Rebooting on Sukkos

I discussed the following medrashim in more detail in Mesukim MiDevash for parashas Pinechas and in earlier blog posts “The Origins of Imperfection” and “Simchas Beis haSho’eivah“. In this post, I want to look at how each step in the progression I outlined before is addressed by the mitzvos of Sukkos. Enlarging the theme of what I said about Simchas Beis haSho’eivah to understand Sukkos as a whole.

The first we hear of Hashem allowing things to go in something other than the ideal way is in the creation of plants. There is a medrash (Breishis Rabba 5:9) that comments on a change in language in the middle describing of the creation of trees. Hashem orders the earth on the third day to bring forth “eitz peri oseh peri“, fruit trees that make fruit, yet the land actually produces only “eitz oseh peri“. Between the commandment and the fulfillment, something is lost. The medrash explains that originally the wood would have tasted like the fruit, so that it would truly be a “fruit tree”. Instead of the norm being that the wood of the tree would taste like the fruit, this is now the exception. The trees, or the angels entrusted to guard them, were afraid for their survival. If the wood tasted like the fruit, animals would eat the plant rather than the fruit, and they would die out. And so, the earth “disobeyed”.

The second step occurs on day four, with Hashem’s creation of the moon. In Parshas Bereishis (1:16) the Torah reads: “And G-d made the two large luminaries — the large luminary to rule the day and the small luminary to rule the night — and the stars.”

The gemara (Chulin 60b) points out an inconsistency in the pasuq. R. Shimon ben Pazi asks why the Torah first describes the sun and moon as “the two large luminaries”, but then it calls the sun “the large luminary” and the moon is called the small one. The gemara answers with a story. Originally the sun and moon were the same size. But the moon complained to Hashem, “Can there exist two kings sharing the same crown?” How can both the sun and the moon share the glory? G-d replies, “Go and make yourself smaller.” This pains the moon, and Hashem subsequently offers three consolations. When that fails, Hashem says that we are to bring a qorban to atone for His sin. The Maharsha explains that the story is about the Jewish people and our goals vs the world at large and theirs. The Jews are compared to the moon (see, for example Qidush Levanah). Edom, the dominant power, is the sun. Why do we live in a world that seems to be dominated by Edom’s principal, that might makes right? Why isn’t holiness the dominant idea, and right make might? This then is the second step.

On day 3, the notion of needing to be concerned about the “real world” entered creation, which made it take on a life of its own, hiding its true nature of being merely the means toward holiness. Now, this second thing became a competing power. The moon sees a power struggle between itself, the pursuit of holiness, and the might of the sun.

The gemara (Succah 35a) explains, “‘P’ri eitz hadar’ — that its fruit tastes like the tree.” A defining feature of the esrog is that it did not participate in the rebellion of day three. Based on this, Medrash Rabba (15:6) identifies the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, the eitz hada’as, with the esrog. Adam and Chava ate the fruit bein hashemashos, at the end of the sixth day (Sanhedrin 38b). A period of time when day and night overlap. The sun and moon, might and holiness, vie for rule. According to the Zohar, had they waited until Shabbos, the fruit would have been permitted to them. The eating of the fruit, therefore, has much to do with the blending of real and ideal, and internalizing it. And ever since then, every decision man makes is an irbuviah, the product of an inseperable blend of motives.

We come to Sukkos soon after Yom Kippur. We just tried to return to the ideal Hashem made us to be. And on Sukkos, we have mitzvos to celebrate the creation of humanity that could have been.

We already mentioned the esrog, the fruit that represents bitachon, trusting in Hashem for its survival rather than making what seems to be the safer choice of not having the plant itself taste pleasant to animals. The other three species of the mitzvah are also in part chosen for how taste of the fruit (if there is one) and plant relate. Vayira Rabba (30:12) famously notes that while the esrog has both a pleasant smell and a pleasant taste, the lulav’s fruit has a pleasant taste, but the branch has no smell, the hadas branch has a pleasant smell but neither it nor its berries have a pleasant taste, and the aravah has neither. The four species show us how to overcome the weaknesses of individuals through the bitachon of the community.

The second mitzvah of Sukkos is to live in the sukkah. A denial of the might-makes-right of my brick and mortar house to depend on an alliance between myself and Hashem to stay safe in my sukkah. Again, a revival of the theme of bitachon, but we can now see it in the light of the re-creation of man of the High Holidays. The Sukkah is the “lesser light” of the fourth day.

The third mitzvah unique to Sukkos is the nisuch hamayim, the pouring of the water through the mizbeiach to the ground below. This was the cause of great celebration, the Simchas Beis haShoeivah, as the water was drawn and brought to the Beis haMiqdash.

And a mist came up from the ground, and gave moisture to the whole face of the earth. And Hashem E-lokim formed the man, dust from the ground, and He breathed in his nose a living soul; and the man was a living spirit.

– Bereishis 2:6-7

“And a mist came up from the ground”: For the topic of the creation of man. He raised the tehom [groundwater?] and gave moisture to clouds to wet the earth and to make man. Like one who kneads bread, who adds water and after that kneads the dough. So too here, “He gave moisture” and then “He formed.”

“Dust from the ground”: He collected dust from the whole earth, all four directions… Another opinion, He took his dust from the place about which it says “an altar of earth you shall make for Me.” He said, “If only the dirt would be an atonement for him, and he would be able to stand.”

– Rashi ad loc

In his work “Pachad Yitzchak” on Sukkos, R’ Yitzchak Hutner notes the steps of creation of man, according to this second opinion in Rashi. First, G-d adds water to the earth to make clay, then He forms man and breathes a soul into him.

R’ Hutner writes that this is exactly what we recreate during nisuch hamayim. The kohein pours water on the very spot Hashem did. This is accompanied by the Simchas Beis haSho’eivah, with its celebration and singing. Music is the most spiritual of the seven wisdoms. It speaks and moves the soul on a fundamental level. Through song we imitate G-d’s breathing a soul into Adam.

When we do teshuvah, Hashem fulfills His promise “And I will give you a new heart, and place a new spirit within you.” (Yechezqeil 36:26) Sukkos is a celebration of man’s ability to recreate himself, and therefore recreated in a more ideal form the steps of our original creation.

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