INSIGHT
5769 - #03

Succot

COMPLETION

            Succot is the most joyous festival of the Biblical holidays.1 We refer to it in our prayers simply as zman simchateinu, the period of our happiness. Unlike the other festivals in which we include in our prayers a tie between our present celebration and a past historical event, the focus of Succot seems to be the present. It is, now, the time of our rejoicing. Of course, the holiday has a historical tie, with a connection to the nation’s forty year wandering in the desert, but rather than understanding our present holiday celebration through the lens of the past, it is the past that we seem to be called upon to understand anew through the lens of the present holiday’s joyousness. This is significant for much of Torah informs us that the best way to understand today is by acquiring the perspective of the past. We are to look at modernity through the eyes of the Torah, given to us at the historical birth of our nation millennia ago. Succot would seem to inform us of an opposite perspective, that there is also a view from today and a way of looking back at history from a perspective of the present, from even a perspective of the future. Succot tells us to look back, from today and, perhaps more importantly, from the perspective of where we are going, from the perspective of the completion of our tasks in this world.

            The future is indeed a dominant theme of the holiday. The haftara of the first day of the holiday concerns the End of Days and the battle of Gog and Magog as presented in Zecharya 14:1-21. The haftara of Shabbat Chol Hamoed covers the same theme as presented in Yechezkel 38:18-39:16. Some may perceive the theme of joy that permeates the holiday as a reflection of anticipation, of an expression of a future joy that we expect speedily in the immediate future. This expression of joy, though, questions the present. There is still a limitation on the present joy for the needed events that must transpire in the future have not yet occurred. The End of Days, though, also reflects a theme that can have present significance, in fact can have present significance now without consideration of the future. That is a theme that is reflected in the haftara of the second day of the yom tov2 and also the haftara of Shemini Atzeret3 – the completion of the building of the first Temple. Succot is the holiday of completion. Of course, the future is a sub-theme within this broader theme for the Torah view of the future is a time when there is completion, when the purpose of this existence is fulfilled. Completion, though, can have many expressions: the completion of the building of the Temple, the completion of the yearly agricultural cycle, the completion of the teshuva period that began with Rosh Chodesh Elul, the completion of the cycle of the Shalosh Regalim, the three Biblical festivals – all completions that are tied to the holiday of Succot. We celebrate completion, but the most important aspect of that celebration is in what it teaches us, in the vision that it imparts to us. We can look at any life event from the perspective of its starting point. We can also look at the same event from the perspective of its end point or its completion point. The former directs us to look forward, the latter instructs us to look backwards. In the present, we can look forward with a vision of the past – know from whence you came4 – and we can look backwards with a vision of where we wish to go – know where you are going.5 Completion, and a resultant understanding of purpose, infuse a moment with simcha for it is thereby that we gain a better understanding of the value of what we do. The farmer who has experienced a successful harvest will be able to feel the simcha in every moment of the agricultural cycle for he/she understands the event in the context of its place in the process of completion.

            Pesach informs us how to think and feel at the beginning of an endeavour. There is a simcha in a new beginning and a freshness in the realization of a new insight. Like a child who asks questions, we are open to new understandings and new perspectives. Succot reflects on the value of completion, of an understanding of what can be achieved and the benefit that can emerge from the knowledge of success and what this knowledge can bring to other endeavours. There is greater simcha. The different perspective can also affect our focus. Pesach is solely about the nation, about the narrowly defined group who must maintain a specific focus and not be swayed by broader goals, even broader ideals. The group that bands together to eat the korban Pesach, the Paschal sacrifice, is tight.6 This is the attitude at the beginning. Succot, with an eye on the goal, on the completion, has a universal perspective. The seventy young-bull sacrifices brought throughout the holiday represent the seventy nations of the world. 7 The nation that must be insular in the beginning must, upon also recognizing the eventual goal and the perspective of the completion, understand its goal within the world. That is the view from the future, the completion, as distinct from the view at the beginning, necessary to initiate the endeavour.

            T. B. Pesachim 89b makes a most powerful statement in declaring that the reason the Jewish nation was sent into the Diaspora was to attract gerim, converts. But wasn’t exile a punishment? Maharsha explains that if the objective was to simply punish the nation, God could have done so in a different manner; it was necessary for klal Yisrael to live amongst the nations of the world in order to thereby spread the knowledge of God amongst these nations. Yet, exile was clearly mentioned again and again as the appropriate punishment if the nation did not follow the directions of Torah? There is the view of the beginning and the view of the completion. At the initial stage, the insular nation of Israel must perceive exile as punishment for not meeting its goal. From the view of the objective, of the vision of completion, the nation, though, must adopt a different perspective, that the exile served a greater purpose in the broader ideal that God has for us and all Mankind. We must live with both perspectives even as they seem to contradict each other, for only with both do we gain a full appreciation of the truth.

 

            Rabbi Benjamin Hecht

 


Footnotes

1 If we consider all the holidays of the Jewish calendar, we would have to ponder the question of which is more joyous, Succot or Purim. While the question itself may also need some explanation, an investigation of this issue is outside the parameters of this Insight. A connection between Succot and Purim, though, should be recognized. See, for example, Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, Horeb, Purim.

2 Melachim I 8:2-21.

3 Melachim I 8:34-9:1.

4 See, Mishna Avot 3:1. 1.

5 Ibid

6 See, for example, Rambam, Sefer Hamitzvot, Lo Ta’aseh 126-128, perhaps, in the same vein, 123. Ibid

7 Rashi, Bamidbar 29:18.

 (c) Nishma, 2008

 


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