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Grand Finale?

By: Rav Ari Berman

Grand Finale?

Rabbi Ari Berman


This Shabbat stands on the cusp of the onset of the holiday of Sukkot.  While each Torah holiday contains many facets and dimensions, Sukkot more than the other holidays is noteworthy for the way in which its multidimensional nature is presented in the Torah.  In Shemot (23:16, 34:22), the holiday appears as an agricultural celebration that stands opposite the holiday of Shavuot.  While Shavuot is the spring harvest festival of the first fruits, this holiday is the Chag ha-Asif, the fall festival in which the farmer gathers in the remainder of the produce at the end of the agricultural cycle.  In the way in which the holiday is portrayed in Vayikra (23:33-44), however, additional elements appear.  In addition to the agricultural theme, a historical element is mentioned as we are commanded to dwell in Sukkot since our ancestors dwelled in these shelters when they travelled in the desert upon leaving Egypt.  This historical dimension with its emphasis on the exodus from Egypt places Sukkot in direct parallel to Pesach, the first festival in the annual cycle of the Shalosh Regalim in which the story of the exodus is commemorated.  Moreover, in these verses Sukkot is referred to as a Shabbaton (Vayikra 23:39), the same word used to describe the holiday of Rosh Hashanah (Vayikra 23:24) and Yom Kippur (Vayikra 23:31-32).  This characterization highlights the connection between Sukkot and the holidays which immediately precede it in the calendar, as Sukkot is the festival which ends the holiday season of Tishrei.  Finally, in the list of holidays which are mentioned in this chapter in Vayikra, Sukkot is presented as last on the list, as the season starts with Pesach and is followed by Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  This presentation which follows the calendrical year starting with Nissan portrays Sukkot as the last festival in a seven month long holiday season.

In considering all of these layers to Sukkot, the common denominator is that Sukkot is consistently understood as the conclusion of a season.  It closes the agricultural festival cycle, the Shalosh Regalim, the Festivals of Tishrei and the calendrical year of holidays.  Seen in this way, Sukkot can be perceived as the grand finale of all of the holiday cycles.  This theme is captured by the well known midrash in which the last day of Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, is portrayed as being the holiday in which Hashem holds the Jewish people back for one additional day of celebration rather than letting them leave more abruptly at the end of the holiday season.  But, in truth, one can see in Sukkot an additional layer which alters one’s perception of the essential meaning of the holiday.  The Mishnah in Rosh Hashanah (1:2) teaches that on Sukkot it is decided how much rain Hashem will deliver to the world for the rest of the year.  This connection between water and Sukkot is manifest in a number of other ways as well, including the special water libation that is poured unto the mizbe’ach on Sukkot and the special prayer for rain (tefillat geshem) that is mentioned on Shemini Atzeret, marking the beginning of the recitation of mashiv ha-ruach u-morid ha-gashem.  This connection is, of course, intuitive as Sukkot marks the beginning of the rainy season in Israel.  The amount of water that will come during this season is a primary concern to all who live off of the produce of the land, and as such, it is naturally understandable that a central focus of these days is to pray for water for the upcoming season.

From this perspective, though, a new dimension is added to Sukkot.  It is no longer seen as simply the end of one season but also as the beginning of another.  As such, one can consider Sukkot to be the holiday of transition in which one season ends and another season begins.  In this sense, one might say that Sukkot teaches us the importance of marking these moments of transition.  During these times we need to think about our past even while planning for our future.  We need to thank Hashem for the gifts that he has already given us, even while we look to him with hope and prayer for His assistance in the year ahead.  This holiday then is particularly relevant for students who come to Israel for a year of intensive study and exploration, as it marks and celebrates the transition into the New Year ahead.

Shabbat Shalom  and Chag Same’ach




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