Sukkot, coming as it does towards the very end of our festival year, is a time of great rejoicing. Its English name, variously translated from the Hebrew, is commonly known as the feast of Tabernacles. Its origin of course, like most Jewish festivals, is connected with an actual historical event. The ‘narrative’ year begins in the Spring with Passover, which tells of our deliverance from Egypt, and runs through to Sukkot, which has its roots in the time we spent in the wilderness after our departure from Egypt. For 40 remarkable years we were protected from the snakes and scorpions, our clothes and shoes didn’t wear out, we had a miraculous supply of water and food, and we learnt national lessons for survival as a nation. Although a generation perished in the ‘long march’ to the Land in what should have taken us only a matter of days to reach, the temporary booths we erected, de-constructed and then rebuilt time and again as we followed the pillar of cloud and fire remind us all of a time when we too came to realise that we are only ‘temporary’ dwellers on this planet; on the move and only briefly of importance. Indeed, the very construction of the booths came to epitomise the fragility of human existence, and in particular of Jewish existence.
Yet the journey from Egypt to the Land and the transition period laying in between can be seen on a spiritual level too: If Egypt represents the world and all its earthly power and prowess, a force that attempted to ultimately snuff out Jewish life, then the Land can be seen as the final arrival point, the destination of our spirits and goal of our existence. If Egypt is the Kingdom of earth, then Israel is the Kingdom of G-d. Our transition from the one to the other is characterised by a journey not unlike the one our forefathers undertook so long ago. While at times precarious and unpredictable, the final destination is sure. The temporary booths’ construction tells us how this ‘life journey’ is to happen: the rooves were to be see-through so we could see the cloud and fire, knowing instantly when to move on and when to stop. Our eyes lifted heavenwards to watch for what our G-d wanted next, our faith resting on the One who had brought us up out of Egypt and whose word we now trusted to take us ‘home’. Faith and trust were lessons we learnt in the wilderness years to enable us to not only survive but to thrive; a spiritual toolkit we would need to successfully live in the Land later on.
Once we in the Land the festival began to take on other dimensions and forms too. While still retaining its original narrative by the command to build a tabernacle each year, we now connected this with the autumn harvest and ingathering. The fruitfulness aspect was highlighted by the commands to wave the four species of the lulav (including the etrog), species of plants that grew and grow in the Land. The additional commands to wave the lulav in the various compass points remind us of another aspect and command in Torah connected with Sukkot. It is connected with the list in the book of B’midbar (Numbers) where we read of the 70 sacrifices that are to be brought during this intense time of rejoicing. This number resonates for many varied reasons in Judaism: 70 language groups at Bavel, 70 members of the Sanhedrin etc. 70 is considered to be the number of the gentile (i.e. non-Jewish) nations. That Israel should be charged with making an annual sacrifice for the nations may at first glance seem strange, the waving of the lulav in the various compass points actually making the same point. Israel was and is meant to be a Light to the nations, pointing not only to the One true G-d, but also that this G-d is the One who alone makes a way for atonement, whether born Jewish or not. As Israel takes its priestly role seriously, to intercede and sacrifice on behalf of the pagans, then G-d has and will have mercy upon them too. As King Solomon prayed in his prayer of dedication of the Temple, the Temple would and should become a place of prayer for all nations, a place where anyone regardless of background could come and join the people of G-d in praying to the One true G-d. Israel should attract the nations, not repel them. In the light of this we can now fully understand Yeshua’s comments when talking with a woman from Samaria when He said ‘Salvation is of the Jews’. It is, and always has been. Salvation, the ingathering of the nations unto the G-d of Israel, has always been a Jewish affair. Indeed, it is very difficult to argue otherwise when one considers that the G-d of Israel sent His salvation, Yeshua, the Mashiach (Messiah) of Israel, to live amongst us.
Seen in this way, Sukkot takes on its final eschatological form: It is truly about the fulfillment of Israel’s calling as a nation. Finally, as the Prophets of old foretold, the nations will come streaming to Israel. We are not yet there, but we are closer now than we have ever been! Chag Sameach Sukkot!