Judaism: Rabbinic Holidays Parallel Biblical Festivals
Rabbi Josh GersteinThe writer serves as the Jerusalem Campus Rabbi for the Aardvark Israel...
In this past week’s Torah portion, the verses describe the various commandments related to the three biblically mandated festivals: Pesach, Shavout and Sukkot. According to Jewish tradition, in addition to these biblical festivals there are also two rabbinic-mandated festivals which are celebrated, the festive holidays of Hanukkah and Purim. The holidays are fundamental to Jewish life, and are fundamental to the Jewish experience. It can be no coincidence that this Torah portion is read during the week leading up to Yom Haatzmaut, a day of celebration and joy, commemorating the return of Jewish sovereignty and independence in the State of Israel.
In his work “Sefat Emet”, Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter of blessed memory (the Grand Rabbi of the Ger Hassidic dynasty) offers an insightful explanation regarding the connection between the two types of holidays mentioned above, Biblical and Rabbinic. He explains that each of the biblical holidays are integrally connected and correspond to a rabbinic holiday. He writes, “Hanukkah and Purim are lights which emanate from the (biblical) festivals…These rabbinic holidays draw their spiritual light and unique essence from the biblical ones, like the moon reflects the light of the sun. Hanukkahh receives its spiritual vitality from the holiday of Sukkot, and Purim receives it from the holiday of Shavout, from the holiday of Pesach we are still waiting for its corresponding rabbinic holiday….” (Sefat Emet, Hanukkah 641).
As the Sefat Emet mentioned above, the holiday of Hanukkahh draws its spiritual inspiration and significance from the holiday of Sukkot. Maimonides explains that the holiday of Hanukkah as we know it today was established by the Sages not only because of the miracle of the oil, but more importantly because of the victory of the Hasmoneans against the Greek empire and the re-establishment of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel for more than two hundred years (Laws of Hanukkah 1:1). In this case, there is a familiar parallel to Yom Haatzmaut; the celebration was instituted by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and other great rabbinic figures to commemorate the great miracle of salvation from our enemies, the re-establishment of the State of Israel and the return of Jewish self-government to the Land. Such a proclamation could only have been made possible due to the precedent that was set by our Sages during the times of Hanukkah.
If the Rabbinic holiday of Hanukkah receives its spiritual essence from the Biblical holiday of Sukkot, it would seem that the similar Rabbinic holiday of Yom Haatzmaut would also draw some parallels to the Biblical holiday of Sukkot as well. Delving a bit deeper into the mitzvot and practices of Sukkot, we can find an inspiring link to Yom Haatzmaut and an important message for the Jewish people in our times.
The two central mitzvot which are performed on the holiday of Sukkot are the taking of the four species (the etrog, lulov, hadas and arava –the citron, palm branch, myrtle and willow) and the commandment to dwell in a sukkah (booth) throughout the seven days of the holiday. I believe that a deeper look at these mitzvot will shed light onto the proper way to understand, approach and celebrate the 66th Yom Haatzmaut of the State of Israel.
First, the four species. The verse write, “And you shall take for yourselves on the first day, the fruit of the hadar tree, date palm fronds, a branch of a braided tree, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God for a seven day period.” (Vayikra 23: 40) There is a well-known Rabbinic Midrash which parallels the four species mentioned in the above verse with the four categories of Jews within the nation of Israel. An Etrog, which has a pleasant taste as well as a pleasant smell, is representative of Jews who possess both Torah knowledge and righteous deeds. There are other Jews who are similar to the Lulav (palm branch), which has a pleasant taste but lacks a pleasant smell; this represents Jews who have Torah knowledge but do not act righteously. The Hadas (myrtle) is a species that has no taste but does have a pleasant smell --these are Jews have no Torah knowledge, but are full of righteous deeds. And finally, the Aravah (willow) has no pleasant taste and no pleasant smell; this is the Jew without Torah knowledge or righteous deeds to his name. Together, these “four species of Jew” represent all of Israel. The Midrash concludes that when we hold the Four Species together on Sukkot, we join these groups together and one atones for the other. (Vayikra Rabbah 30:12)
The Sukkot mitzvah of the Four Species is only valid when all four are taken together at one time—if even one is missing, the blessing cannot be recited and one has not fulfilled their obligation. The message that must be understood from this Midrash could not be clearer: the Jewish people are one, and must work as one. There is no room for separation from the community or division amongst Jews. Regardless of one’s religious or political convictions, we are all part of the people of Israel. There is no better time to be reminded of this idea than on Yom Haatzmaut, when we gather to celebrate all that we as a nation have achieved together with God’s help in our modern day State of Israel.
The second commandment of Sukkot is that of dwelling in a sukkah (booth) throughout the holiday, as the verse writes, “For a seven day period you shall live in booths. Every resident among the Israelites shall live in booths.” (Vayikra 23: 42) The Sages in the Talmud are of two opinions as to the reason behind this commandment; according to Rabbi Eliezer we dwell in a sukkah to recall the “annanei haKavod” (clouds of glory) which accompanied the Jewish people in the desert and according to Rabbi Akiva it is to commemorate the fact that the Jewish people dwelt in actual temporary booths while sojourning in the desert (Sukka 11b).
In his work “Tal Chermon,” Rabbi Shlomo Aviner offers a fascinating insight into the message of the “annanei haKavod.” He explains that there are times in Jewish history where God’s Hand and Divine Providence are unclear, hard to find and decipher amongst the murky grey clouds of history. It is specifically in those situations that we must remember that God is always with us, and that though His presence seems to be obscured by the events around us, there will always be hope and salvation for the Jewish people. Lest we forget that the years of wandering in the desert with the annanei haKavod -- when our physical safety in the desert was uncertain -- was also a time of unparalleled spiritual growth and development for our people. We dwell in the sukkah during Sukkot to recall the annanei haKavod that travelled with the Jewish people in the desert, as a reminder that even when life seems cloudy and unclear, God is always with and will never forsake the Jewish people. (Tal Chermon on the Festivals, pg. 49-50) In connecting this idea to Yom Haatzmaut, there have been no shortage of seemingly bleak situations confronting the Jewish people in the 66 short years since the establishment of the State of Israel -- the War of Independence, the Six Day War, the Yom Kippur War, the Intifadas, or even our present-day fragile “peace.” However, throughout these cloudy moments, history has proven that the nation of Israel and the Jewish people will always prevail and triumph over its many enemies. “Behold the Guardian of Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.” (Tehillim 121:4)
And the final and perhaps the most important message linking Sukkot to Yom HaAztmaut can be found among the unique prayers of Sukkot, “May the All-Merciful One establish for us the fallen Sukkah of David (sukkat David ha-nofalet)…” One must ask why it is that specifically a Sukkah, a booth of temporary and somewhat flimsy nature, is chosen to represent the monarchy of King David? Surely an image such as a tower, fortress or strong house would be more appropriate and respectable as a representative of the kingdom of the Jewish people?
In his work Netzach Yisrael, the Maharal Rabbi Yehuda Loew offers a fascinating explanation, which is so important for understanding the establishment of the modern-day State of Israel in our times. He writes, “The Davidic dynasty is referred to as “sukka,” [even though] royalty in general is referred to as a “house”... because something that has a powerful existence in the world is referred to as a house, which is a permanent structure. Similarly, a royal dynasty is referred to as a house, because of its strength and permanence.... But when a house falls, its original essence is negated. When it is later rebuilt it becomes a totally new house. That rebuilt house is not referred to as the house that had fallen, for the original house has already been negated. Rather, it is as if a totally new house has now been built. A sukka, though, is not a house, not a complete and permanent structure. If it falls, it can easily be put up again; if it falls, it is can appropriately be referred to as being re-established. It returns to its original essence. Thus, the Kingdom of the House of David, always ready to be re-established after having fallen, is referred to as the Kingdom of “David’s fallen sukka.” Even after its fall it retains its identity as a “sukka.” This is because a sukka is always ready to be put back up, and it is easy to do so.” (Netzach Yisrael, Chapter 35). The Jewish people did not establish the State of Israel in 1948; rather, we re-established Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel which had been in exile for close to two thousand years. Since the destruction of the Second Temple at the hands of the Romans in 70 C.E., the nation of Israel had been ready and waiting to restore King David’s “fallen Sukkah.” With God’s Hand and His tremendous miracles, this dream was realized on the fifth day of Iyar 5708, with the re-establishing of the modern State of Israel.
As we celebrate Israel’s 66th year of independence, may we merit to take the lesson of Sukkot, which imparts its spiritual essence to this special day, to heart: to recognize the fact that all Jews are an integral and inseparable part of one another and that the need for united strength and solidarity within our people is great; to realize that though the road ahead may sometimes seem unclear, God is always with us and watching over His people from amidst the clouds; and finally, the firm and unwavering belief that we did not come to this country in 1948 to create something new but rather to re-establish that which was lost with our exile. In the words of Rav Kook, “The old shall be renewed and the new shall be sanctified; together, they will become torches that illuminate Zion.” (Iggerot ha-Re’ayah letter 164, 1, p. 214.)