Succot: What - or Why - Are We to Remember

(To prepare for this shiur,
see the questions for self study.)

In contrast to Pesach which commemorates the Exodus - an event which took place on a specific day, Succot commemorates our dwelling in 'booths' for forty years in the desert (Vayikra 23:43). Therefore, there doesn't appear to be any obvious 'historical' reason for celebrating this holiday specifically in Tishrei.

Nevertheless, the Torah insists that we celebrate Succot at the end of the summer (at the conclusion of our fruit harvest = "Chag ha'Asif"/ see Vayikra 23:39).

In the following shiur, we attempt to explain why.

To clarify our opening question, we begin our shiur by quoting the psukim that describe both the historical and agricultural reasons for celebrating the holiday of Succot:

The Historical Reason -

"You shall sit in succot for seven days... in order that future generations may know that I made Bnei Yisrael live in succot when I brought them out of Egypt..." (Vayikra 23:43)
The Agricultural Reason -
In Parshat Mishpatim:

"Three times a year you shall hold a festival for Me: [Chag ha'Matzot in the spring, chag ha'katzir = grain harvest] and Chag ha'Asif - a holiday of gathering at the end of the year, when you gather your fruits from the field." [See Shmot 23:14-17.]
and in Parshat Emor:

"On the 15th day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the yield of your land, you shall observe a festival for seven days... (see Vayikra 23:39-42.)
Clearly, the Torah provides two reasons for keeping Succot (see board #1). Based on the various sources in Chumash, the primary reason appears to be the agricultural one, i.e. to thank God for our produce at the end of the year. Even though this alone provides ample reason to celebrate, the Torah adds an historical aspect to the holiday as well - to remember our experience living in the desert after the Exodus.

However, the fact that the Torah provides two reasons for celebrating Succot should not surprise us. After all, the other two "shalosh regalim" - i.e. Chag ha'Matzot & Shavuot - also carry both historical and agricultural perspectives:

Chag ha'Matzot not only commemorates the events of the Exodus from Egypt, but also must be celebrated at the onset of the spring. [See Shmot 13:3-4, 23:14-15, & Devarim 16:1-2.] Consequently, on that holiday the Torah commands us to bring the "omer" offering - from the first barley harvest (see Vayikra 23:10-11) (see board #2).

Similarly, even though Chag Shavuot commemorates the historical event of Matan Torah, the Torah presents it primarily as an agricultural holiday (= "Chag ha'Katzir"), marking the conclusion of the wheat harvest (see board #3). [See Shmot 23:16 & Vayikra 23:15-17.]

This phenomena - that each of the "shalosh regalim" contains both historical and agricultural significance - begs explanation, and suggests that we search for a thematic connection between each perspective - for each holiday.

Thematic Connections
To appreciate the connection between these two Biblical reasons for celebrating Succot, let's return briefly to our study of Chag ha'Matzot. Recall from our study of Sefer Shmot that God orchestrated the events of the Exodus in such a manner that we would celebrate this event specifically at the onset of the spring. [See Shmot 13:3-4, 23:14-15, & Devarim 16:1-2.]

Thematically, this may suggest that our freedom from bondage reflects only the first stage of the redemption process, just as the spring is only the first stage in the yearly cycle of the harvest season (see board #4).

However, if this assumption is correct, then we should extend this reasoning to the other two holidays as well. One could suggest that Shavuot and Succot, respectively, each focuses on a certain aspect of the culmination of the redemption process that began with the Exodus. Let's explain how.

Recall how the Torah presented a double purpose for the Exodus from Egypt:
1) To receive the Torah at Har Sinai
"... ta'avdun et Elokim b'har ha'zeh" (Shmot 3:12)
2) To inherit the Land of Israel
"...a'aleh etchem... el eretz zavat chalav u'dvash" (3:17)
[See TSC shiur on Parshat Shmot.]

This double purpose may be reflected in the respective historical aspects of the two 'harvest' holidays that follow the 'spring' holiday. Clearly, Shavuot - the 'grain harvest' holiday - commemorates the events of Matan Torah (see board #5). Hence, we must conclude that Succot - the fruit harvest holiday - must commemorate in some manner our entry into the Land of Israel (see board #6).

However, at first glance this conclusion appears to be rather absurd. Why would Succot, when we sit in a succah to remember living in the desert - remind us of our entry into the Land of Israel! In fact, it seems to be quite the opposite!

Nonetheless, we will attempt to find a connection.

Remembering 'What', or Remembering 'Why'
The key to understanding the historical aspect of the holidays lies in one basic principle. The Torah is not interested that we simply remember what happened, rather it is more important that we remember why those events took place.

[In our shiur on chag Ha'Matzot/ Parshat Bo, we applied this principle to our understanding of Chag ha'Matzot and korban pesach. (Likewise in our shiurim on the fast days.)

Applying this principle to Succot, we don't sit in the Succah simply to remember that God provided for our needs while we travelled through the desert, rather we sit in the Succah in order to remember why that entire desert experience was necessary!

[If Succot was simply to remember how God provided for all of our needs in the desert, it may have been enough to thank God for this on Pesach, when we thank him for all the other miracles of Yetziat Mitzraim. The need for a special holiday to remember this alone suggests that it entails more than just 'thanksgiving' for miracles.]

Therefore, we must now consider why the desert experience was necessary, then we will show why the late summer harvest becomes an ideal time to remember that historic aspect of Succot. It will also explain the connection between sitting in a Succah and entering the Land of Israel, as we discussed earlier.

Succot & the Desert Experience
Why would it be so important for Am Yisrael to spend seven days a year remembering their life in the desert? To explain why we begin by returning to the lone pasuk in Chumash that explains the reason for Chag ha'Succot:

"You shall sit in succot for seven days... - in order that your future generations may know that I made Bnei Yisrael live in Succot when I brought them out of Egypt..." (see Vayikra 23:43)

Note that the purpose of sitting in the succah is not to remember the Exodus itself, rather to remember our existence in the desert - after we left Egypt and before we entered Eretz Canaan.

The observation is fundamental, for Succot serves a very different purpose than Pesach. On Succot, we are not thanking God for what He did for us in the desert! Rather, we must remind ourselves why it was necessary that He perform those miracles for us. [Note "l'maan yay'du..." - the shoresh "la'daat"!]

Let's explain:

Life in the Desert - A Transition Stage
Recall our explanation (in our shiurim on Sefer Shmot) that entire desert experience served as a 'training' period - sort of a transition stage - in order to transform Bnei Yisrael from a nation of slaves into a nation capable of establishing God's model nation in the Promised Land.

Indeed, it was necessary to begin this process with great miracles, e.g. the Plagues, the Exodus, the manna, etc., for at this initial stage, it was necessary to convince Bnei Yisrael of their total dependence on God. However, these miracles could be considered more of an 'attention getter' than an ideal. Sooner or later, Bnei Yisrael would need to learn to recognize God in their daily lives without the help of miracles. But his required a long 'educational' process that would spiritually prepare them for challenges of daily existence once they inherit the Land of Israel.

The best explanation of this preparatory nature of the desert experience is given by Moshe Rabeinu himself (in one of his speeches to Bnei Yisrael in Sefer Devarim). As we quote excerpts from this speech, delivered in the fortieth year as the nation prepares to finally enter the land, note how Moshe explains the educational goals of God's miracles during their stay in the desert. It provides us with a beautiful explanation of the purpose of the desert experience:

"All these mitzvot which I command you... keep in order that you live... and inherit the Land...Remember the way which God has led you during your wanderings of forty years in the desert - that He may test you by hardships to know what is in your hearts; whether you would keep His commandments...
He gave you the manna to eat... in order to teach you that man does not live on bread alone, rather man lives on the words of God...
Your clothing did not wear out, nor did your feet become infected during these forty years...
You should know, that just as a father trains his son, so your God has been training you."
(See Devarim 8:1-6)

After completing these introductory remarks, Moshe continues by explaining why this 'testing period' was necessary:

"...for God is bringing you into a good land... and land of wheat and barely, vines, figs and pomegranates, of olive trees and honey...a land where you will lack nothing...
Be careful, lest you forget God and fail to keep His commandments. Should you eat and become satiated, and build fine houses and live in them... and everything you own has prospered...
Beware lest you grow haughty and forget your God who took you out of Egypt...
Lest you say: My own power and my own might have won this wealth for me.
Remember that it is the Lord your God who gives you the power to get wealth..."
(see Devarim 8:7-19)

These basic points raised by Moshe Rabeinu in his speech can help us better understand the purpose of Succot, for they explain why the transition period of the desert was necessary, i.e. to prepare Bnei Yisrael for the spiritual dangers which face them in the agrarian society that they are about to establish in the Land of Israel. Even though it was easy to recognize the hand of God in a miracle, to recognize His hand in the process of nature is a much more difficult challenge. To help overcome this transition stage, the desert experience was necessary.

Once could suggest that this may be the primary reason for sitting in the succah. By spending one week each year dwelling in our Succot, we virtually 're-live' (at least to a certain degree) that desert experience.

The Best Time to Remember
With this background, we can return to our original question, i.e. why do we have to remind ourselves of that time period specifically during Tishrei, at the conclusion of the agricultural year.

As Moshe Rabeinu had emphasized (in the speech quoted above/ review 8:3-12), the Torah fears that economic affluence may lead to forgetting God (see also shirat Ha'azinu/ note 31:16,20; 32:13-15!). [Our own life experience certainly supports the credibility of this fear.]

Most likely, it is because of this fear that the Torah commands us to celebrate Succot at the climax of the agricultural year - as we gather the fruits and 'count our wealth'. It is specifically during this time of year that the spiritual dangers of affluence are greatest.

From a certain perspective, these very same spiritual dangers which faced Bnei Yisrael when they first entered the land 'resurface' every year, especially during years of plenty. Therefore, at the height of the harvest season, we 'conceptually' leave our houses and live in Succot for seven days to re-live the desert experience - a model life of total dependance upon God.

Just as dwelling in the desert prepared Bnei Yisrael for their entry into Eretz Yisrael, so too, our sitting in the Succah prepares us for the spiritual challenges that inevitably surface as we gather our produce & reflect on our 'profits' and wealth.

Why Seven Days?
This background can also help us understand why the Torah requires that we sit in the succah specifically for seven days. Note that all the agricultural holidays revolve around the number seven.
7 days of Chag ha'Matzot in the spring;
7 weeks until Chag ha'Shavuot;
7 days of Chag Ha'succot

As we explained in our shiur on Parshat Breishit [perek aleph], the Torah's description of the story of Creation in seven days emphasizes that the creation of what we call nature was not by chance, nor a 'balance of powers' among a pantheon of gods, bur rather - the willful act of one God, for a purpose. Therefore, each time that seven is found in Chumash (e.g. Shabbat etc.), it is to remind us that God is the creator of, and master over, all nature. Thus, it is only 'natural' that we find the number seven prominent in the agricultural holidays, as we thank God for His providence over nature.

Pri Etz Ha'dar
This interpretation may shed light on Chazal's explanation of "pri etz hadar" (see Vayikra 23:40). Rashi quotes two Midrashim for "etz ha'dar":
1) A tree that the 'taste of its fruit' is the same as the 'taste of the tree'.
2) A fruit that 'dwells on the tree' from year to year.
(see Rashi 23:40 & Mesechet Succah 35a)

The first Midrash is quite difficult for it relates to what Chazal refer to as "chet ha'aretz" - i.e. the 'original sin' of the land during the process of Creation (see Breishit 1:11/ & Rashi on "etz pri"). Even though God commanded that the land bring forth an "etz pri osse pri" - a fruit tree giving fruit - the land brought forth instead an "etz osseh pri" - a tree giving fruit. Even though there doesn't seem to be much of difference between these two expressions, Chazal relate this minute change to the manner by which nature appears to 'hide' God, or act itself as a god.

This is a bit difficult to explain, [and the following is an over simplification of a very complex topic] but in a 'nutshell', when the tree gives fruit every year, it appears that the tree itself creates the fruit. When man contemplates this phenomena in nature, that trees 'on their own' can create fruit, he may conclude that trees have their own power - or that there may be some nature god who 'programs' these trees (how else does it know what fruit to make). In other words, man begins to see various powers within nature, and relates them to many gods (e.g. fertility gods, rain gods, grain gods, sun gods etc.). This leads man to 'worship' these gods to ensure that nature produces the proper produce and provide a successful harvest.

In contrast to this dangerous misconception, God wants man to realize that there is only one God behind nature, even though the way that nature works often leads man to a very different conclusion. [See Rav Yehuda Ha'Levi's explanation of perek aleph in Breishit and "shem Elokim" in Sefer Ha'kuzri ma'amar rvii"]

In contrast to all of the other trees that give fruit according to the standard one year agricultural cycle, the etrog tree is very different. Instead of its fruit growing in the spring and harvested in the fall like all other trees, the fruit of the etrog can stay on the tree year after year, or as Chazal explain "ha'dar" - a fruit that lives on the tree from year to year ["ha'dar b'ilan m'shana l'shana"]. This special phenomena sort of 'breaks the rules' of nature - indicating that there must be a higher power above nature! By taking specifically an etrog on Succot, we take a powerful symbol from nature itself to remind ourselves that God is above nature, and He alone controls it.

Shmini Atzeret
The above interpretation can also help us understand the importance of Shmini Atzeret. As the "shalosh regalim" come to their conclusion, we add one extra day of celebration, void of any specific mitzvah, other than rejoicing with God. Even though it is the 'eighth day' of Succot, we do not need to sit in the "succah", nor do we need to take the lulav - for the preparatory stage is now over! This 'final' day may represent the proper entry in to Eretz Yisrael, i.e. the proper manner in which we are to return to our homes. We keep the essence of our 'desert-like experience' - our closeness to God - and make it the basis of our daily natural existence.

From this perspective, one could suggest that we do not simply leave the succah on Shmini Atzeret, rather we bring the succah into our homes. We then rejoice with the Torah, for its mitzvot - that we received in the desert - enable us to continue the spirit of our 'Succot honeymoon' with God throughout the entire year.

Virtual ClassRoom enhancements by Ronni Libson.

For Further Iyun
A. Based on the last point in the above shiur, we can explain our custom on "Hoshana Rabba" (7th day of Succot) afternoon to bring our "keilim" (vessels) from the succah back into the house - in preparation for Shmini Atzeret. This may highlight the primary purpose of this yom-tov, i.e. to move the spiritual message of the succah into our homes for the remainder of the year.]

[In a similar manner, the 7 days of Succot followed by Shmini Atzeret could be compared to the 7 day miluim ceremony of the Mishkan which was required before the special Yom ha'Shmini dedication ceremony (See Vayikra 8:1-10:1.). Note the from the eighth day onward, the Mishkan became functional, but seven day are necessary as preparation. [Note also first mishnah in Yomah - 7 days before Yom Kippur, the Kohen must prepare himself etc.]]

B. Relate the minhag to read Sefer Kohelet on Succot to above shiur and Devarim 31:7-13 (mitzvat Hakhel). Carefully compare the end of Sefer Kohelet to Devarim 31:12-13! Note also how Kohelet describes the spiritual problems relating to affluence.

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