Sukkot 5768

Exodus 33:12–34:26
September 29, 2007 / 17 Tishrei 5768

This week’s commentary was written by Rabbi David Hoffman,
Scholar-in-Residence, Institutional Advancement, JTS.

On the first day you shall take the product of the hadar trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days. (Leviticus 23:40)

Even though there is a commandment to rejoice on all of the festivals, there was extra joy in the Temple on Sukkot. (Maimonides, Hilchot Sukkah 8:12)

I’m always a little self-conscious when walking on the street with my lulav in hand. I often wonder if the person glancing at the “plant” in my hand knows that I used this “bouquet” in prayer services that morning. What would they think?

Most important, I need to answer the question for myself: What is it that we are doing when we wave the lulav on Sukkot? I pose an additional question: In the verse from Leviticus quoted above, does the second half of the sentence about rejoicing have anything to do with the first half of the sentence regarding the taking of the lulav? Is the lulav a source of joy? And why do the Torah and Maimonides attach a special quality of simhah to this festival more so than the other festivals?

I believe the following midrash from Leviticus Rabbah 30:6 (fifth century) will help us better respond to these questions:

Rebbe Levi said, “One who uses a stolen lulav—to what is it similar? To a thief who would sit at a crossroads and he would physically overpower people who passed by. One time a royal tax collector passed by. The thief rose, and overpowered him and the thief took all that was in the man’s possession. After some time the thief was captured and was put in prison. The tax collector heard of the thief’s capture and went to him to reclaim his possessions. The tax collector said to him, ‘Give me that which you took by force from me and I will speak to the king on your behalf.’ The thief said to him, ‘Of all that I took by force, I have nothing but this rug beneath me and it is from your property.’ The tax collector said to him, ‘Give it to me and I will speak on your behalf to the king.’ The thief gave him the rug. The tax collector said to the thief, ‘You should know that tomorrow you will come before the king and he will ask you, ‘Do you have some person who can speak on your behalf?’ You will say, ‘There is a certain officer that can speak of my merit.’ He will call and send for me and I will come and speak on your behalf before him.’ The next day he was brought for judgment before the king. The king asked him, ‘Do you have a person who can speak on your behalf of your merit?’ The thief responded, ‘There is a certain officer who can speak on my behalf.’ The king summoned him. The king said to him, ‘Wise man, can you speak in favor of this man?’ The tax collector said, ‘When you sent me to collect taxes of that province he overpowered me and took all that was in my possession and this rug which comes from my possessions will testify against him!’ All the people in the court began to cry and scream—‘Woe to this one whose advocate has become his prosecutor.’ So too, when a person uses a lulav to give him merit. If he uses a stolen lulav it screams out to God and says, ‘I’m stolen! I have been obtained by violence!’ And all the heavenly angels say, ‘Woe to this one whose advocate has become his prosecutor.’ “

This story builds up to an intense, dramatic moment where the man who stands in judgment need to make a compelling appeal before the king. The tragedy of the story is that through his own actions he has set a course of events into action that brings about his undoing. The homiletical import of the story is readily apparent. A person comes before God with his or her lulav in order to acquire merit, and the lulav serves as an advocate of sorts. However, if this lulav was acquired through religiously offensive means, through stealing or violence, then the lulav becomes the man’s prosecutor. Not only will his supplication not be received, but he will be indicted for both religiously unconscionable behavior and the audacity to parade this behavior before God.

In ancient Israel, Sukkot marked the juncture in time when there was an outpouring of joy because of the life-sustaining crops that were just harvested. However, this moment in the calendar also signified the beginning of the rainy season in the land of Israel. The people’s destiny was bound up in the promise that this would be a season of much rain to ensure future crops. So not only was there much to be thankful for, but Sukkot was also a communal and a personal time of heightened anxiety because of the uncertainty of the future.

When the Temple stood, one could imagine that sacrifices were offered with urgency and trepidation as the people sensed their vulnerability in the natural world. The numerous sacrifices offered on Sukkot assumed a double purpose: to thank God for blessings already bestowed and to petition God for rain that would ensure future bounty. The prophet Zechariah spoke in clear terms about the importance of Sukkot in this regard: “Any of the earth’s communities that does not make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem [on Sukkot] to bow low to the King Lord of Hosts shall receive no rain” ().

But how does the lulav serve as an advocate? In the Babylonian Talmud Rabbi Eliezer is recorded as saying, ”These four species come only to obtain the favor of God to give water and just as without water, it would be impossible to have these four species, so too, it is impossible for the world to exist without water” (BT Ta’anit 2b). I think it is in this statement that the secret of the lulav is revealed.

The four species are taken by Jews on Sukkot because they represent the lush bounty that God has given humanity. We grab in our hands the physical blessings that God has bestowed upon us. In this process, we acknowledge our blessings and God’s gifts to the world and, more personally, to us as individuals. When we take hold of the lulav and etrog we acknowledge these blessings and cry out to God: “Thank you for these blessings. Ultimately, we know that the great blessings of our life come from outside of ourselves and we beseech you, God, for another year of personal blessings.” Our source of merit emerges from our ability to identify God’s role in our lives and note as individuals the ways each one of us is blessed.

In our day, the lulav is only a physical representation of one form of blessings that humanity has been given. The symbol of the lulav asks me to do the personal work of coming before God having identified my personal blessing and metaphorically gathering those, too, in my hands.

The joy of Sukkot and the lulav emerges from two sources: the process of identifying our personal bounties and the confidence that God will grant us another year of blessings. The Jew emerges confident from the Yamim Noraim having stood intimately before God and having been given another year and another opportunity to participate with God in the betterment of ourselves and the world.

May the lulav move us all to engage in the process of hakarat haTov—the act of the recognition of personal blessings and God’s role in our lives. It is this process which will guarantee that the lulav serves as our personal advocate for another year of rich bounty.

Shabbat shalom v’-hag sameah,

Rabbi David Hoffman

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.