This week’s Shabbat Torah reading for Chol Hamoed Sukkot is Exodus 33:12-34:26.
On the Shabbat during Sukkot we read of Moshe’s second trip up Mount Sinai. When he returns, something startling happens: Moshe’s face radiates. As he speaks, the people are so afraid that that he is obliged to put on a veil.
We tend to think of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur as the important holidays. But to the rabbis, Sukkot was calledHe’chag, The Holiday.
Sukkot is the culmination of the Jewish holiday cycle. The Jewish year begins with Passover, which is a courtship. Shavuot is the wedding of Israel to God with the Torah as our ketubah. But soon, the hot, dry summer comes, and things begin to go poorly. The honeymoon is over and the First Temple is destroyed by idol worship — idolatry in the Torah being an analogy for infidelity.
And so, when we stand before God at Rosh Hashanah to be judged, it is a time of anxiety. As the gates close at Ne’eilah at the end of Yom Kippur, we worry about our reconciliation with God, hoping that we’re not headed for divorce. But then comes Sukkot, He’chag, zman simchateinu, the season of our joy.
Sukkot is the dénouement of the story. We have returned to our beloved, and share our home once more. The home isn’t luxurious. The walls are shaky and if it rains, the rain comes right through. But when you’re in love, none of that matters.
But Sukkot isn’t a holiday about staring into one another’s eyes. In the initial stages of courtship, infatuation wraps a couple into one another. But down the road, love has weathered a few bumps and become more mature. In love, a couple realizes that they are part of something larger than just the two of them: their love is part of the web of community. And Sukkot represents that mature love by turning its vision outward.
We often think of infatuation as the kind of love that glows, but Moshe’s face was lit up not because he was blinded by infatuation, but because what God poured into him he couldn’t help but pour out on those around him. The Israelites weren’t ready for a mature love; Moshe had to put on the veil to keep them from fear. The Israelites couldn’t understand a love that is strong enough in its own identity that it can turn to help others.
There is no holiday where more sacrifices are offered than Sukkot. And among the sacrifices are 70 bullocks, which the Talmud explains (Sukkah 55b) are for the 70 nations of the world. Sukkot is a holiday of reconciliation, wisdom and mature love: that’s why we read Kohelet, the book of Ecclesiastes.
People often think of Kohelet as a sad book. Rather it’s a book that advises true joy, joy in the world we are in. Kohelet 3:11-13 advises, “[God] made everything beautiful in its time; also [God] placed the world in their heart, so that humans cannot find out the works that God has done from the beginning to the end. But I know that there is nothing better for them, than to rejoice, and to get pleasure so long as they live. But also that everyone should eat and drink, and see the good in all their labors, is the gift of God.”
This is Sukkot: the gift of joy in our work, of not just being together in the sukkah, but of inviting others in.
Rabbi Alana Suskin is an educator, activist, writer, a senior managing editor of the progressive blog Jewschool.com, as well as director of strategic communication for Americans for Peace Now.