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Vayikra/Leviticus 23:40 You shall take for yourselves, on the first day, the fruit of a glorious tree, the branches of date palms, twigs of myrtle and willows of the river, and you shall rejoice before Adonai your G-d for seven days
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The command to take the four species - the etrog, the lulav, the myrtle and the willow - is the second major command of the festival of Sukkot, between celebrating the feast for seven days (Vayikra 23:39) and dwelling in booths or tabernacles for seven days (v. 42). Over the years, the Jewish commentators have written and taught many different and ingenious proposals for the meaning and significance of this command and the way in which is was practiced in antiquity and is still observed today.
The ancient sages offered many allegorical explanations for the four species. Among others,Pesikta Rabbati offers one that relates to the four matriarchs: Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel and Leah. "'The glorious tree' stands for our mother Sarah to whom the Holy One gave a majestic bearing in her old age, as it is written, 'When Avraham and Sarah were old, they were majestic in age' (B'resheet 18:11). The 'branch of date palms' stands for our mother Rivkah: like the palm-tree which bears both fruit and thorns, so Rivkah bore a righteous man and a wicked man. The 'boughs of a leafy tree' stand for our mother Leah: as the myrtle tree is rich in leaves, so Leah was rich in children. 'Willows of the brook' stand for our mother Rachel: as the willow in the lulav cluster wilts and dries up before the other three plants do, so Rachel died before her sister did" (Pesikta Rabbati, Piska 51.2).
Considering the ways in which all four matriarchs pleaded withHaShem for children and were heard, the rabbis connected this to two verses from the Psalms: "He has turned to the prayer of the destitute and has not spurned their prayer. May this be written down for a coming generation, that people yet to be created may praise the L-RD" (Psalm 102:18-19, NJPS). Women in antiquity who were unable to bear children were considered to be destitute; bearing and raising children was assumed to be their main purpose in life: raising up sons and heirs for their husbands - "Your wife shall be like a fruitful vine within your house; your sons, like olive saplings around your table. So shall the man who fears the L-RD be blessed" (128:3-4, NJPS). As the matriarchs prayed for children and were heard, so their stories were told and passed on to give successive generations hope in their times of barrenness and distress. Hence, the poignancy of Isaiah's picture of the barren woman: "Shout, O barren one, you who bore no child! Shout aloud for joy, you who did not travail! For the children of the wife forlorn shall outnumber those of the espoused -- said the L-RD" (Isaiah 54:1, NJPS). The stigma of childlessness, the social contempt of those failing to fulfill the general expectation of children would be reversed as the L-rd uses the barren woman as a picture of Judah in the days after the exile.
Rabbi Isaac applies the Psalmist's word 'destitute' to a different group of people altogether. Suggesting that the first verse of that couplet should be read, "May He regard the prayer if the destitute and not despise their prayer", he proposes that, "it alludes to the generation in exile, which have neither king nor prophet, neither Urim nor Thummim, and have nothing left to them except prayer." Rabbi Isaac visualises David saying to the Holy One: "Master of the Universe, this prayer, which is all that the destitute have - do not despise it." Remembering that Rabbi Isaac is teaching in the centuries after the destruction of the Second Temple, the exile to which he refers must be the Diaspora, which is still ongoing - despite the many who have made aliyah and returned to Israel - for half of world Jewry.
Turning his attention to the second verse in the couplet, Rabbi Isaac makes two more revealing assertions. Firstly, after reading the first phrase of verse 19 as "This shall be written for the generation to come," to demonstrate that G-d receives the penitent, he says that "a people that shall be created shall praise Him" means that "G-d creates anew each man that repents." He then adds, "that the Holy One created them anew." This sounds very like the new birth of which Yeshua spoke: "I tell you that unless a person is born again from above, he cannot see the Kingdom of God ... I tell you that unless a person is born from water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the Kingdom of God" (John 3:3,5, CJB). The Talmud teaches that once a convert to Judaism "has immersed and emerged, he is like a born Jew in every sense" (b. Yevamot 47b) and the process of immersion is considered to be like a new birth: the convert is a new person from the one they were before. Rav Sha'ul writes that the process of repentance and forgiveness is like a re-birth: "And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, G-d made alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our trespasses" (Colossians 2:13, ESV).
Can we see in the festival of Sukkot a prophetic picture of re-birth? The prophet tells us that in the last days, there will come a time when the L-rd Himself "will gather all the nations to Jerusalem for war: the city shall be captured, the houses plundered, and the women violated; and a part of the city shall go into exile" (Zechariah 14:2, bible(NJPS)); then "the L-RD will come forth and make war on those nations" (v. 3, NJPS) and "He will set His feet on the Mount of Olives, near Jerusalem on the east; and the Mount of Olives shall split across from east to west" (v. 4, NJPS). Next, there will be retribution against those who came up to fight at Jerusalem, "those peoples that warred against Jerusalem, the L-RD will smite them with this plague" (v. 12, NJPS), and a huge battle will ensue - "everyone shall snatch at the hand of another, and everyone shall raise his hand against everyone else's hand" (v. 13, NJPS) and finally, when the men of Judah join in the fight, "the wealth of all the nations roundabout -- vast quantities of gold, silver, and clothing -- shall be gathered in" (v. 14, NJPS). After all this, the prophet says, "All who survive of all those nations that came up against Jerusalem shall make a pilgrimage year by year to bow low to the King L-RD of Hosts and to observe the Feast of Booths" (v. 16, NJPS). This will be a re-birth of the city, of faith and obedience to HaShem, and of the feast itself: Jew and Gentile, together worshipping the king.
Each year in our congregations we enact and rehearse this prophecy as Jews and Gentiles, both members of the congregation and visitors, come together to celebrate the feast, to eat and drink together in the sukkah. This is one of the clearest pictures of the One New Man that we see. Sha'ul wrote, "His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace" (Ephesians 2:15, NIV). Yeshua created one new man out of the two existing men - Jew and Gentile - so that together we might be one and be at peace, as another version has it: "He made peace between Jews and Gentiles by creating in himself one new people from the two groups" (NLT). The categories of 'Jew' and 'Gentile' do not cease to exist; they are brought together in what Philip Esler calls "recategorisation or the common identity group model" in order to implement "conflict reduction"1 - you don't fight members of your own group. The Jews appeared to have everything - "made G-d's children, the Sh'khinah has been with them, the covenants are theirs, likewise the giving of the Torah the Temple service and the promises; the Patriarchs are theirs; and from them, as far as His physical descent is concerned, came the Messiah" (Romans 9:4-5, CJB) - while the Gentiles "had no Messiah. You were estranged from the national life of Isra'el. You were foreigners to the covenants embodying G-d's promise. You were in this world without hope and without G-d" (Ephesians 2:12, CJB). But now, "you who were once far off have been brought near" (v. 13, CJB) so that "you are no longer foreigners and strangers. On the contrary, you are fellow-citizens with G-d's people and members of G-d's family" (v. 19, CJB).
So this year as we gather in the sukkah, we need to remember Yeshua's words - also spoken during the Sukkot festival at the Temple in Jerusalem - "Now on the last day of the festival, Hoshana Rabbah, Yeshua stood and cried out, 'If anyone is thirsty, let him keep coming to Me and drinking! Whoever puts his trust in Me, as the Scripture says, rivers of living water will flow from his inmost being!'" (John 7:37-38, CJB). We should notice His use of the words 'anyone' and 'whoever'; Yeshua invites everyone who hears His words to come to Him and receive the Spirit of G-d, the Ruach Elohim, and be immersed - to be re-born or re-created, to use the earlier idea - from the inside out! Yeshua's offer is for Jews and Gentiles, for men and women, for young and old, fulfilling the prophet's words, "I will pour out My spirit on all flesh; your sons and daughters shall prophesy; your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. I will even pour out My spirit upon male and female slaves in those days" (Joel 3:1-2, NJPS). Peter saw it, urging the crowds on the day of Shavuot in Jerusalem to, "Turn from sin, return to G-d, and each of you be immersed on the authority of Yeshua the Messiah into forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Ruach HaKodesh! For the promise is for you, for your children, and for those far away - as many as ADONAI our G-d may call!" (Acts 2:38-39, CJB) and Rav Sha'ul wrote "there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor freeman, neither male nor female; for in union with the Messiah Yeshua, you are all one" (Galatians 3:28, CJB). The promise and the inheritance of the Spirit is for everyone who will come; no-one's voice or prayer will be overlooked or despised.
Hag Sukkot Sameach b'Yeshua!
1. - Philip F. Esler, Conflict and Identity in Romans (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003), page 30.
Further Study: Psalm 104:27-30; Ephesians 2:4-6
Application: Are you afflicted with worm theology? Do you say, "I'm only a miserable sinner and don't deserve anything"? If so, then you need to hear the truth: you do deserve the Holy Spirit and every one of G-d's blessings because He has said so and Yeshua promised! Touch base and check it out for yourself today. Don't let anyone talk you out of the relationship and fullness with God that is yours!
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© Jonathan Allen, 2020
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