Archive for Sukkot

Sukkot: A Presence Passing By

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Sukkot

Hag Sameach/ A Happy Holiday!

We’re in the middle of Sukkot, the “Season of our Rejoicing,” and so
the regular Torah reading cycle is set aside for a special Torah
reading appropriate for the holiday. In fact, the Torah is read every
day of the festival, but on the Shabbat of Sukkot, the reading is
Exodus 33:12 – 34:26, which takes place just after the story of the
Golden Calf. There’s a special maftir (concluding reading) and
haftarah as well.

What’s interesting about the reading for the Shabbat of Sukkot is how
the ancient rabbis framed those few verses which actually speak of
the holiday itself. The reading starts in Shemot/ Exodus 33, but it’s
not till chapter 34 that the “Feast of the Ingathering” is mentioned.
The first part of the reading is the story of Moshe returning to God
after the idolatry and violence associated with the Golden Calf:
Moshe goes back to the mountain and admits that he, too, wants to
experience God’s Presence more directly, and begs for a spiritual

God grants Moshe’s request, and in the famous image, puts him into
the cleft of a rock while the Divine Presence passes by. Moshe
doesn’t “see” anything, but hears (experiences?) the Divine
Attributes of forgiveness and mercy. (Cf. 34:6-8, which we sing on
the Days of Awe and other festivals.) The experience seems to last
only a moment, but I cannot doubt that it changed Moshe forever.

So what does all this have to do with Sukkot? One theme that emerges
from both the holiday and the Torah reading is that of temporality.
Things only last a moment; they pass by quickly, and you can miss the
experience entirely if you’re not paying attention.

Notice, for example, how many times the word “pass” (in various forms
of the Hebrew word l’avor) occurs in this narrative:

Verse 33:19: And God answered answered, “I will make all My goodness
pass before you . . . .

Verse 33:22: And, as My Presence passes by, I will put you in a cleft
of the rock and shield you with My hand until I have passed
by. . . . . .

Verse 34:6 The Lord passed before him and proclaimed: “Adonai!
Adonai! a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in
kindness and faithfulness. . . . .

You get the idea by now: Moshe’s experience of God’s Presence was a
fleeting moment that quickly “passed by,” leaving behind the
challenge to assimilate what happened and gain its insights. Sukkot,
too, is about recognizing what is both precious and perishable: a
Sukkah is a frail structure, which can be blown apart by the wind and
lasts only a week. We build it, decorate it, rejoice in it- and it’s
gone till next year.

We can despair because beautiful things last only a short time, or we
can strive to be fully aware of the blessing that is available right
now, in the present moment. We can feel God in our lives, but have to
recognize that this feeling (like most other feelings) ebbs and
flows, grows larger and recedes. As I’ve pointed out before- the
challenge is not to have a peak, mountain-top spiritual experience
every day, but to open our hearts to the possibility that God might
be revealed to us at any moment, and then to stay true to that moment
after it passes.

Our Sukkah is fragile and temporary, but its lessons are enduring.
Our sense of the Divine may be fleeting and swift- after all, even
Moshe had to come down from the mountain at some point- but like a
Sukkah, it can focus our attentions on the most real things, which
would go unseen and unfelt if we let them pass by.

with warmest wishes for a joyous holiday,


PS- as usual, you can read the Torah reading in translation here:

PPS: For more about Sukkot in general, you can’t go wrong with

PPPS: If you didn’t see it before, do check out the laws of Sukkot-
Dr. Seuss style:

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Sukkah in a Storm

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Sukkot

Dear Friends:

This is the first weekly message of our new email “drasha-
delivery” service, and we’re already up to more than 45
subscribers. Thanks for making me follow through with this idea!

For our inaugural message, it seems appropriate to consider
the frustrations putting the roof on a sukkah in a rainstorm, as
that’s exactly what I’m going to be doing in a few hours.

First, let’s review a few basic FAQ’s regarding a sukkah: a kosher
sukkah must have walls (at least two and part of a third), must
be out in the open (i.e., not under a tree or roof), and must be
covered in s’chach, which is defined as loose, unbundled plant
materials, which grew in the ground but is no longer attached to
it. Thus, s’chach could be cornstalks, bamboo poles, or cut
branches, but not vines which are still growing, branches still
attached to the tree, or bundles of hay, for example.

Furthermore, s’chach cannot be something which is fashioned
into a utensil- rope, for example, is cotton, but it’s fashioned into
something other than its natural form. The reason s’chach
cannot be bundled (say, like a bundle of hay or grain) is that
sometimes, in the old days, people would put bundles of grain
on the roof to dry, and s’chach must be placed deliberately on the
sukkah to fulfill the mitzvah.

So far, so good. Now, here’s our problem: s’chach also cannot
be permanently attached to the walls of the sukkah. For example,
it’s fine to have a few narrow boards running across the top of
the sukkah, as part of the roof, to support the s’chach, but the
s’chach itself has to be loose and unattached. This leaves the
s’chach vulnerable to winds and rain, and means that anybody
who builds a sukkah might do all kinds of preparations just to
find that a windstorm has blown off the roof, and thus “un-
sukkafied” it.

Thus, a kosher sukkah has a distinctly tentative quality, and to
me, that’s part of the spirituality of the holiday. In order to make
a sukkah kosher, to have to be willing to let it blow away, as it
were- you cannot become too “attached” to the sukkah by
making it permanent. What’s true of a sukkah is true of any other
material object: it’s only temporary, it’s not that important, and we
risk misunderstanding its purpose if we try to make material
things permanent fixtures in our lives.

Watching in frustration as the wind threatens to blow the roof off
my sukkah becomes a teaching moment for putting all kinds of
other things into perspective, because it captures the essential
truth that material things come and go, and there’s no point in
becoming too attached to any one of them. In Judaism, what’s
most enduring are relationships, not objects, and paradoxically,
as we strengthen the bonds of friendship and family by
celebrating together in our sukkot, we have to be willing to let the
sukkah itself go, if that’s the way the wind blows.

a warm and dry holiday to all of you,


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