Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Sukkot - סוכות

Following hard on the heels of the high hold days of Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah, it is by no coincidence that the festivals of Sukkot and Shmini Atzeret/Simchat Torah (the latter taking place over one day in Israel but is split over two days in the Diaspora,) also enjoy a special connection. As soon as Sukkot ends, we go right into the festival of Simchat Torah without so much as a moment's pause. Upon consideration, it seems a tad strange to be commanded to live in a Sukkah for seven days, and then without a break, without even a day in which to dismantle the Sukkah, we jump right into another festival.

The word Atzeret comes from the Hebrew root עצר, which means stopping. On this day, Jews around the world celebrate finishing the yearly cycle of reading the Torah. But there's a concept in Judaism that seems to directly contradict this term. The concept is that we never stop going; that there's always more work to be done in this world. I'd like to point out that although this idea seems simple, it's very much the opposite of the prevalent custom today. Most people nowadays live a lifestyle that demands hard work so that ultimately, one may take time off. The Jewish concept though, is that up until one's dying day, one remains obligated to perform Mitzvot - there's no such thing as time off. There's no such concept as retirement in Judaism - one is obliged to do their best till their dying day.

With this in mind, how can there be a Jewish festival that celebrates the completion of the Torah? The standard answer is cute; that we don't just stop - we start again and read from Parshat B'reishit on the same day. We refuse to wait the normal week to progress to the next Parsha, and instead signal our intent to keep going. This answer certainly proves that though this Torah reading has ended, we don't really stop, but I would like to propose an alternative answer.

A point repeatedly made by various Rabbis over the years is that the number seven in Judaism signifies that which lies in the natural. There are seven notes in the musical scale, seven continents and there are seven days in the week - something that remains remarkably undisputed, despite the fact that there are various calendar systems in use around the world, all agree that there is such a thing as a week and that it has seven days. We also say that there Hashem made seven heavens (hence the expression,) Tefillin are wrapped around the arm seven times and the Menorah in the Bet Hamikdash had seven branches. Additionally, it is said that the world was created with the number seven. The first verse in the Torah deals with the creation of the universe, and contains seven words and twenty-eight letters; a number which happens to divisible by seven!

As such, it is no surprise to say that the seven days of sukkot correspond to the natural world. For seven days we sit outside, exposed to the elements. Therefore, the second Gerer Rebbe writes in his seminal work, the Sfat Emet, that during this time we need the extra defence of the Sukkah. But beyond seven, the number of the physical, of the natural, is the number eight - which is said to represent the spiritual. He explains that the festival of Sukkot is one that "gives life to the whole world." This is alluded to by the fact that we observe Sukkot for an entire week. Similarly, in the times when the Bet Hamikdash stood, 70 bulls were sacrificed - for each of the 70 distinct nations* in the world. Through these sacrifices, the whole world was given nourishment.

On the day after Sukkot we go one level above the physical world and enter into the spiritual domain, so to speak. We call this day Shmini Atzeret, which means the eighth day. After observing Sukkot and giving physical life to the world, we don't waste any time and focus on imbuing the world with the spiritual energy it needs. The question posed at the beginning of this D'var Torah, why Sukkot and Shmini Atzeret are placed next to one another, may now be answered. On Shmini Atzeret, we leave the Sukkot outside because we don't need the protection it affords. That protection is only needed by someone living a physical, natural lifestyle. We learn that Sukkot and Shmini Atzeret have to be placed next to one another to show that when one lives life fully and spiritually, one moves beyond the need for such external protection.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom and a pleasant Sukkah experience :)

*There is a Torah concept that there are 70 nations in the world. Although there are over 190 countries in existence today, many of these share roots and originate from one people. As such, it's not so absurd to refer the world in terms of "70 [historic] nations".

No comments:

Post a Comment