On Succot and other holidays

Succot leads us from the holidays of awe to the holidays of joy, thus connecting two types of Jewish holidays into one unified set.

October 12, 2011 23:11
2 minute read.

Etrog. (photo credit: Wikicommons)


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Collective memory has no limit or boundary, especially when it is evoked by command every year. The three pilgrimage holidays, of which Succot is the first, are a fine testament to the power of memory. They constitute an effort to reenact a formative national experience: the Exodus and creation of national identity at Mount Sinai. Unlike the holidays dealing with the moral aspect of our lives, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, the three pilgrimage festivals are meant to raise the intensity of national historic experience to the level of current affairs: We remember the desert by sitting in a succa or by eating matza, and the pilgrimage to Jerusalem is a reminder of the Temple and the animal sacrifices the people brought after reaching the chosen land.

By why didn’t the Torah suffice in reminding us of the final stage, and instead emphasizes again and again the things that preceded it? In other words: Why must we sit in a succa when we already have permanent homes and a permanent land, and why must we eat matza when we are no longer in a rush and there is time to leaven the bread?

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The answer: so that we remember the entire journey and what came before it, the 40 years of wandering in the desert, the temporary camps, the infighting among the Israelites. The Exodus from Egypt did not pass easily, was not agreed on by the entire nation and was even marred by bloody incidents. The nation was born in pain and suffering, its leader was forced to cope with this suffering and sometimes to lead his people against their will. Thus, like the personal repentance of the individual, who once a year stands in front of the throne of judgment, fearful and trembling, does not know what his judgment will be or what awaits him, so too the collective must also remember, with the joy of the holiday, the national repentance, the infighting and bloodletting.

Unlike the three moral holidays of Tishrei, the three pilgrimage holidays are not “days of awe”; they are a time of joy; and over Jewish history they were amplified by newer times of joy: Hanukka, Purim and Independence Day – days of redemption – and with them, the memorial of Tisha Be’av as a day of destruction; these all complement the days of awe which are holidays of the individual. Thus a whole web of holidays in the Jewish calendar combines to contain an overarching sense of repentance: personal and collective, a combination of pain and joy.

The awe and joy together symbolize the vastness and limitation of memory. This model of the first monotheistic faith inspired other religions that followed. Succot leads us from the holidays of awe to the holidays of joy, from the prayer of Hosanna to Simhat Beit Hashoeva and Simhat Torah, thus connecting the two types of Jewish holidays into one unified set.

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