Sukkot, when the weak get strong

The commandment to celebrate Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles, we find in Vayikra, Leviticus 34:42-43. This is the time during which Israel prays to G-d for water out of the heavens, for the harvest. A special water sacrifice, also in the days of Yeshua, was carried from the well of Shiloach (Siloam) through the Water Gate into the city of Yerushalayim (Jerusalem). It was a sacrifice aimed at begging the Almighty for rain. Since the time of the prophets the Eternal One spoke about the spiritual meaning of drought. Yeshayahu (Isaiah) says, “All you who are thirsty, come to the water!” (Is.55:1). And the Psalm writer says, “Just as a deer longs for running streams, G-d, I long for you.” (Ps. 42:2). Sukkot is a water festival, a harvest festival, the last of the three pilgrim festivals and a festival of joy.

It is also a festival that confronts us with our dependence on the Almighty. This happens especially through the commandment to build a Sukkah (tabernacle). We often start to build our Sukkah already before the Day of Atonement, because five days after this Holy Day the Feast of Tabernacles starts. You can build a tabernacle in the yard, but also on a balcony or even in an high rise building if you can open a window to see the sky; this is because we should be able to see the clear sky out of our tabernacle. This is a halakhic precept: the roof of the tabernacle should be open enough to see the sky but so much covered with branches, that a shadow can be seen (a covering against the rains in Holland is unfortunately not possible!). We are to erect the walls first and we place the roof on top. The walls can be made of any material. The walls of some tabernacles are the walls of a living room. Sometimes the roof of a house can be opened mechanically, which makes it very functional. Branches of trees, pieces of wood, straw and the like are suitable as building materials. Planks are prohibited. The leaves are not allowed to fall too quickly from the branches.

The inside the Sukkah is to be decorated with different kinds of fruit. In our land it is too cold to sleep in this hut, but it is an obligation to at least eat in the Sukkah. And I can say from my own experience that this is a delight. The fragility of the hut is a sign of our own fragility and dependence. It shows that we are like wandering pilgrims here on earth. Sukkot is the third of the pilgrim festivals. The other two are Pesach en Shavuot (the Festival of Weeks). Besides our fragility the hut also shows our need to be cherished and protected. Interestingly enough the first and the second Temple were both dedicated on Sukkot, and also our Jewish Messianic congregation Beth Yeshua, on the festival of Sukkot in 1991!

On Sukkot everyone carries a lulav to the synagogue, except on Shabbat. This is a bundle of branches, that consists of one palm branch (literally: lulav), two willow branches (aravot) and three myrtle branches (hadassot), including an etrog, a lemon shaped citrus fruit, as is written in Vayikra, Lev.23:40. The branches are bound together (on Erev Sukkot) and are being held in the right hand, while the fruit is held separate in the left hand. During the Berachah for the waving of the lulav we bring our two hands together, which brings the lulav and specifically the etrog close to our heart. We hold the place where the stem has been on top, till after the Berachah. When we start to wave, we turn the etrog upside down.

The waving is a prayer of waving to the Almighty in which we beg for rain. Like the etrog, that as all kinds of fruit, needs more water, like the palm branches that grow in valleys where there is an abundance of water and like the myrtle and willows that grow at the water side, so we show to G-d who gives what we need, that we need water. The lulav is being waved in all four directions of the wind and then also upwards, to heaven, and downwards, to the earth. So we express that the whole earth needs water en so one day the whole earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Almighty, as the waters cover the sea (Habakkuk 2:14).

The meaning of the four species, which form the lulav, is being explained in different ways. One of the explanations is that there are four types of human beings:
1. those who “smell and taste nice”, those who study Torah and teach it, the etrog;
2. those who “taste nice”, those who study Torah but do not teach it, the palm branch;
3. those who “smell nice”, those who teach Torah but do not study it, the myrtle branches;
4. those who “do not taste nice and do not smell nice”, those who do not study Torah, nor teach it, the willow branches.
The waving is a prayer for unity between the four groups. G-d loves all, that love Him.

Another picture we find, when we relate the lulav to ourselves:
1. the etrog stands for our heart, our insight and our wisdom;
2. the lulav, our spine, our integrity;
3. the myrtle, our eyes, our discernment;
4. the willow, our lips, our speech and our prayer.

The waving is a prayer that these four areas within ourselves will grow up under the experienced hand of our Creator and Chief Shepherd. Mishnah, Sukkah 37b, teaches regarding the four directions in which we are to wave the lulav, “The four directions of the wind point to G-d, who owns the four directions of the earth and the lulav is being waved in honor of the One, to whom belong the heavens and the earth.” The blessing over the lulav is composed of different parts. First we pray without the etrog:

Baruch Ata Adonai, Elohenu melech ha’olam, asher kid’shanu bemitzvotav, v’tzivanu al n’tilat lulav.
Blessed are you, Lord our G-d, King forever, who sanctified us by His commandments and who commanded us to take the lulav.

Then with the etrog:
Baruch Ata Adonai, Elohenu melech ha’olam, shehecheyanu w’kimanu w’higianu lazman haze.
Blessed are you, Lord our G-d, King forever, who gave us life, sustained us and lead u to this moment.

Before the waving:
Baruch Ata Adonai, Elohenu melech ha’olam, asher kid’shanu bemitzvotav, asher bishmo notlim anachnu lulav.
Blessed are you, Lord our G-d, King forever, who sanctified us by His commandments in whose name we wave the lulav.

We can see not only the relation of us as individuals but also as humankind to Sukkot in Zechariah chapter 14, where all nations go up to Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles. This is already mentioned in Numbers 29:13-34, where a sacrifice is commanded of seventy bulls. Seventy is the number of the nations, which are seventy in number according to tradition. In Exodus 1:5 the number of descendants of Ja’acov, Jacob, is also seventy. On the first six days of Sukkot the lulav, together with the Torah scroll, are carried around the bimah once, on which the Torah scrolls are always laid, when we read out of them.

On the seventh and last day, Hosheanah Rabbah, the day on which many times during the service Hosheanah (“Have mercy on us”) is being sung, the Torah and the lulav are being carried around the bimah seven times (hakafot). The number seven stands for many things: the sin offering ((Lev.4:6) and for the cleansing and sanctification of the altar (Leviticus 8:11). It stands for healing (Leviticus 14:7) and atonement on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:14). It stands for victory (Joshua 6:4) and praise (Psalm 119:164). It stands for falling and getting up again (Ecclesiastes 24:16) and for mutual forgiveness if there is a basis for it (Luke 17:4).

So Sukkot is a water festival and it makes us conscious of our Source. The Bible also mentions another kind of drawing water: drawing water from the springs of Salvation (Isaiah 12:3). The word ‘Salvation’ is in Hebrew ‘Yeshuah’, the Name of our Savior, who Himself called us to come to Him, when we are thirsty. What happens when we come to Him is that He fills us with His Spirit and we then allow G-d’s Ruach haKodesh, the Holy Spirit, to work through us to others (John 7:37-38).

Sukkot is a festival to become conscious of our thirst, and to find the source of Living Water again. The Bible places a link between water and the Ruach Hakodesh, the Holy Spirit. Isaiah 44:3 says, “For I will pour water on the thirsty land and streams on the dry ground; I will pour my Spirit on your descendants, my blessing on your offspring.” Yeshua points to this fact when He says on the Feast of Tabernacles, “If anyone is thirsty, let him keep coming to me and drinking! Whoever puts his trust in me, as the Tanach says, rivers of living water will flow from his innermost being!” (John 7:37-38).

We are being called to celebrate this festival in Jerusalem, where once, soon, the Kingdom of G-d will be established and Yeshua will reign as King on and over the earth (Zechariah 14:16). Then the New Jerusalem will be inhabited (Revelation 21:16). And G-d will look back on His work of salvation, through His Son and His people, that will be mentioned great and mighty, full of grace and faithfulness.

After Sukkot we celebrate Simchat Torah, the joy over His Word. We carry the Torah scrolls through the synagogue, dancing as a bride who is overflowing with joy. Prepare yourself! And indeed: Israel is G-d’s bride. “I will betroth you to me forever; yes, I will betroth you to me in righteousness, in justice, in grace and in compassion; I will betroth you to me in faithfulness and you will know Adonai” (Hosea 2:19-20). And Yeshua is the Bridegroom of His people (Ephesians 5:25-27). We already celebrate this approaching wedding on Simchat Torah. Sukkot, when the weak get strong. Happy Hanukkah!

Lion S. Erwteman
Rosh Kehilla of Beth Yeshua
Amsterdam, Netherlands