Shabbat Evening Service
From the desk of Rabbi David Lyon
Torah records what the Israelites did when they trekked through the wilderness. They lived in Sukkot, in temporary booths. Part of our observance of Sukkot is what Torah tells us to do, “You shall live in booth seven days.” But, the Book of Leviticus wasn’t written along the way as the Israelites made their trek. According to modern scholars, it was inscribed later, about the 5th century BCE, from a place where Jews settled into permanent homes. Why, then, does Torah record not just the story of the past, but also the obligation to relive it? Torah offers only this:
“In order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt…”
The Book of Leviticus is a priestly book. It is no wonder that the purpose of living in a booth is directly connected to serving God. But, centuries later such priestly associations were not enough to substantiate the building of a Sukkah, let alone living in one. In the 12th century, a Torah commentator by the name of Rashbam, and the grandson of the famous Biblical commentator, Rashi, expanded Torah teaching. Though far from a modern scholar, he also went beyond priestly functions and appealed to issues of moral living. He cited Deuteronomy (8:17), “Do not say in your heart, “My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me.” Then Rashbam comments:
You should remember the Lord your God, as it is God who gives you strength to make progress. Therefore, the people leave their houses, which are full of everything good at the harvest season, and dwell in booths, as a reminder of those who had no possessions in the wilderness and no houses in which to live. It is for this reason, that God established the Festival of Sukkot, that the people should not be proud of their well-furnished houses.
Rashbam built his lesson on this text from Deuteronomy, because it repeats and reports the lessons the Israelites will need after they have left the wilderness and entered the Promised Land. Presumably, it would be a time for settlement and not for wandering. Therefore, Deuteronomy also anticipated that once the Israelites were settled, they would begin to acquire wealth and creature comforts. They would have a home to return to each night, and safety behind permanent walls and doors. Jews in their new homes would be like kings in their castles who believed they were the source of their own success.
Reflecting on his life and that of his fellow Jews in 12th century France, Rashbam conceded that a permanent home with a roof overhead and a bolt on the door was safer than a booth with an open roof and no door at all. Therefore, shaking our complacency and not just our lulav, by moving out of our safe houses and into the fragile booth would create instant recognition of our dependence on God.
Rashbam’s lesson is important to us, but it might not be enough to persuade us out of our comfortable homes to live in a booth in September, in Houston. Nevertheless, we can still learn from Rashbam. When life is hard even after we have settled down, the relative comfort we come to know there can numb us against our faith in God’s overarching presence in our life. Some have said, “Life is good. Who needs God?” Others have said (and Deuteronomy anticipated), “Look what I have built with my own hands and power?” History has demonstrated that such numb faith can lead to disastrous failings due to arrogance and pride.
Today, the Sukkah stands outside as a reminder of our ancestors’ precarious journey. Surely, it wasn’t the fragile Sukkah that sustained the Israelites in the wilderness. It was God’s presence that accompanied them and helped them believe that their temporary booth would support them over many miles and many years. How much has really changed? Can we really accomplish our own journey by merely locking the door at night and rebuilding the roof after each hurricane season? Faith in God’s presence can still support us. If it were only about locking the door and setting the alarm, we wouldn’t also recite at night the Shema, or find comfort in the words, “Adonai li, v’lo eera,” God is with me; I will not be afraid. The Sukkah serves us as a reminder of the real Source of our relative wealth. Stepping out of our houses and lives of comfort into the Sukkah awakens us to God’s presence.
This week, let’s shake our lulav and spend time in the Sukkah. Let’s eat a meal there and welcome friends as we have been taught to do. And, later, when we return to our homes on clean streets and wide avenues, let’s give thanks for all that we have done with all that God has given us.
Chag Sameach (Happy Sukkot) and Shabbat Shalom
(Republished by request)