Monday, October 13, 2008

Sukkot (Mitzvot)

Sukkot: Celebrating the Material World

The festival of Sukkot has an abundance of practical mitzvot—more so than any other festival, including Pesah: to dwell in a sukkah, the taking of the ”four kinds” (lulav, etrog, etc.) and, in Temples times, the pilgrimage to Jerusalem (which seems to have been more widely observed on this festival than on any other day), including the festive procession around the altar with willow branches, the water libation, and Simhat Beit ha-Sho’evah, the nighttime revelries around the ceremonial drawing of water from the Shiloah brook. In our days, too, there is also a special mitzvah associated with the willow on the last day, Hoshana Rabbah.

Unlike the other two pilgrimage fests, Pesah and Shavuot, Sukkot is not connected with any specific historical event. True, it is associated in a general way with God’s protective beneficence to our ancestors during the desert years—“that your fture generations of offspring may know that I made the Israelites to dwell in sukkot-huts when I took them up out of the land of Egypt” (Lev 23:43). But the timing of this festival, at the very end of summer, suggests that it is equally a “festival of ingathering” at the “going out / turning point of the year” (Exod 23:16; 34:22)—an autumn harvest festival, not altogether unlike Thanksgiving. Or, in simple language, a celebration of the bounty of the land, and our gratitude for it to God, set very much in the present.

As befits a celebration of the bounty and blessings of the physical, material world, the mitzvot are all of a concrete, physical nature, involving objects made of natural materials, as closely connected to nature as possible. The skhakh of the sukkah must be made of vegetation, not products manufactured or substantially altered by man; the four species waved in jubilation while reciting the Hallel are likewise plants taken from nature, held “in the manner in which they grow.”

As I see it, this festival acquires special meaning in the modern world, in which people’s lives are often far-removed from immediate contact with nature—many of us live in high rise apartments, often living and working in environments illuminated by artificial light, eat foods “enhanced” with chemicals and preservatives or imported from vast distances with different climatic cycles and, in the era of the computer and internet, spend many hours in “virtual reality.” Sukkot is a return to basics, a return to nature, and to rejoicing in the true foundations of our being.

For more teachings on Sukkot, see the archives to this blog at October 2006.


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