Monday, October 1, 2007

Sukkot: Midterm Exam

Imagine that this is the midterm exam. There is only one question: What are the Torah readings for Sukkot?

It’s not hard to think of the readings for Simchat Torah: V’zot ha-B’rakhah and B’reishit. But what is the reading for the first day of Sukkot? Or for any day of Sukkot?

There are specified readings for each day of Sukkot. They come from Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy, and what they have in common is that each of them refers in some way to the festival. Variously, they state the commandments to celebrate Sukkot for seven days, to hold an assembly on the eighth day, to dwell in booths, to use the four species that constitute the lulav and etrog, and so forth.
There are various possible reasons for reading these passages. Superficially it is appropriate to read a passage that refers to a particular holiday on that holiday, but that doesn’t seem to be the reason for all of the yom tov readings.

One reason that is not so plausible is that it is to inform us of the proper observance. What makes this implausible is that we would receive the reminder too late, after the holiday had begun, instead of when there was still time to make appropriate preparations. In other words, this is not a parallel to the haftarah for Shabbat Shuvah, which speaks to us about repentance on the Shabbat before Yom Kippur, nor is it like the traditional sermon for Shabbat ha-Gadol, explicating all the details of Pesach preparation and observance.

One apparent function of the readings, however, is a parallel to the original function of the worship service itself: to substitute for practices that could no longer be carried out when there was no longer a Temple in Jerusalem. The schedule of daily worship derives from the schedule of sacrifices, as does the Musaf service. Although it was, and is, still possible to build a sukkah and shake the lulav, it was no longer possible to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and some of the readings appear to substitute for this.

One of the readings, from Deuteronomy 31, suggests another way of looking at the question:

Moses wrote down this Teaching and gave it to the priests, sons of Levi, who carried the Ark of the Lord’s Covenant, and to all the elders of Israel.

And Moses instructed them as follows: Every seventh year, the year set for remission, at the Feast of Booths, when all Israel comes to appear before the Lord your God in the place which He will choose, you shall read this Teaching aloud in the presence of all Israel. Gather the people—men, women, children, and the strangers in your communities—that they may hear and so learn to revere the Lord your God and to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching. Their children, too, who have not had the experience, shall hear and learn to revere the Lord your God as long as they live in the land which you are about to cross the Jordan to occupy. (9–13)

Although the specific reference is to the “year of remission,” the sabbatical year, the passage serves to remind us that elements of Sukkot observance, like those of Pesach, are naturally appealing and memorable to children.

Thus, if religious school is in session at all during Sukkot, it makes sense to serve snacks in the sukkah and have every child shake the lulav and sniff the etrog. It’s not merely for the sake of their observing these mitzvot; it’s also because children like and remember it.

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