READING FOR SUKKOT
October 7 – 15 Tishrei 5767
Prepared by Rabbi Michael Gold
Congregation Beth Torah, Tamarac, FL
Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Paul Drazen, Director
Sukkot, often simply called HaHag, the festival, is the festival par excellence in Jewish tradition. It is also known as z’man simhatenu, the time of our joy. We are commanded to be joyous on all festivals– but we are commanded to be particularly joyous on Sukkot.
Sukkot is a seven day festival. The first two days (and in Israel and in congregations that have adopted this custom, this is true for only the first day) are full festivals, including all the observances and restrictions of all festival days. The remainder of the days are known as hol hamoed, the festival’s intermediate days. After the seven day observance there are two more days of full festivals – Shmini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. These are separate festivals with their own particular observances. (In Israel and some congregations these are combined on one day.) Therefore, the total time of the Sukkot festivals is nine days in the diaspora, eight days in Israel.
On Sukkot we are commanded to dwell in the sukkah, a temporary booth with naturally growing plants for the roof. Jews try to eat their meals in a sukkah, and some will sleep and try to live there. Each day, except Shabbat, Jews take four plants – an etrog (or citron), lulav (or palm branch), willows, and myrtles – hold them together, and wave them in six directions, symbolically saying that God is everywhere. We also march around the synagogue each day except Shabbat, holding the lulav and etrog and singing hoshanna, “God save us.” On the seventh day we march around the synagogue seven times, reminiscent of Joshua marching around the walls of Jericho. This day is known as Hoshanna Rabba.
On Shmini Atzeret we no longer use the lulav and etrog; we recite prayers for rain, geshem, and yizkor during synagogue services. Simchat Torah is the liveliest festival of the year. Dancing and joyfulness are the norm. We finish reading the final portion, “v’zot habracha” and immediately start reading the Torah once again at the beginning, “Beresheit.”
Issue #1 - Joy
“You shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days” (Leviticus 23:40)
- The Torah can command actions – but can it command feelings? Can we be joyous if we do not feel joyous? In general, do we have control over our feelings and emotions?
- One answer - How would a joyous person behave? Even if our hearts are not there, we can act as if we were joyous. We behave in a certain way, and the heart follows. If we can sing a little, dance a little, smile a little, clown around on Simchat Torah, the inner feeling will follow.
- This is a profound teaching from our tradition. Actions come first, and inner feelings often follow actions. Motivational speakers often teach “Dress for the job you want, not the job you have.” The actor Cary Grant once explained how he became a romantic leading man. He said that he was an actor first, and by acting like a romantic leading man, he became a romantic leading man. What can we learn from this?
- Here is one area where the biblical outlook is at variance with contemporary values. In our contemporary world, many people feel that motivation must come before behavior. You feel love in your heart, and then you act in accordance with that love. I hear so often, “I don’t love them, it would be hypocritical to act as if I do.” In the Bible it is the other way around. We act or behave in a certain way, and the inner feelings of the heart come later. When the Israelites received the Torah at Mount Sinai, they said, “We shall do and we shall understand” (Exodus 24:7). First came the action, then the inner feeling. Can actions change feelings?
Issue #2 – Starting Over
“And there has not risen a prophet since in Israel like Moses whom the Lord knew face to face” (Deuteronomy 34:10)
- On Simchat Torah we finish reading the Torah and start reading all over from the beginning once again. What does this symbolize?
- There was a clever greeting card that was perfect for the festival of Simchat Torah. It shows an open ark filled with scrolls of the Torah, a rabbi puts the Torah away, and on the bottom is a big sign like those in video rental stores: “Be Kind, Please Rewind.” It also is a perfect thought as we end the formal reading of the Torah.
- According to Jewish tradition, the Torah reading never ends. We finish the book of Deuteronomy and then immediately reroll the Torah and start Genesis from the start. It is a never-ending cycle.
- The rereading of the Torah year in and year out reflects its wisdom and power. Once we have read most books, even the classics, once, we are finished with them. Perhaps someday we will reread them, but there is a sense that the reading is finished. In contrast, reading the Torah is an unfinished task. It never ends.
- Ben Bag Bag said, “Turn it over and turn it over for everything is in it” (Avot 5:22). Every rabbi who preaches on the weekly portion year in and year out wonders whether he or she will come up with some new insight, some new teaching, something new to inspire a congregation. If the text does not change, how can we come up with something new? The answer is that we change each year. We have new insights, new experiences, new knowledge, new questions. As we enter a new year of Torah readings and Torah Sparks, may we gain new wisdom and insights for our lives.