Parshat Chol Hamoed Sukkot: Exodus 33:12-34:26; Numbers 29: 26-31; Ezekiel 38:18-39:16.
Sukkot is the Festival of Joy. Throughout the holiday, four times a day, we refer to Sukkot as the time of our happiness in our prayers.
What exactly are we so happy about? And, how did Sukkot, or any of the holidays, get to bear this title?
A prominent feature of Sukkot is that it is a unifying holiday. “For a seven-day period you shall live in sukkot. Every resident among the Israelites shall live in sukkot.” (Leviticus 23:42). When the Torah introduces mitzvot, it does not generally go out of its way to specifically include everyone; yet here the Torah stresses to us that all the Jews should be sitting in sukkot.
Another indication of unity in this festival is the Four Species that we wave throughout the holiday. The Midrash (Leviticus 30:12) explains some of the symbolic depth behind the Four Species. Each one represents a different kind of Jew.
The etrog, which has both a pleasant smell and a pleasing taste, represents the tzadik, who has both deep knowledge and righteous actions. The lulav (date palm), which has a good taste but no smell, represents the Jew who has a lot of knowledge, but no good deeds. The myrtle, which smells nice but has no flavor, is like the Jew who does good deeds but has no Jewish knowledge. And lastly, the willow, which has neither smell nor taste, represents the Jew who has nothing: no good actions and no knowledge. Despite the obvious differences between the Jews that the Four Species represent, on Sukkot we bind them together, using them as one unit during the Hallel service when we praise God joyfully.
Why does Sukkot call for such an elevated state of unity? Sukkot finds itself at a tough time in the calendar, situated just before the onset of the winter, when there is less light, longer nights and very little warmth. The winter is not only cold and dark physically, it also represents the time of the year that is spiritually trying and dark. Sukkot is the time that God, so to speak, gathers His children and brings them home before the coming winter chill.
The Zohar refers to the sukkah as the Tzilam Dimihaimbusa, the Divine Canopy. It is God’s version of a home, a dwelling constructed not of strong physical walls, but of mitzvot. And when a father gathers his children before the coming winter, he wants all of them home, not just the ones that have been on best behavior.
While Yom Kippur is an awesome day that requires fasting and repentance in order to properly access forgiveness, Sukkot is all about the love God has for His children and His desire that they all come home regardless of where they are holding in their personal struggles. Other people would not want a troublesome person in their homes, but a father is always happy to see his son come home.
The joy of Sukkot comes from knowing that no matter where we are, no matter what we’ve done, our Father in Heaven still loves us and welcomes us into His home.
Rabbi Leiby Burnham is director of outreach for the Weiss Family Partners in Torah at the Southfield-based Yeshiva Beth Yehudah.
What can I do to increase the unity among the Jewish people? How can I make my home more welcoming to Jews of all backgrounds?