Shabbat Hol HaMo’ed Sukkot: Joy As Defiance

On this Shabbat we have come to the halfway point of the fall Sukkot festival. This time of year invites us to recognize our total dependence upon the fertility of the soil and the luck of the weather for our lives. The lulav and etrog which we wave in the direction of the four winds, the sukkah (ours or someone else’s) in which we are to spend a week of reading, eating and, weather permitting, sleeping, both are designed to bring our attention to the natural world upon which we depend, and which we do not control. We are to celebrate this time as z’man simkhateynu, “the season of our joy,” nevertheless. 

The Torah reading for the Shabbat of Hol HaMo’ed Sukkot (the Intermediate Days of Sukkot) is also about that which we do not control. The experience of Moshe Rabbenu, the ultimate leader of our people, is reduced in this Torah reading to begging HaShem to overlook the wild card in any relationship: the human heart.

וַיֹּאמַ֑ר פָּנַ֥י יֵלֵ֖כוּ וַהֲנִחֹ֥תִי לָֽךְ׃

HaShem said, “If I will go in the lead, will it lighten your burden?”

וַיֹּ֖אמֶר אֵלָ֑יו אִם־אֵ֤ין פָּנֶ֙יךָ֙ הֹלְכִ֔ים אַֽל־תַּעֲלֵ֖נוּ מִזֶּֽה׃

Moshe said, “Unless You go in the lead, do not make us leave this place.” 

(Shemot 33.14-15)

There’s a lot of midrash (ancient commentary) on this section of Torah, in which Moshe and HaShem are feeling out the new contours of the relationship between the Chosen People and their Chooser, and HaShem, perhaps daunted, is ready to appoint an angelic emissary as a go between.   

The idea of a go-between is so inviting! We ourselves use it all the time when we choose to bridge uncertainty with a text or email rather than the possible emotional volatility of an uncertain face-to-face. Yet Moshe rejects it, perhaps sensing that it could be the beginning of an uncrossable abyss between us and HaShem.

One of the great learnings emerging from the COVID-19 experience for us is the two-sided sword of distancing. It’s our own version of joy in the midst of an uncertainty we cannot control. Physical distancing is necessary because it could save lives, yet babies who are not held do not thrive. The Zoom screen saves jobs and relationships, yet induces fatigue and frustration because we cannot read body language. Worst of all, physical distancing leads to social distance, and although we can meet people on Zoom we cannot get to know each other.

We cannot control the situation beyond our own decisions within it. We cannot control the feelings of the heart, not even our own. But we can refuse to distance ourselves from joy despite the uncertainty of this fall harvest of ours. Like Moshe, we can insist that we will not leave “this place,” this Sukkot week that insists that we celebrate despite uncertainty, without HaShem in our midst. 

In Jewish tradition, HaShem is with us whenever we are together in meaningful community. Community is the sukkah that is your spiritual home. May it give you the strength you need to choose to celebrate within uncertainty, despite uncertainty, because we need each other.

mo’adim l’simkha, may the Intermediate days of our Festival be joyful!

Shabbat shalom

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