Shabbat of Sukkot 5778: the sukkah as reminder of the wilderness Mishkan

Sukkot begins five days after Yom Kippur. In the maftir Torah readings for Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur we have seen (in Numbers 29) a list of the holy days in chronological order, and what sacrifices our ancestors brought to mark each one. Numbers 29.1-6 refers to “the first day of the seventh month,” which is Rosh HaShanah, and the next verses, 7-11, describe the ritual for Yom Kippur.  Numbers 29.12 begins the description of the sacrifice to be brought on the 15th day of the seventh month – which is the beginning of the week-long harvest festival of Sukkot.
On this Shabbat, which occurs during the Intermediate Days of Sukkot*, the reading is quite different, and seems completely unrelated to Sukkot:
Moshe said to HaShem, “See, You say to me, ‘Lead this people forward,’ but You have not made known to me whom You will send with me. 
Further, You have said, ‘I have singled you out by name, and you have, indeed, gained My favor.’
Now, if I have truly gained Your favor, pray let me know Your ways, that I may know You and continue in Your favor. 
Consider, too, that this nation is Your people.”
HaShem replied, “If I go in the lead will that lighten your burden?”
Moshe said, “Unless You go in the lead, do not make us leave this place.” (Ex.33.12-15)
In order to understand why we study this Torah text on the Shabbat of hol haMo’ed Sukkot, you have to employ the interpretive principle of juxtaposition. What was happening during the days that are now before or on Yom Kippur?
It was on Yom Kippur, we are taught, that Moshe brought down the second set of Tablets of the Aseret haDibrot (the Ten Words) from Sinai; the first Yom Kippur, then, comes about as an expression of the atonement our ancestors achieved with G*d after the betrayal we remember as the incident of the Golden Calf. The Covenant between us and G*d was re-affirmed and finalized on Yom Kippur. In the Torah, we are reminded that G*d had told Moshe that intimate contact between G*d and the people Israel was no longer possible.
It’s often true; when someone hurts us, lets us down, doesn’t show up in the way we depended on, we may find ourselves emotionally withdrawing from that person. Close contact may seem as if it will never be possible again. Yet Moshe pleads, and G*d is reconciled.
In this light, the Sefat Emet shares an insight into the nature of the sukkah:
[It] was a dwelling given to the people of Israel after they had repented of their sin [the Golden Calf]. RaSHI interprets “Moshe assembled the people” [Ex.35.1] to have taken place on the day after Yom Kippur, when he came down from the mountain…it was then that they began to contribute to the Mishkan, on those days between Yom Kippur and Sukkot.
Torah records that the people gave joyfully of all they had to the Mishkan, giving until they had to be told to stop. This was the joy of relief, and of a new optimistic determination to do better, to be better. The Sefat Emet suggests that this is the reason that Sukkot is called in our tradition “the time of our rejoicing.” It is perhaps easier to understand the command “you shall have nothing but happiness” in this way: you shall have no doubts that full and complete forgiveness is possible – for you and for those who have disappointed you. Your first attempts at reconciliation and wholeness may feel as tenuous as the sukkah is temporary, but atonement is possible, and so is joy.
And so every year we are invited to remind ourselves of this truth not only through sitting and studying and thinking and praying about it – but also by the practice of building our sukkot, little individual reminders of the great Mishkan we once built together. One day may we be privileged to all together find shelter in the great sukkat shalom, the Sukkah of Wholeness that we will someday learn, once again, to joyfully build together.
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*The intermediate days of Sukkot are called Hol haMo’ed, “the days of the Festival which do not carry Shabbat-like Festival status.” The first and last days of Sukkot are such sacred days – as you’ll find out if you attempt to call any Jewish organization on the first two or last two days of Sukkot, which are called hag, plural hagim, “Festivals.” All the other days are hol haMo’ed, literally “the non-sacred days [hol] of the appointed time [the mo’ed].” Then there is the Shabbat that will occur once during this 8 day period (never twice, since the Jewish calendar was carefully engineered to ensure that Yom Kippur will never fall on a Sunday, Wednesday or Friday because it would create tirkha d’tzibura, too much of a burden of the community). The Shabbat of Sukkot this year falls during the Intermediate Days.
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Shabbat VaYishlakh: Gratitude, Not Fear

As Parashat VaYishlakh begins, Jacob survives a confrontation with his brother Esau, from whom he has been estranged for twenty years – a generation, a lifetime, of distance. Jacob has prepared himself for the worst, splitting his family into two camps and sending lavish gifts to his brother in advance – according to the Midrash, he even hides his daughter Dinah in the luggage lest Esau, his disgusting thug of a brother, see her and want to marry her. 

Yet Jacob finds his brother forgiving and welcoming. Upon meeting him, Esau folds him in a loving embrace. What does Jacob make of this surprise? Generations of commentaries have related to this encounter in ways that reveal more about the commentator than the story.

One asserts – with a complete absence of evidence – that Esau’s embrace was meant to kill his brother, and only G*d’s protection of Jacob saved his life. Another insists that Jacob was punished for hiding Dinah, and in so doing manifesting his contempt for the brother who was so different from him, rather than believing that a match between Dinah and Esau could possibly have redeemed Esau, bringing him back into the main narrative of the family.

Unable to believe in the peace that Esau is apparently offering, Jacob makes excuses, falsely assuring his brother they will meet again soon, and then heading as far away as he can get. Jacob settles his miraculously intact family in Sh’khem, where the townspeople seem friendly enough. 

Jacob’s punishment then arrives. As often happens in families, the effect of his behavior falls not upon him but on Dinah. What happens is unclear in the text; Dinah goes out to see the town, and either falls in love and elopes or was kidnapped and raped. The Torah does not record her own feelings about the situation, only those of the men between whom she is caught. 

Jacob’s sons falsely assure the men of Sh’khem that it’s all right, and they then fall murderously upon the unsuspecting some in their beds. Many die in the ensuring conflict, and Jacob and his family flee, wanderers again, this time in their own home country. Jacob’s experience has gone from mistrust of a brother to misunderstanding with an entire community.

Was all of this inevitable, as the plight of homeless wanderers often seems unrelievedly tragic? Or was it possible that Esau and Jacob – twin brothers after all – really could have been reconciled? And that perhaps the tragedy of Sh’khem never needed to happen at all….

In a time of fear it is easy to assume that violence and hatred are around every corner. If only Jacob could have kept in mind the prayer of gratitude with which he traveled to meet his brother: קטנתי מכל החסדים ומכל האמת שעשית את עבדך – “I am too small (i.e. unworthy) for all the true kindness You have done for Your servant”. (Bereshit 32.11) If he had managed to maintain a sense of gratitude for all the miracles he had already known, could he have approached Esau with hope in his heart, rather than (just) fear?

Yes, for Jacob the world may have been ending, but he had known so much good until that moment. What shall we feel, those of us who have known so much good in our lives, and still do – gratitude for all the years? or shall we allow it all to be erased in moments of darkness and fear? What evil do we bring upon ourselves and our loved ones because we expect it? What good is murdered in its bed before it can be born?

We may be unworthy, but we have known so much good. On this Shabbat, may your gratitude overcome your suffering.

(Here is an amazing recording of Jacob’s prayer of gratitude by Israeli composer and musician Yonatan Razel: Katonti)