Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Eqev 5770/ July 31, 2010

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, gottlii@mail.biu.ac.il

 

 

The Festivals: The Past Instructs the Future

Rabbi Yuval Sherlo

Midrasha for Women

 

In the passage on the festivals in Parashat Emor we are informed that among the many festivals of the seventh month, the fifteenth day of the seventh month is also a festival, and one of the commandments of the day is to dwell in a sukkah.  The Torah goes beyond simply stating the commandment and explains why we are to dwell in the sukkah:

You shall live in booths 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, I the Lord your G-d (Lev. 23:42-43).

This explanation is so important that some rabbis ruled that when dwelling in the sukkah from the outset one must have the explicit intention (kavanah) that we do so in memory of the time in the wilderness (see Mishnah Berurah 725.1, and the sources cited there).  Why does the Torah attach such great importance to the sort of structure in which the Israelites dwelled when they wandered in the wilderness? Historical events which were ostensibly more important have not been marked by holidays and special days of remembrance – even the day on which Torah was given at Mount Sinai is not noted in the array of historical festivals specified in the written Torah. Further, the Torah’s story about our wandering in the wilderness in the books of Exodus and Numbers makes no mention of our dwelling in booths, while it does note other aspects of that period (such as eating manna).

Booths or Clouds

Perhaps this accounts for the Sages’ interpretation that the purpose of our dwelling in booths is to relive the fact that every day of our wandering in the wilderness we were enveloped by clouds of glory (anenei kavod). This is also the intention one must have, according to the Mishnah Berurah cited above. It was these clouds that provided protection, not actual booths.  The commandment of dwelling in booths thus notes one of the important aspects of the period of wandering, namely that we were always surrounded by the cloud of the Divine Presence. For this reason, the Torah in the section of the holidays (Lev. 23:42-43) attaches such importance to the sukkot.   The image of the sukkah as special Divine protection, connected with the clouds of glory, can also be found elsewhere in Scripture.  Suffice it to cite one passage from the prophet Isaiah:

The Lord will create over the whole shrine and meeting place of Mount Zion cloud by day and smoke with a glow of flaming fire by night.  Indeed, over all the glory shall hang a canopy, which shall serve as a pavilion [sukkah] for shade from heat by day and as a shelter for protection against drenching rain (Isa. 4:5-6).

Therefore, in his Bible commentary Nahmanides was inclined to view the sukkah as commemorating the clouds of glory (both views, that the sukkot were clouds and that they were actual booths, appear in Tannaitic sources); however, adopting this view requires understanding the verses in Emor not in accord with their simple (peshat) meaning. This may account for the dissenting Tannaitic view that the Torah speaks of actual booths.  This however again raises our initial wonderment about the great weight given to dwelling in booths.   Rashbam’s commentary on Parashat Emor allays our wonderment by referring to a passage in this week’s reading:

In order that future generations may know – the plain sense follows those in Tractate Sukkah who say an actual booth.  This is the reason:   after the ingathering from your threshing floor and your vat, you shall hold the Feast of Booths, when you gather in the yield of the land, and your houses are full of bounty – grain, wine and oil.   So that you remember that I caused the Israelites to dwell in booths forty years, as they wandered without permanent settlement and without inheritance; this will lead you to give thanks to Him, who gave you an inheritance and houses full of all that is good.   Do not say to yourselves, my own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me.   In Parashat Ekev these ideas are set forth as follows:  “Remember the long way that the Lord your G-d has made you travel in the wilderness these past forty years … and then gave you manna to eat …” Why do I command you to do this?   “For the Lord your G-d is bringing you into a good land … When you have eaten your fill, … beware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget the Lord your G-d, … and you say to yourselves, ‘My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me.’   Remember that it is the Lord your G-d who gives you the power to get wealth.”  Therefore, at the time of ingathering we leave our homes, which are full of every good thing, and dwell in booths, so that we remember that they did not have land holdings in the wilderness, nor houses to dwell in.   For this reason the Holy One, blessed be He, established the Feast of Booths during the time of ingathering from the threshing floor and the vat – so that their hearts not grow haughty because of their houses full of everything good, and lest they say that their own hands won them this wealth.

Teaching a Lesson

In order to understand the essence of the commandment of the sukkah, Rashbam searched for other places in the Torah where the commandment of remembering the period of wandering in the wilderness is stressed.  Generally the commandment to remember focuses on the plagues and the exodus itself, such as the commandment of the first-born, the Sabbath (according to the Ten Commandments in Parashat Va-Ethanan), the prohibition against exploiting the stranger, and the duty to provide for one’s servant.  In Parashat Ekev, however, the Torah focuses on the period of wandering in the wilderness and commands us to remember especially the actual wandering.

Why so?  The Torah itself supplies the reason:  alongside the supreme importance of entering the land and the story of the spies which teaches us that refusal to go to the land of Israel is a sin, the Torah does not turn a blind eye to the spiritual dangers inherent in settling in the land.  Among these dangers is bounty:

When you have eaten your fill, and have built fine houses to live in, and your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold have increased, and everything you own has prospered, beware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget the Lord your G-d – who freed you from the land of Egypt, the house of bondage (Deut. 8:12-14).

In other words, affluence is likely to lead to the slippery slope of forgetting G-d.   A person begins to ascribe the source of his well-doing to himself – “My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me” – and forgets Him who gave him the ability to do well, and thus spiritual and moral decline set in.

To avoid this pitfall, the Torah emphasizes historical remembrance of the period of wandering in the wilderness.  Living in the memory of eating manna, of utter dependence on the Lord of the Universe and on Divine kindness that prevented the people’s clothes from becoming tattered and their feet from swelling – all this was designed to remind us of the great debt we owe to the Lord of the Universe and to ensure that we realize the plenty we enjoy is temporal.

A Time of Plenty

Hence Rashbam concludes that this is the essence of the commandment to dwell in booths.   The period of ingathering is the season of the year when the danger of a bountiful land is most poignant.   Precisely at such a moment, we are commanded to leave our permanent residence and recreate the experience of wandering in the wilderness, of dependence, poverty, Divine grace, eating manna, etc.  All these are the immediate, experiential countermeasure designed to cope with the spiritual dangers that dwelling in the land is likely to carry with it.   In order to substantiate his position Rashbam cites the verses from this week’s reading that mention the period of wandering in the wilderness and its purpose.

This also explains the question which we posed in the beginning:  remembrance of dwelling in booths in the wilderness was chosen not because this experience was considered the most important event of the period of wandering, but because of its lesson for future generations.

Rashbam’s interpretation of the commandment of the festival of Tabernacles, in the light of Parashat Ekev, should be studied in a broader context, namely in terms of an overall view of the historical festivals.  The historical consciousness which we are commanded to celebrate through the structure of the festivals was not intended to throw us back to the past in search of our roots and to strengthen our archaeological connection with what took place.   The spiritual response should actually be in the opposite direction, with history providing us a perspective that enables us to view the present from a totally different angle.   One who celebrates the Feast of Tabernacles is measured in the light of the ability to view one’s wealth and harvest differently from one’s non-Jewish neighbor, who lacks these roots and necessarily also this point of view. 

Holidays as Instruction

This applies to all the festivals, even those ordained by the rabbis.  In celebrating Hanukkah, one should ask the most important question:  how is my view of reality changed, when more than 2,200 years ago the Hasmoneans fought a war, rededicated the Temple, and experienced the miracle of oil?  The same spiritual question faces us when we celebrate Purim, Passover, the Feast of Weeks, etc.  Thus Rashbam’s remarks direct Jews to experience the past as a key to choosing their way in the present.  The duty to see oneself as having left Egypt in person is not to relive the past, but to bring those days forward in one’s consciousness so that one can answer the following question: What is the nature of the present which we are living, in the light of our immediate experience of reliving the past?