Drash on Parashat Yom Rishon shel Succot
Rabbi Sam Zwarenstein
A few years ago I was introduced to a wonderful and hilarious parody that discusses “If Xmas were a Jewish holiday…” (there are a number of editions of this parody, but they all deliver great entertainment value). I asked some of my non-Jewish friends if they had ever read or even heard of the parody, and I wasn’t surprised to learn that none of them had. Of course, this led to a series of discussions concerning the contents covered in these made-up laws and customs. I quickly realised that while they could identify with the elements discussed, particularly around the tree (acquisition, placement, decoration), they were not able to fully grasp the Jewish nuances and language around each of these laws and customs.
I, on the other hand, was in hysterics whilst trying to read aloud and then explain some of the content in relation to Jewish laws and customs. It was so relatable that I could visualise each of the points mentioned being discussed by a group of learned scholars.
You may ask what this has to do with the festival of Sukkot, and its significance in our traditions and practices.
Well, firstly there is the sheer quantity of laws and customs regarding the festival itself, the building of a sukkah, dwelling in the sukkah, the practices during each of the days of Sukkot, welcoming guests (including our biblical ancestors) into our sukkot, lulav and etrog, Hoshanot and Hallel. While these laws and customs are rabbinically decreed, they are, like all of our other laws and customs, based on our texts, specifically the Torah itself. While we’re on the topic of quantity, it should be noted that Sukkot and its associated practices (mainly the korbanot brought on each of the days of Sukkot) get far more coverage than any other festival. In Parashat Pinchas, which includes a listing of the daily and special sacrifices, details for Sukkot consist of 27 verses, whereas most other festivals fill 1 or 2 verses.
Secondly, whilst reading through the carefully crafted “laws and customs” in the parody, a lot of it reminded me about two key components of Sukkot - building a sukkah and the arba minim (four species - lulav, etrog, hadas and aravah). There are pages and pages of instructions, do’s and don’ts, practices and other minutiae relating to every conceivable component of the sukkah itself, detailing what materials can be used, where it can be built, how to “dwell” in the sukkah, etc. The requirements for the lulav bundle and etrog are just as complex, with instructions around the quality of the components, examining them, how to assemble them, when and how to use these the lulav bundle and etrog, and so on.
We place a great deal of emphasis on the laws and customs of the festival of Sukkot, and for good reason. We strive to make sure that we treat our traditions and heritage with the utmost respect, and honour those traditions through learning about them and engaging in them.
However, sometimes we place so much focus on these laws, to ensure that we adhere to every letter of the law, that we lose sight of the intentions of the festival. We become so worried that the sukkah doesn’t meet each and every requirement, that we don’t get to enjoy spending time in the sukkah. We become so concerned about the exact freshness and size of the four species during the festival that we lose sight of the joy of engaging in the mitzvot relating to them.
While it is mentioned elsewhere in the Torah, the reference we find in Deuteronomy 16:14; “V’samachta b’chagecha” (You shall rejoice in your festival) specifically refers to the festival of Sukkot. The Torah is referring to the agricultural heritage of our ancestors. Rabbi Hezekiah ben Manoah (Chizkuni) reminds us that during Sukkot our joy is increased greatly as everything that the fields and orchards produce is now being gathered in. This is a reminder for us to enjoy Sukkot in the best ways possible and acknowledge the many wonderful blessings we are afforded, with so much to celebrate during Sukkot.
It’s about finding the right combination between adhering to the laws and customs of Sukkot, appreciating that there are many of them across all areas of the festival, and allowing ourselves to fully enjoy and appreciate all that Sukkot brings us. Too much focus on just the laws and customs can lead to us worrying all the time about what we should or shouldn’t be doing. Too much focus on taking it all in, no matter if the right measures are in place, and we lose sight of some of our key traditions and their purpose in our enjoyment of the festival.
Let’s take a step back, engage in a fresh view, and plan for Sukkot (as well as other festivals) in a way that allows us to achieve that magic balance, so that we may truly rejoice in our festival.