The Dual Nature of Succot
This short Dvar Torah from Rabbi Sacks explores the duality of the festival of Succot.
Succot is different from any of the other festivals, in that it has a curious and very striking dual nature. Let’s see how this works out.
If you look at the passage dealing with the festivals in parshat Re’eh in the book of Devarim, you will see that the word simcha, joy, is not mentioned at all in connection with Pesach. It’s mentioned once in connection with Shavuot, but it’s mentioned twice in connection with Succot: “v’samachta b’chagecha” (Devarim 16:14), at the beginning, and at the end, “v’hayita ach same’ach” (Devarim 16:15). It was this double reference to simcha that caused it to be called z’man simchateinu, the season of our joy. Why the double simcha?
Second, it has two very different key mitzvot. One is the arba’a minim, the Four Kinds: the palm branch, the citron, the myrtle, and the willow leaves, taken and waved on Succot. And the second, quite different, is the command to live in a succah, in a booth, a temporary dwelling, in memory of the 40 years in the wilderness.
Now, these are not only different from one another, but they are even seemingly opposed to one another. The four kinds, and the rituals associated with them, are about rain. So if it rains, our prayers have been answered. Whereas Succot only really works if it doesn’t rain, because if it rains enough to spoil our food, then we are exempt from the command of dwelling in this Succah. So rain or not rain, there seems to be a tension between the two commands.
Then, again, look at the following: Number one, Succot is the most universalistic of all the festivals. The prophet Zechariah says that there will come a time when the survivors from all the nations that have attacked Jerusalem will go up, year after year, to worship God and celebrate chag ha-Succot, the festival of Succot, and if any of them fail to do so, they won’t have rain that year (Zechariah 14:16-17). This is the only festival which is spoken of as being celebrated by all humanity, by all the nations. And indeed, the 70 bulls offered during Succot were held by the Sages to represent the 70 nations.
So Succot is very universalistic, but [number two], it’s also the most particularistic. Because when we sit in a succah and we remember Jewish history, the wandering in the wilderness, the entire experience of exile, we recall a history that is unlike that experienced by any other nation for any prolonged period. So it’s very particular, but it’s also very universal. How do we understand this duality?
The answer actually is quite simple, and it is that the festivals exist in two cycles.
There are the three festivals, the shalosh regalim, that are associated with moments in Jewish history: Pesach, Shavuot, and Succot – the Exodus, the Revelation, and the journey through the wilderness.
There is a second cycle which represents the festivals of the seventh month: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Succot. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are not only about Jews and Judaism, they are an anniversary of Creation. We say, “uv’chen ten pachd’cha al kol ma’assecha”, instil Your awe upon all Your works, and the fear of You on all that You have created (Amida prayer, Rosh Hashanah & Yom Kippur).
Look at the entire literature. It’s strikingly universalistic. So we have now two cycles: Pesach, Shavuot, and Succot, which represent the particularity of Jewish history, what makes it different and unique, and we have Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Succot, the universality of the human condition and of the universe as a whole. And you will see immediately that there is only one festival – Succot – that belongs to both cycles. So it represents both the universality of the seventh month and the particularity of Jewish history. The Four Kinds, the arba’a minim, represent the universality of the festival; they symbolise nature, rain, the cycle of the seasons. And Succot, in the succah, represents the particularity of Jewish history. How we have so often travelled from place to place, journeying through our wilderness.
So there it is. Succot, more than any other festival, brings together what is unique and what is universal in Jewish history and Jewish identity. Humanity is formed out of our commonalities and our differences.
If we were completely different, we couldn’t communicate, but if we were all the same, we’d have nothing to say. Succot brings together our uniquenesses of our people, and our participation in the universal fate of humankind.