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D'varim/Deuteronomy 16:13 The feast of Sukkot you shall make for yourselves, seven days, when you gather from your threshing floor and your wine-press.
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This is the third treatment of the three pilgrimage festivals - Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot - that the Torah provides for us. The first time comes in Shemot 23, parashat Mishpatim, the second mention is of course the great chapter with all the festivals Vayikra 23, parashat Emor; this is the third here in D'varim 16, parashat Re'eh. Some scholars, particularly Christian, are keen to see these as three stages of development, moving from purely agricultural times of rejoicing to ritual and symbolic events, re-cast by successive generations as tools for shaping, maintaining and preserving social memory. The three festivals are key markers in what Yael Zerubavel calls the master commemorative narrative,1 a repeated and rehearsed set of rituals that tell Israel's ancient story and so continually re-forge its identity as a nation and a people. Walter Brugeggemann reports that this is a time when "the combination of land blessing and historical memory is again readily held together, all in the service of generating a great public exhibit of gratitude."2
Ibn Ezra points out that "the festival of Sukkot is known as Khag Ha'asif, 'the holiday of ingathering' in the Shemot reference - 'the Feast of Ingathering at the end of the year, when you gather in ... from the field' (Shemot 23:16) because of the reference to gathering in this verse." The Hebrew there uses the same verb - , the Qal infinitive form of the root as , to gather, with a prefix, 'when' and a 2ms suffix, 'your', typically translated "when you gather in" - followed by the preposition , 'from', to indicate the source of the gathering - that is used in our text. The Shemot verses also tell us that the the feast is celebrated at the end of the year; unlike Pesach and Shavuot which are both celebrated in the Spring. Rashi says this is "at the time of the ingathering, that you bring into the house the fruits of summer", echoed by the Sforno: "when you gather the produce into your house from the threshing floor and from the wine-press."
Giving us the agricultural background, Jeffrey Tigay explains that this means "after the processed grain and the must (unfermented grape juice) are put in containers and stored away in advance of the autumn rains. These are the raw materials for the most important man-made foods, bread and wine. The processing of grain - threshing, winnowing, sifting and measuring - can last through the summer. The grape harvest begins in late June or July, and the pressing of grapes likewise continues until the end of summer." It is important that these critical food elements, needed to last a whole year, should be fully processed and secured; they should not be left partly open or with the processing unfinished, particularly over the time of the rainy season when water ingress could spoil grain left out in the field or grapes left on the vine or unpressed. The celebration must wait until the work is done; only then could time to taken to celebrate without thinking of what still remained to be done.
Nechama Leibowitz expresses concern lest the festivals be seen primarily as agricultural, in the same way as the harvest festivals common to all ancient and modern cultures. She suggests that the Torah almost never "concerns itself with legislating for the ordinary, natural motions and occupations of the individual and society. Man carries these out without any special command of the Deity ... Is it not natural for man himself to rejoice when he sees the fruit of his toil, his harvest and vintage and granary overflowing with abundance?" Instead, allowing the festivals to retain their agricultural context, we should say that Sukkot channels the rejoicing into recognition of HaShem's hand in the harvest and celebration of what He rather than man has done - which is why the community must be involved in the rejoicing rather than just individuals or families. Ronald Clements comments that the festivals "were also seen to be vitally important important moments of social bonding and renewal. Being present upon such occasions was the most obvious and deeply felt way an individual family knew that they were part of the community of the L-rd G-d."3
Going back to the words of our text, the command is made by the two words - the Qal 2ms prefix form of the root , to do or to make, followed by , "to or for you". This is exactly the same form as two other famous commands: , Avraham's call to leave "your native land and from your father's house" (B'resheet 12:1); and , HaShem's instruction to Moshe to "Send men to scout the land of Canaan" (B'Midbar 13:2). In both cases, the second word - - carries the strong sense that the action is to be taken "for yourself", that Avraham and Moshe needed to do this for themselves as much as for HaShem. One of the key commands of the Sukkot festival is couched in exactly the same terms: "And you shall take (for yourselves)" (Vayikra 23:40) the arba minim, the four species, on the first day of Sukkot. The ancient Israelites, Jewish people today, need to fully participate in the symbols and ritual of Sukkot as much for themselves as for HaShem.
Why, then, are the Israelites told to make Sukkot seven days for themselves? RabbiHirsch misses the point entirely when he translates the as 'with' rather than 'when', repeating the tradition that sukkot are to be made with "that which you have left as worthless on the floors of barns and the wine-press." Similarly, the Bekhor Shor only sees half the picture in his suggestion that "having dwelt in booths all season to protect your crops, you should now make one for the sake of heaven." Neither of these (fairly wide) extrapolations from the text address this important question. We know that the threshing floor and wine-press are time-related matters, telling us when the festival is to be held. We are therefore safe to assume that "seven days" is also a significant factor in the festival of Sukkot. The passage that outlines all the sacrifices to be offered on the festival days tells us that a total of seventy bulls are sacrificed during the seven days of Sukkot, starting with "thirteen bulls of the herd" (B'Midbar 29:13) on the first day, declining by one each day until "seven bulls" (v. 32) on the seventh day. Jewish tradition teaches that this is one bull for each of the seventy proto-nations of the world identified after the flood in B'resheet chapter ten, offered by Israel in its capacity as a nation of priests, for the nations of the world. Is that why the Israelites are to make Sukkot seven days? Unlikely, since that would be service to the nations and not something that they need to do for themselves.
Consider instead the position of independent businesses today. Numerous statistics show that business owners are the least likely people to take holidays, typically work many more hours each week than their employees and, even when they are not actually working, are constantly thinking or worrying about their businesses. Now think back: ancient Israel was a nation of independent businesses - farmers and artisans. They needed to be told to take a holiday at the end of all the long hard work of the summer, the harvest and food processing. And it needed to be a holiday of sufficient length that they could actually relax, unwind, celebrate and rejoice - that process doesn't happen in just a day or two. A whole week, with a complete rest day on either end, only light or non-usual work allowed in between, gave people a chance to spend time with their families, to enjoy some long leisurely meals and conversations and, of course, catch up with the L-rd in a meaningful way.
What do we make for ourselves these days? Perhaps the obvious answer, at least as far as the world is concerned, is money. Work seems to consume all waking hours, be that out of necessity to keep a roof over our heads, or out of a drive to have enough, just a bit more. We spend out time working hard now in the hope that in time, we won't have to work so hard and can afford to take holidays or stop work altogether. Sadly, in the last few years, more people reaching retirement age now find that they need to keep working in order to pay their bills and afford basic living. What have we lost sight of in the process? Two important things. The first has always been a challenge to Israel since ancient times: "The Sabbath of the land shall provide food for you, for yourself and for your male and female slaves and for your hired servant and the sojourner who lives with you, and for your cattle and for the wild animals that are in your land: all its yield shall be for food" (Vayikra 25:6-7, ESV) - when we rest and allow the land to rest, in obedience to G-d's command, there will still be enough to eat, enough to feed everybody. While Qohelet doesn't have "a time to rest and a time to work" in his list of times, we must remember that "For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven" (Ecclesiastes 3:1, ESV). We do what we can do and, in the words of Keith Green, "He'll take care of the rest!"
Secondly, Yeshua makes it abundantly clear that as His followers, we are to have our eyes set on His priorities. He tells the disciples, "Do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?" (Matthew 6:25, ESV). Our Father already has these things in hand: "the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them" (v. 32, NIV). We are to focus on different issues: "Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you" (v. 33, ESV). While that isn't a licence to abdicate responsibility for our families and our own affairs, it is a firm call to recognise G-d as our provider and not ourselves. It also means that we cannot simply take time away from revenue-earning work and instead fill our lives with various kinds of 'ministry' work or activity. That still deprives our families of time with them and our bodies of adequate rest and sleep.
This Sukkot reach out to Yeshua and ask Him to remind you of His words: "Come to Me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy, and My burden is light" (Matthew 11:28-30, ESV). They are still just as true as when He said them to the crowds and the disciples. We still need to hear the Spirit remind us of them every day and walk in them, for they are our life.
Hag Sukkot Sameach b'Yeshua!
1. - Yael Zerubavel, Recovered Roots, (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1995), pages 6-7.
2. - Walter Brueggemann, Deuteronomy Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2001), page 176.
3. - Ronald E. Clements, "Deuteronomy" in The New Interpreter's Bible Commentary Vol I, edited by Leander E. Keck, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2015), pages 959-960.
Further Study: Luke 12:22-31; Matthew 6:7-8
Application: Do you struggle to find an appropriate work-life balance? Are you permanently exhausted, running from one job to the next, always trying to keep up and kidding yourself that if you just work a little harder (or smarter) you'll be able to get ahead? Recognise that this is one of the adversary's lies - the only way to find peace and rest in this or any life is in Yeshua, by trusting and obeying Him. His offer is still open and still good - talk to Him about it today!
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© Jonathan Allen, 2021
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