Going in Circles: The Double Identity of Sukkot

By Rabbi Jeremy Kagan

Though the Chumash repeatedly identifies Sukkot as the last of the trio of regalim beginning with Pesach and Shavuot, we cannot help but experience it as a natural follow-up to our repentance of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur; the impression that Sukkot is also part of the Yamim Noraim is confirmed by midrashim.  Sukkot, then, has a double identity.  This is reflected in its sacrificial obligations.  On every other holiday we offer up seven sheep and one ram while on Sukkot we bring 14 sheep and two rams — exactly twice the normal quota.  Yet, Sukkot is one holiday, and therefore must have one, unifying theme.  How can a single holiday simultaneously complete two radically different holiday cycles?  What allows Sukkot to seal the processes of growth initiated by both Pesach and Rosh Hashanah?

The Torah identifies Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot with the three stages of the wheat harvest cycle.  The Maharal points out that this is not because they happen to come at the same times of the year, but rather because the stages through which wheat progresses parallel the historical development of the Jewish People which we recapitulate each year through these holidays.  Wheat is effectively born in the spring when, after being hidden under the ground through the dark winter, its tiny shoots push out.  Upon growing to maturity, it is cut from its earthy source before Shavuot.  Finally, as winter returns once again, the wheat is gathered back to its original resting place in the storehouses.  Similarly the Jews, after gestating in the darkness of Egyptian bondage, emerged from “beneath the burdens of Egypt” in the Pascal Spring.  We developed rapidly until we received the Torah on Shavuot, bringing us to a level of completion which allowed us to pull away from the total dependence on Hashem which characterized the Exodus.  We then used that distance to build the Tabernacle and return fully to Hashem through its service — construction of the Tabernacle began on Sukkot.

The wheat and holiday cycles are both expressions of a more fundamental pattern of existence.  Hashem creates the world in order to give man the opportunity to form a relationship with Him.  At the moment of creation, our absolute dependence upon the Creator is obvious and we therefore have no identity separate from Him.  Our connection to Him is based upon the complete self-nullification which the rabbis call “yirah” [fear, awe].  Though intimate, the embrace is too overwhelming to allow for the mutual giving which is the basis of a relationship.  With time, we develop a certain understanding and sense of self which establishes an identity capable of achieving a true relationship with the Creator — we come to love Hashem.  This understanding, in turn, gives us a deeper insight into His greatness.  We are once again brought to fearful self-nullification in the presence of the Creator.  This time, however, it is based not on a lack of self, but rather on the total giving of self which arises from our active appreciation of His awesomeness.

Hashem says of the Jewish People, “Behold you are beautiful, my beloved, behold you are beautiful, your eyes are as doves” (Song of Songs 1:15).  The Gra explains that King Solomon compares the eyes to doves, for doves always remain close to their mates.  In the metaphor, the beauty of the face lies in the evenness of the eyes.  The underlying reference is to chachmah and yirah, wisdom and fear.  In Klal Yisrael, wisdom and yirah fly in tandem.  For wisdom which is not built upon yirah is baseless — “The beginning of wisdom is the yirah of Hashem” (Tehillim 111:10).  Yet yirah which is not informed by wisdom is shallow — “If there is no wisdom, there is no yirah” (Avot 3:17).  We begin with yirah, which establishes a foundation for wisdom.  Once achieved, that wisdom becomes the platform from which we reach new heights of yirah.

This is the progression of Pesach-Shavuot-Sukkot.  We are born as a nation on Pesach.  That birth comes through the Korban Pesach, where we sacrifice to the One God and become His servants.  This is birth, for as we define ourselves around our dedication to Hashem we emerge as a distinct nation among nations.  Like any birth, the complete dependence upon our source is clear —  Hashem’s hand is everywhere, obvious through the overwhelming miracles which power the process.  Our ability to interpret our situation and choose our path is checked by the constant revelation of the truth of Hashem and His omnipotence.  There is no room for the yetzer hara, essential for free will, to enter its exhortations.  We signify this by eliminating all chametz, whose deceptive inflation represents the evil inclination.

Emerging directly from the slavery of Egypt, we have no separate self and no time to establish one.  Hashem carries us out of Egypt like infants on eagles’ wings, allowing us to develop through the period of the Omer.  We then receive the Torah on Shavuot, attaining a wisdom which allows us to know our world and ourselves, and thereby to stand separate from, know and love Ha-Shem.  The offering of two breads with chametz on Shavuot marks both the recovery of the yetzer hara, which comes only with this separation from the Creator, and the attainment of the ability to sanctify it through the Torah.  This separation then gives us the space to achieve a deeper sense of Hashem’s greatness and to realize that we crave nothing so much as closeness to Him.  We therefore return fully to Him through the service of the Beit Hamikdash on Sukkot.

Hashem says of the Jewish People, “Behold you are beautiful, my beloved, behold you are beautiful, your eyes are as doves” (Song of Songs 1:15). 

The water libation on Sukkot illustrates this point.  This offering traces its origin back to the beginning of time.  On the first day of creation no meaningful distance was introduced between the creation and its Source.  It was only on the second day, when the lower waters were divided from the upper waters, that any real separation developed.  The Midrash teaches that the lower waters were so distraught at finding themselves far from Hashem that they attempted to destroy creation in their effort to return.  Hashem stopped them, leaving the lower waters in their exile.  But He declared that since they had acted for His honor they would be given consolation.  The upper waters would not be allowed to sing to Hashem except after the lower waters had sung their song, and the lower waters would be brought upon the altar on Sukkot.  That the upper waters cannot sing except in response to the song of the lower waters echoes the Gemara (Chulin 91b) which states that the ministering angels are not allowed to sing to Hashem until Klal Yisrael first sings its song; only after we declare, “Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh,” can they follow suit.  This shows the separation of the lower waters to be a foreshadowing of the separation of the soul from Hashem when it is sent down to this world.  The response of the waters reveals that the only true desire of the soul is to return to its Source.  The second consolation given the lower waters, that they would be offered upon the altar as the water libation of Sukkot, is that return.  The korbanot are the way we return to Hashem, choosing a closeness which, on some level, surpasses the original closeness we had prior to creation.  This heightened closeness is the achievement which justifies the whole process.

The water libation of Sukkot is our return to Hashem after the temporary exile of creation.  It demonstrates how the cycle of birth and maturity which is initiated on Pesach and Shavuot is completed with our full return on Sukkot.

But things are not so simple.  Reintroducing the yetzer hara on Shavuot has its risks.  The distance which maturity affords can become a basis for disaster as much as for return.  We don’t have to take advantage of self-awareness to penetrate to our deepest essence, taste the divine spark from Hashem, and feel its hunger for return.  Instead, we can become intoxicated with separation.  We can define ourselves around that aspect of self which is far from Hashem and allows distance from Him — our bodies and the ego to which it gives rise.  We can forget the humble dependence of our beginning, and claim a self-serving independence.

Historically, the construction of the Golden Calf after receiving the Torah reflected such a decision.  We had been gifted with a world where the presence of Hashem was obvious, and existence an opportunity to develop our relationship with Him.  The Golden Calf was an attempt to recast that relationship in a form which would hide Hashem’s immediate presence and put Him at sufficient distance that we could organize our lives without thinking about Him too much.

The recognition of the disastrous falsity of this decision inaugurated an intense process of repentance, culminating finally in Yom Kippur.  Physical being had been given to us to provide a platform from which to reach towards Hashem.  Its allurements had instead pulled us away.  Rather than providing a medium for our ideals it had come to determine them.  The only way to recover clarity of purpose was to put our physical element aside for a moment, so that distracting desires would not block our recognition that we exist only for our relationship with Hashem.  That is Yom Kippur, when we become angels and refrain from eating, not as a punishment, but because we rise to a plane of existence where food is irrelevant.

But this is an non-human reality. Hashem did not create the world for angels.  He created it for the being that was formed by blowing a divine soul into an earthly body, with all the challenges that such a combination entails.  Yom Kippur is an extreme which provides the stark clarity needed to emerge from over-entanglement with the physical world.  But it is not the goal.  We must take the lofty insights we gain from the momentary freedom which Yom Kippur provides and bring them back to our mundane human reality — we must make of them a life.  This is Sukkot.

The Rambam states that teshuvah, our return to Hashem after sin, is not complete until the repentant faces the same circumstances which earlier led to transgression, this time withstanding them.  Over-involvement in the physical world had led us astray.  We were forced to leave that physical world behind on Yom Kippur to gain perspective.  But it is only on Sukkot, when we return to physical existence while retaining our full commitment to the Creator, that our teshuvah is complete.  Sukkot is often discussed as a time of bittul hayesh, the nullification of physicality.  Yet, though we leave our homes for the sukkah, we take all our finery with us.  When the entire living-room is transported to the deck, what is accomplished?  The answer is that Sukkot is not running away from the physical world, rather it is running towards it, but with its proper boundaries.  We can lounge on our stuffed couches on Sukkot so long as when we look up we do not see a roof and think our little castle protects us from outrageous fortune.  Our protection is from Hashem, upon Him we are utterly dependent.  Through the sukkah we reconstruct our world in a fashion that our every action occurs within the context of our awareness that Hashem is there, defining our lives and world.  This is the human application of the understanding we gained on Yom Kippur.

The water libation of Sukkot is our return to Hashem after the temporary exile of creation.  It demonstrates how the cycle of birth and maturity which is initiated on Pesach and Shavuot is completed with our full return on Sukkot.

We can now understand how Sukkot simultaneously concludes both the regalim and the Yamim Noraim.  Both cycles are completed through an act of return, and Sukkot is the holiday of return.  Each, however, requires a return of a different character.  From Pesach through Shavuot we gain the distance from Hashem which is necessary for identity.  The purpose of identity is to allow a mature choice to fully return to our divine Source, specifically through the Temple and its Sukkot service.  When, instead, we become enamored with the false sense of independence which that distance allows and choose to turn away, we sever our connection to true Being by defining ourselves as something separate from Hashem.  Return is no longer a process of merely stepping near — now we must redefine our selves.  This requires the severe regime of repentance which we experience on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur culminating in Sukkot.

All true paths are circular, in the sense that they end in a return to source.  But there are many possible ways to return to any given starting point.  History could have formed a tight, smooth curve leading from Hashem to creation and quickly back to Him.  Our decision to build the Golden Calf routed us, instead, along a lengthy, difficult and painful course.  Our path, however, remains circular.  We are still on our way back to Hashem, and Sukkot remains the day of return.  But the Golden Calf, combined with those unfortunate choices we each make in our own personal lives which recapitulate its error, insure that our return will not be a simple affair.  Rather Sukkot will require of us the far more exacting demands of teshuvah.

Rabbi Kagan teaches at several yeshivot and seminaries in Jerusalem.  He recently published The Jew Self:  Recovering Spirituality in the Modern World (Feldheim).

This article was featured in the Fall 1999 issue of Jewish Action.