The two mitzvot associated with the festival of Sukkot can be found in the book of Leviticus, chapter 23. In verse 40 we are told “On the first day [of the festival] you shall take the fruit of goodly trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook…..”. These are the four species that we today know as the etrog, lulav, myrtle and willow. The rabbis taught that we hold the four species together and wave them in all of the directions of the compass, as well as upwards and downwards. In this way, we mobilize the winds that blow from all directions to bring rain for the new season of sowing and harvest.
Then in Leviticus 23: 42-43 we read, “You shall live in booths [Sukkot] seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in booths, in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt…..”.
So what is Sukkot about? Is it a harvest festival of thanks towards the end of the agricultural year, or is it a theological festival of reminder of our history and unrootedness? Is it a about richness and plenty in the land in which we live, or about fragility and vulnerability and a sense of mobility? How do we allow it to be about both – plenty and fragility, rootedness and journeying?
To begin to understand it, we can look to Rabbi Yitz Greenberg who contrasts Sukkot with Pesach. He points out, “Pesach celebrates a single, intense moment of freedom in the life of the Jewish people. At the exodus from Egypt, the divine erupted into human experience. Pesach is therefore a season of miracles. At the exodus the people were required only to take the first step, and God did the rest.
Sukkot, on the other hand, does not celebrate a moment of miracle, a moment when ordinary time ceased. On the contrary, Sukkot calls to mind a protracted period of wandering, of marking time. At Sukkot God is, as it were, hidden in the everyday. Sukkot reminds us of 40 years during which the people Israel had to deal with the basic requirements of everyday existence: water, food, the clothes on their backs, the roof over their heads. “ (The Jewish Way)
Greenberg’s insight is that these two festivals, Pesach and Sukkot, are two sides of the same coin. As human beings, we seek moments of “divine rapture”, moments that take us out of time, beyond the everyday. Such moments deepen our spiritual appreciation of life; they give us a sense of God’s grandeur. But our reality is that we spend most of our lives journeying through uncharted territory, facing the everyday demands that life places upon us, and a long distance from any moments of certain and wonderful encounter with God. Our daily life is routine, it is a constant struggle to keep up with what needs to be done, and our prayers are also to some extent routine and regular rather than heightened by awareness of God.
Just as Pesach and Sukkot represent two sides of the same coin of connection with God, so they fall at opposite ends of the Jewish year: Pesach on the 15th day of the first Hebrew month (Nisan), and Sukkot on the 15th day of the seventh month (Tishrei). Our lives revolve around these two poles of the Jewish year, which represent our longing for the miraculous, on the one hand, and our everyday experience of reality, on the other.
The two mitzvot of Sukkot focus on the basic needs of everyday life: water (represented by the waving of the four species) and shelter (represented by the sukkah). At Pesach, when we recall how the natural world was overturned and slaves became free, it is easy to acknowledge the impact of the divine on the life of our people but Sukkot reminds us that even in the absence of such dramatic moments of miracle, God is still at work in our lives and can be encountered in the everyday, the natural world, the regularity of fulfilling basic needs and living each day successfully.
Pesach and Sukkot remind us of the presence of God in our lives in very different ways. In the dramatic and in the ordinary – we can find God both at times of crisis and in the mundane routine of our lives, should we choose to really look.
A connection with the Divine Being is both nourishing of, and challenging to, our spiritual lives. Each festival has its way of directing our attention to that connection, and to the way the trajectories of our lives are developed. But there is another way to look at the symbols of Sukkot – specifically at the four species.
In the Midrash we find that R. Moni taught about the lulav and etrog using the verse from Psalms “all my limbs shall say, ‘God, who is like You?’ (Ps 35:10).
He said “This verse was only said in reference to the lulav. The spine of the lulav resembles the spine of a person; the hadas (myrtle) resembles the eye; the aravah (willow) resembles the mouth; the etrog resembles the heart. [King] David said: these are the most significant organs of the body, for they encapsulate the entire person. (VaYikra Rabbah 30:14)
It is a Midrash we know well, that in using the bundle of lulav and etrog together in worshiping God and in calling for the rains, we are taking our whole selves into the activity. But extend this idea a little further and you see that when we take hold of the lulav and etrog, we are in effect holding ourselves in our own hands, enjoying a rare chance to look at ourself from the outside. Just five days after Yom Kippur, when we have spent over a month in introspection and thought about ourselves and our lives, we are privileged to take one last external and objective look at ourselves. But more than that, we can see ourselves clearly but we also have ourselves literally in our own hands. We can decide in which direction to point ourselves in the year ahead and actually ‘take our own life in our own hands’ and start the process with a clarity of our own making, with our own decision making and with ownership of our own choices.
Sukkot, that most universal of festivals, rich with symbolism of our own vulnerability and dependence on God – yet at the same time with the powerful symbolism of our trust in our continued existence, is a time when we begin our journey anew, when we take ourselves in hand and make something of the year to come. Trust in God is all very well, the symbolism reminds us, but we have to rely also on our selves and not wait for some divine intervention to bring about the purpose of our lives, or to save us.