the time of our Joy” by dwelling in the sukkah, taking up the four species and reliving the water-drawing festival in the Temple. Then Simchat Torah is the tangible culmination of the process that began with the Exodus, continued with Sinai and the revelation of the divine presence that dwells within us, and has continued to shield and protect us down through the ages.
Particularly on Sukkot we invite into our sukkah the seven Ushpizin, honored guests, who also focus our attention to this historic process that goes back to the beginning of our people. We recall the Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, continuing with Joseph, Moses and Aaron next, and then reach David, King of Israel. Through King David and the Jewish People whom he leads, God’s kingdom is ultimately revealed to the world, and to all mankind. As we say in our prayers “[the Jews] will rejoice in Your kingdom.”
With such an all-encompassing perspective on the Jewish People through the generations, from our glorious past to our majestic future, we sit in our sukkahs and rejoice. In recent years, as we celebrate Sukkot, millions of Jews have been privileged to celebrate in Eretz Yisrael and in Jerusalem, capital of Israel, multiplying our joy many times over. Ours is not just a private joy, but a national rejoicing.
In the final stage we see that on sukkot the Torah commands us to bring seventy bulls in the Temple as offerings, corresponding to the nations of the world, making Sukkot a holiday that contains a universal theme as well. Ultimately, the prophet promised: “I will bring them to My holy mountain and make them joyful in My house of prayer. Their burnt-offerings and sacrifices shall be acceptable upon My altar, for My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Isaiah 56:7).
The State of Israel already today holds an honored place in the family of nations and constitutes a national player with worldwide influence. While today this influence is only in the political, economic and security realms, the day is not far off when all mankind will know and recognize that the Jewish People, living in the State of Israel that is rising to rebirth, are the light of the world morally and spiritually as well. Israel’s influence will be recognized for all to see not just because of things written in the Bible in the past, but because we are a nation that lives and breathes the Torah of God in our national and individual lives. We will be a people that sanctifies God’s name before all the nations, a people through whom the divine presence is revealed to the entire world.
On Sukkot, Israel’s ultimate destiny as a light unto the nations is revealed, hence the enormous joy associated with that holiday. “Make us rejoice in accordance with Your days of afflicting us, the years in which we saw evil” (Psalm 90:15). We will soon be the living fulfillment of King David’s words:
“O praise the Lord, all you nations. Laud Him, all you peoples. For His mercy is great toward us; and the truth of the Lord endures forever. Hallelujah (Psalm 117).
The Tree of National Life
In the Sukkah we encounter our nations’ forefathers and leaders, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron and King David. Each day, another of these faithful shepherds is the guest of honor in our Sukkah and imparts from his benevolent and unique spirit upon the Sukkah dwellers. All of them together, Patriarchs and descendants, find shelter under the wings of the Divine Presence. Just as we reflect upon our ancestors who lived in the early generations and who stand at the foundation of the nation, so do the nation’s shepherds have a continued influence upon us.
For the Jewish People are like a tree that has lived for thousands of years. The nation’s first leaders and Patriarchs are like the tree’s roots, while the generation in which we live is like the branches. The connection and link between the roots and branches, between the Patriarchs and their descendants, between the first generations and recent generations, is critical for our people to continue growing, flourishing and producing sweet fruits. To create the connection between the ancient roots and the new branches, we must provide water for the national tree – and “there is no water but Torah” (Bava Kama 82a). The more the Jewish people today is supplied and “irrigated” with Torah knowledge, the greater will be their connection to the forefathers of our nation, who are our “roots,” and their benevolent spirit will ennoble us. The Patriarchs will find joy through us, and with our own eyes we will be privileged to see the fulfillment of the prophecy: “He shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers” (Malachi 3:24).
Shield of Abraham and Shield of David
Abraham is called the seed from which the Jewish People have grown. Already at the beginning of his path, God promises him, “I shall make you a great nation” (Genesis 12:2). A growing plant requires protection against all kinds of harmful forces. In the same way, Abraham, his descendants, and his descendants’ descendants are protected by God, as in the Amidah prayer, in which we bless God as the “Shield of Abraham.”
The great nation that sprang forth from Abraham is the Jewish People, which is growing like an ancient tree whose hoped-for fruit is the Messianic King. The Messiah will come from the House of David and will rule in Eretz Yisrael, bestowing of his benevolent spirit upon the Jewish People and upon all of mankind: “On that day the nations shall seek the root of Jesse that stands as a banner to the peoples” (Isaiah 11:10). Yet King David as well requires God’s protection from the enemies, as following the haftarah reading we bless God as the “Shield of David.”
Despite the noble task assigned to Abraham and to King David – to bring goodness and light to the whole world – the two of them still need shields against those forces and nations who have opposed them and plotted against them throughout history. In the Shemoneh Esreh we therefore mention “Magen Avraham” (the Shield of Abraham), and in the Haftarah blessings we mention “Magen David” (the Shield of David).
The history of the Jewish people can be summarized as the story of these two shields, the shield of Abraham and the shield of David. It is no coincidence that the emblem on the flag of the State of Israel is the shield of David. This symbol serves to remind us that we live in the period of the ingathering of the exiles and the rebirth of the Jewish nation in the Land of Israel. Despite all the difficulties, God is shielding His people. Particularly in this era when we have been privileged to rise to rebirth in our land, the nations surrounding us scheme against us and attack us. Yet God, the Shield of David, has defended, is defending and will continue to defend the State of Israel, which is the tangible expression of God’s having fulfilled His promise to make Abraham a great nation.
On Sukkot we host the “ushpizin” guests in our sukkah, consisting of the forefathers of our nation. As mentioned, we start with Abraham on the first day, and end with King David on Hoshana Rabbah, the last day. However there is one more stage represented by Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. After God ensures our success as “a great nation in the Land,” we will be privileged to see with our own eyes how all the families of the earth are blessed through Abraham. We hope and pray that in our times, through the rebirth of the Jewish People in their land, an expression of the spirit of the Messiah, we will merit the enormous joy alluded to by the word hamashiach (“the Messiah”) whose Hebrew letters also create the word simchah (joy). As our sages said, “Whoever has not seen the joy of the Sukkot Water-Drawing Celebration has never seen joy his whole life” (Sukkah 51a).
“O Lord, grant us Your holy festivals for gladness and joy. May Israel, who sanctifies Your name rejoice in You” (Festival Amida prayer).