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Vayikra/Leviticus 23:43 ... so that your generations shall know that I made the Children of Israel dwell in succahs when I brought them out of the land of Egypt.
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The word , usually translated as a booth, tent, tabernacle or shelter, comes from the geminate1 root (also written ) that has a range of meanings, from "to cover, conceal or protect" (Davidson), to "to weave, intertwine"2 in both biblical and Qumran texts. The Torah certainly uses it for animal shelters, the prophets for workmen's huts, and the etymology as well as the modern rules for building a sukkah seem to suggest something temporary and potentially leaky on both a horizontal and vertical axis! The Sages of the Talmud discuss exactly what this means when applied to Israel's time crossing the desert in the wilderness from Egypt to Eretz Yisrael. Rabbi Akiva says that the Israelites made real physical booths; Rabbi Eliezer says that the word refers to clouds of glory with which HaShem covered and protected the Israelites during their years of travel (b. Sukkah 11b).Rashi follows Rabbi Eliezer with the clouds of glory, while his grandson the Rashbam follows Rabbi Akiva: "the straightforward sense follows the opinion that 'booths' refers literally to booths." Ibn Ezra explains that "they made themselves booths (just as everyone does when they camp) after they passed through the Sea of Reeds, and the wilderness of Sinai, where they spent almost a year." After all, if there were reeds at the Sea, why not use the materials that were on hand? Baruch Levine wonders if he can hear a word-play at work in this verse as during the exodus narrative - "The Israelites journeyed from Raamses to Succoth" (Shemot 12:37, NJPS) - "Sukkot is the the name of the first stop on the exodus route from Egypt." Were the Israelites resting insukkahs or resting at a place called Sukkot?
Interesting though it might be to debate whether a sukkah is a temporary woven structure used as a shelter, or is a reference to a miraculous covering, that probably misses the point that this verse is trying to make: "so that your generations shall know". The 'what' of the facts about the sukkahs and the exodus journey from Egypt are secondary to the 'why'. Our text forms the reason clause for the instructions starting in the previous verse: "You shall live in booths seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in booths, in order that future generations may know ..." (Vayikra 23:42-43, NJPS). As theRamban says: "He has commanded that all future generations should know the deeds of the great G-d 'who dealt so wondrously with you' (Joel 2:26, NJPS(." In the rehearsal of the Sukkot festival each year, social memory is refreshed and its purpose reinforced, as Rabbi Hirsch explains: "We are to live in these huts for seven days so that our descendants should know that in such huts G-d let us live when He brought us out of Egypt. It is this living in the wilderness - no mere wandering through the wilderness - the remembrance of which is to be renewed through all succeeding generations, to which Moshe refers." John Hartley confirms, "The shelters, however, are not to recall the hardship of the wilderness, but the grace of G-d in providing for His people in so many ways in such an austere environment. This interpretation is supported by the construction of the booths out of the glorious trees of the promised land, not from the shrubs of the wilderness."3
The time of the year - at the end of the season of harvest when everyone has finished bringing all the produce of the fields, the vineyards, the orchards and gardens into the storehouse - for the festival is significant. Pointing to "After the ingathering from your threshing floor and your vat, you shall hold the Feast of Booths for seven days" (D'varim 16:13, NJPS), the Rashbam adds, "once your houses are full of all good things - grain, wine and oil - so that you may remember that 'I made the Israelites live in booths' for 40 years in the wilderness, not being allowed to settle down or possess land. Through doing so, you will be brought to give thanks to the One who gave you land to possess, filling your houses with all good things." TheBaal HaTurim reports that, "G-d commanded us to build a sukkah at the beginning of winter. For, if we were to build it during the summer, it would not be apparent [that we were constructing it for the sake of the mitzvah]. Instead, it would appear as if we were building it for shade [alone]."
A few weeks ago we considered what might happen if, flushed with agricultural abundance and success, the Israelites concluded that, "My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me" (D'varim 8:17, NJPS). Perhaps the festival of Sukkot is a seven-day worked antidote to this; a week of stepping aside from all the stuff and focusing on G-d. Gunter Plaut writes, "We are summoned to leave our solid, seemingly permanent dwellings and live for a time the the fragile [and temporary] sukkah, that we may become mindful of our own frailty and impermanence and of our need for divine help", while Hirsch suggests that "it is to free us from putting too much weight and valuing too high and idolising our skill and ingenuity in obtaining our bread that the experience of the wilderness was given to us. The huts are to bring to mind the way our forefathers lived; in the wilderness and all the truths and lessons it teaches. Entering the wilderness a man steps out from the protection and assistance of Nature and the work of Man, and can only retain existence through G-d." As Gordon Wenham points out, "It is only when we are deprived of our daily blessings, health, food, clothes or housing, that we realise just how much we ought to be thankful for."4
So we learn that at least part of the purpose of the annual celebration of Sukkot, is that the historical reality of the wilderness journey should become part of Israel's master commemorative narrative. We are not required to memorise every detail of the whole forty year journey - even Moshe's travelog pieces with lists of the way-stations visited are not that detailed - but we are to remember that during those forty years, when "the clothes on your back did not wear out, nor did the sandals on your feet" (D'varim 29:4, NJPS), the Children of Israel travelled in temporary shelters. They were not 'at home', they had left Egypt, they had not yet arrived in the Land and they were dependent on G-d for food (read: manna and quail) and drink. In spite of their complaints and misbehaviour, He provided for them every day of that forty year journey.
Now, Moshe instructs the people at the L-rd's command, when you (the Israelites) are in the Land and enjoying the benefits of the Land - "an exceedingly good land ... a land that flows with milk and honey" (B'Midbar 14:7-8, NJPS) - you are to remember each year that it is G-d who provides for you. Thus,Nechama Leibowitz observes, "A link is established, not with nature, but with the L-rd of nature, by the rituals that mark the subordination of the earthly to the Heavenly." The word , 'your generations', tells us that it isn't enough that the generation entering the land or their children and grand-children should know. The Torah has in view that all the subsequent generations should know and remember that HaShem made our ancestors, those who came out of Egypt, dwell in sukkahs during the journey. This is why the festival of Sukkot is to be celebrated for a whole week each year at the end of the harvest season. Emile Durkheim, a French sociologist of the nineteenth/twentieth centuries, wrote, "Rite serves and can serve only to sustain the vitality of these beliefs, to keep them from being effaced from memory and, in sum, to revivify the most essential elements of collective consciousness."5 Every generation must be aware of who they are and their purpose for being.
The pages of the Greek Scriptures contain many references to the Jewish festivals. The gospels tell us of Yeshua being in Jerusalem to celebrate Pesach, Sukkot and Hanukkah. Rav Sha'ul organises what later turns out to be his last journey eastwards so as to be present in Jerusalem for Shavuot (Acts 20:16) and writes in his letters about the feasts. History records that Jewish communities around the Mediterranean kept the major festivals each year in synchronisation with the timetable in Israel. Jewish tradition maintained the record of the Exodus in their collective memory by telling the story again and again each year, by building a sukkah and living in it. Rabbinic Judaism encapsulated the commandments of celebration - "On the first day you shall take the product of hadar trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the L-RD your God seven days" (Vayikra 23:40, NJPS) - in the tradition of the lulav and etrog, still used to this day. Jews have celebrated Sukkot "in the seventh month as a law for all time, throughout the ages" (v. 41, NJPS) to remember.
How should we, as believers in Messiah, both Jew and Gentile, celebrate and rehearse the past so that all our generations should know and remember the important facts of our faith? We are blessed (but shouldn't be surprised) that all the major events in Yeshua's life and ministry fell on Jewish festivals. We can include our remembering of these in our celebrations on these days. A number of scholars think it is likely that the major end-times events will also happen on Jewish festivals, so we can look to the future and interpret the signs of the times through the Jewish calendar. Above all, we must teach our children and our communities, week by week and year by year, to celebrate and commemorate the good things that G-d has done and continues to do so that our memories stay fresh and that we don't lose sight of who we are and our purpose for being!
Hag Sukkot Sameach b'Yeshua!
1. - A 'geminate' verb is one in which the second and third letters of the root are the same. They behave irregularly, sometimes as if hollow, sometimes as if first yod.
2. - David J. A. Clines (ed.) The Concise Dictionary of Classical Hebrew, (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2009), page 296.
3. - John E. Hartley, Leviticus, Word Biblical Commentary, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1992), page 389-390.
4. - Gordon J. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus, NICOT, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1979), page 305.
5. - Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life tr. Joseph Ward Swain, (London, George Allen and Unwin, 1915), 427.
Further Study: D'varim 31:10-13; Psalm 78:5-7; 2 Timothy 2:1-2
Application: How could you enhance your celebration of the feast this year to augment and build your memory and knowledge of Yeshua? Now see how you can add that to your repertoire of festival activities so that it becomes a regular habit that you pass on to your generations as a reminder not only of what G-d has done for our people, but what He has done for you!
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© Jonathan Allen, 2019
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