This week’s Torah portion for Shabbat Chol Hamoed Sukkot (Intermediate Shabbat of Sukkot) is from Exodus 33:12-34:26.
“Be prepared for the morning, and in the morning you shall ascend Mount Sinai and stand before Me there on the top of the mountain.” (Exodus 34:2)
We hear two stories on this Shabbat Chol Hamoed Sukkot…. We will read the book of Kohelet, or Ecclesiastes, which opens with a pretty dismal world-view: Havel havalim…Vanity of vanities, said Kohelet, vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” (Ecc. 1:2) And we read from the Torah about the aftermath of the golden calf, certainly a low point in Jewish history. These choices are puzzling; neither seems fitting for Sukkot, described as z’man simchateinu, the time of our rejoicing.
According to Dr. David Ackerman (who is the Director of the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Jewish Education through the JCC Association), the sukkah, or hut, is the connecting and clarifying link. A sukkah is a temporary structure, fragile and impermanent. It’s a reminder of humanity’s place in the cosmos. This supports Kohelet’s message. Kohelet employs the word havel five times in one verse; you can’t miss it. But havel doesn’t just mean vanity. It means breath, and is used as a metaphor for life: something ephemeral and fleeting. The sukkah suggests Kohelet is challenging us: life is short, what will you make of it? The sukkah suggests a similar message regarding the illusion of the golden calf (which provides no safety or security for the Israelites): life is short, what is worth believing?
The practice of ushpizin, or inviting guests (real or historical) into the sukkah, is the final piece of the puzzle. Offering the hospitality of a minimal shelter stands in contrast to Kohelet and the Golden Calf: the dense network of human relationships that over time creates community is what is of value and what will endure, and not the material objects (the amassed riches of Kohelet or gold jewelry made into a statue) surrounding us. Coming together is what makes Sukkot z’man simchateinu – the time of our rejoicing.
[******* And… we rejoiced on the first night of Sukkot, with our new friends from the Lake Erie Native American Council. Sunday night, Sept. 23rd, was indeed a wonderful opportunity to come together in a network of friendship, prayer and blessing, dance and drum, lulav and etrog. AND, it was followed by the best way to bring people together — a delicious potluck supper. Our parking lot was turned into an amphitheater for the program, and Ratner Hall was filled with new friends sitting side by side. It was definitely z’man simchateinu – the time of our rejoicing. Special thanks to David Rosen and our sukkah builders and gourd preparers; to Hal Steinhart for bringing his expertise to the planning table; to Debbie Chessin and David and Holly Neumann for coordinating the potluck supper.]