Tzarich Iyun > “Seder Sheni”: Reflections > Charedim and the State > Key Lessons of the Sukkos Harvest: Gratitude, Trust, Joy

Key Lessons of the Sukkos Harvest: Gratitude, Trust, Joy

By contrast with Pesach, Sukkos is a festival of enjoying the present rather than commemorating the past. Yet, we can only be truly joyful if we infuse our lives with gratitude and trust. In this, Sukkos presents us with important lessons for life and for Jewish Israeli society in particular.

Tishrei 5783; October 2022

The Jewish year includes three major festivals, known (because they involve a pilgrimage to Jerusalem) as the three Regalim: Pesach, Shavuos, and Sukkos. The order of the three festivals is not arbitrary. Each time they are listed, whether in the Torah or in later texts (such as the festival prayers), they appear in the same order. If somebody pledges an offering, he must bring it before the three festivals pass by in their designated order (Rosh Hashanah 4a). The festival of Sukkos, which is the only one the Torah refers to by the simple expression “chag”—”festival” or “festival of Hashem” (see Vayikra 23:39; Devarim 16:14)—is thus the climax of the Torah festivals.

In this piece, I will seek to explain why Sukkos represents the peak of the festival cycle. At the same time, I will try to understand why the recollection of the Sukkot we had in the wilderness is fundamental to the festival, which the Torah presents as Chag HaAsif, the Festival of Ingathering that other cultures term the Harvest Festival (commonly celebrated, like us, in late September or early October). Finally, I will offer a brief insight into today’s turbulent society, which could learn a thing or two from the Sukkos experience.

The Sukkos Paradigm: A Religious Harvest Celebration

Pesach and Sukkos are two very different festival paradigms. It is important to make a sharp distinction between the two.

Pesach recalls an event—specifically, the event of our miraculous redemption from Egypt by the hand of Hashem. This event is celebrated by the Pesach festival (or, to be precise, Chag HaMatzos), which begins on the date of the historical event and continues for seven days. Fifty days later we celebrate Shavuos, a festival clearly linked to Pesach. Indeed, the epiphany at Sinai, which the Sages link to the festival of Shavuos, begins by mentioning the redemption from Egypt: “I am Hashem your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Shemos 20:2).

Sukkos, by contrast, recalls no event. The Torah does not record any special event that took place on the fifteenth of Tishrei, and even the Sages make no mention of any significant occurrence related to this date

Sukkos, by contrast, recalls no event. The Torah does not record any special event that took place on the fifteenth of Tishrei, and even the Sages make no mention of any significant occurrence related to this date. While certain commentaries claim that the date of Sukkos does have historical significance, the silence of both the Torah and the Sages informs us that the festival is not in honor of any such event. Rather than a recollection of the past, Sukkos celebrates the present gathering of the annual produce. It is termed Chag HaAsif (Shemos 23:16), the Festival of Gathering, and the mention of Sukkos is everywhere tied to the ingathering of the produce from the field (Vayikra 23:39; Devarim 16:13).

This fundamental difference defines two different modes of festivity. Pesach is a festival of Jewish independence: we celebrate our becoming an independent nation, dedicating Seder Night to telling the tale of redemption and internalizing the fundamentals of faith in Hashem that emerge from the momentous event. Sukkos is altogether different. It is a time of natural joy when we celebrate the ingathering of produce from the fields. Yet, it remains a “festival of Hashem” because we are careful to include the Divine element in our celebration. In the words of the Pasuk, we celebrate “before Hashem.”

R. Shmuel b. Meir (Rashbam, Vayikra 23:43) explains that this is why our annual “Harvest Festival” includes the obligation to dwell in a Sukkah, reminding us of the Sukkot that God provided over forty years of journeying in a harsh wilderness. Whether Sukkot refers to literal booths (as Rabbi Akiva held) or the Clouds of Glory that enveloped us as we journeyed (Rabbi Eliezer’s opinion), the fundamental idea is the same: our needs were cared for by Hashem, without whom we could not have survived. And the same applies to our harvest: we celebrate the bounty, but rather than falling into the trap of “my strength and the might of my hand have wrought me this wealth” (Devarim 8:17), we internalize the fact that Hashem “gives us the strength to amass wealth” (8:18). Our natural elation thus becomes a religious experience of celebrating our connection to Hashem.

Because this is the time we celebrate the yield, it is incumbent on us to strengthen our trust in and reliance on Hashem’s constant supervision, which we do by leaving our homes and remembering the Sukkot of the wilderness

Several well-known questions concerning Sukkos fall away based on this simple understanding. One is the famous question posed by R. Yaakov b. Asher (Tur, Orach Chaim, Siman 625) concerning the timing of the Sukkos festival: If Sukkos means to commemorate the Sukkot of the wilderness (be they booths[1] or Clouds of Glory, though the Tur prefers the latter), why do we celebrate in the month of Tishrei, which has no apparent bearing to the Sukkot of the desert?[2] A second renowned question is why we commemorate the booths or the Clouds of Glory more than other great miracles of the wilderness, namely, the heavenly manna and Miriam’s miraculous well that traveled everywhere with the people. If the Torah wishes us to recall the miracles of our travails through the desert, why should the Clouds of Glory (which the Torah never mentions explicitly) be favored?[3]

Based on the approach above, these questions pose no difficulty. Unlike Pesach, Sukkos celebrates the ingathering of our annual crop and does not commemorate any historical event. Because this is the time we celebrate the yield, it is incumbent on us to strengthen our trust in and reliance on Hashem’s constant supervision, which we do by leaving our homes and remembering the Sukkot of the wilderness. This is the appropriate time and the appropriate way to internalize the lesson.

Gratitude and Trust

On Sukkos, our joy derives from the delight of bringing in the year’s produce. As Rambam writes, the principal joy of the festival is embodied in the Four Species, which represent the full range of the crop we gather and celebrate (Laws of Sukkah 7:13). While this might sound distant from us today, it is noteworthy that the rhythm of our annual cycle, even in modern, non-agrarian societies, continues to parallel that of pre-modern times. Schools, universities, and many programs and initiatives in the profit or non-profit world begin around Tishrei (hence Labor Day, marked on the first Monday of September). It is a time of gathering the fruit of last year’s labors and starting next year’s afresh—”after the Chagim,” as we say in Israel. On Sukkos, we thus celebrate the fruit of last year—the achievements, accomplishments, and profits of the previous cycle.

But recollecting the Sukkot of the wilderness is also part of the Sukkos joy. While we are happy with the ingathered produce of last year, we cannot ignore the uncertainty concerning what will befall us in the coming year. We may have enough grain to last for some time, even for several months, but the insecurity of what happens next threatens to dampen our jubilation. We cannot know if the rains will fall, we cannot know if our plans will succeed or whether circumstances, often outside our control, will thwart them.

Our Sukkos joy is only complete when we complement the harvest with trust in Hashem. Absent this trust, we are plagued by a niggling sense of insecurity which undermines the totality of our celebration. Achieving the Torah injunction of pure joy—”you shall have nothing but joy” (Devarim 16:15)—requires trust in God. We still cannot know what the coming year will bring, yet our joy can be unbridled in the knowledge that Hashem, who oversees all matters great and small, is looking out for our good. We can revel in our present bounty in confidence that the future, too, will work out for the best.

The completeness of our Sukkos joy reflects the completeness of our relationship with Hashem. At Pesach, we start our national journey as an infant beginning his life: “As for your birth, on the day you were born, your navel was not cut, neither were you washed with water for cleansing, nor were you salted, nor swaddled at all” (Yechezkel 16:4). At this nascent stage, the relationship is one-directional. Only after fifty days of growth do we reach a level at which we are called to take responsibility for our side of the relationship, as marked by the festival of Shavuos. But the full profundity of our connection with Hashem, as with all relationships, only comes with life experience—an experience that involves rising, falling, repenting, and returning to a relationship far deeper and far more fulfilling.

This fullness is articulated in the joy of Sukkos, which includes the two most fundamental elements in any relationship. One is gratitude. Every human interaction involves giving and receiving; we all give, and we all receive. Yet, the elevation of the complex web of giving and receiving to the level of human relationships requires gratitude. Where there is gratitude, the focus of the giving becomes the giver himself, received by the receiver in love and appreciation; where there is none, the focus is on the item being given, and the connection between the two is instrumental instead of fundamental. Receiving becomes taking. On Sukkos, as we gather in the annual produce, we are grateful to Hashem. As Rashbam notes, recalling the Sukkot of the wilderness ensures that “they give thanks to He that gave them an inheritance of houses filled with bounty.”

The second element is trust. Every relationship is predicated on trust. On Sukkos, as we leave our homes and recall the Sukkot of the wilderness, we internalize trust in Hashem by living in a temporary abode, experiencing a state of dependence for seven days. If on Pesach we relive the wonders of our miraculous redemption, on Sukkos we relive the many years of total dependence on Hashem. The former establishes our basic faith, our belief system. The latter establishes the trust that predicates all true relationships. We place our trust in Hashem, and we can thus be truly joyful.

Sukkos, in this sense, is clearly the climax of the year’s festivals. On Pesach, the covenantal relationship between Hashem and His people begins. On Shavuos it is formalized, institutionalized in the giving of the Torah that our Sages describe as a wedding (Mishnah, Taanis 4:9). On Sukkos, it is fully realized. Our simple daily activities of eating, drinking, sleeping, and just being are elevated by the Sukkah to the level of a mitzvah. On Sukkos, we are with Hashem.

Sukkos Outtakes for Israel

Observing Jewish Israeli society, it seems that of the three stages represented by the three annual festivals, we have achieved the first two with impressive success. The State of Israel was initiated and established in the miracles of 1948, and over the years its core institutions have become stable and robust. This is true of the State generally and also true concerning Charedi society, which had undergone an impressive process of institutionalization. The third stage, however, the climax represented by the Sukkos festival, continues to await us. Our relationships—between Charedim and non-Charedim, Right and Left, or religious and secular—are deeply strained. A count of more than one election per year over the past four years indicates a split society that lacks a strong common denominator and cannot engage in dialogue and reach real compromises.

Based on the foregoing analysis, the two qualities we most need are gratitude on the one hand and trust on the other. Gratitude expresses our appreciation of the other and his contribution to society. Secular Israel should be grateful to the religious groups that maintain much of Israel’s Jewish spirit, while religious Israel, Charedi included, should be grateful for the dedication of secular Israel to establishing and maintaining Israel’s infrastructures and for its contribution, albeit in a rather different way, to the Judaism of the State. A sense of gratitude will go a long way to fostering mutual respect and enabling cooperation and collaboration in projects and institutions that are essential for our continued flourishing.

In a society lacking trust, core social issues become a zero-sum game, and reaching compromise becomes virtually impossible. The compromise will be the end of us!

Together with gratitude, trust—trust in the Creator who leads the operation and ensures its success—empowers us to engage in dialogue and reach working compromises. In a society lacking trust, core social issues become a zero-sum game, and reaching compromise becomes virtually impossible. The compromise will be the end of us! When we have trust, however, in the goodness of Hashem and His constant supervision over us, we are empowered to give ourselves some slack. We should fight for the issues we hold dear, but not at the cost of trampling others and tearing Israel’s delicate social fabric. If we trust Hashem, we know that stopping short of this will not bring our demise.

As we leave the partitions of our homes and experience the national unity of Sukkos when the Jewish people are brought together—the Gemara teaches that the entire Jewish people can dwell in a single Sukkah—it would be good to remember these basic principles, and doing so will certainly allow us greater national joy than we’ve become accustomed to enjoying. Given that Israel’s elections are fast approaching, they are due to stand trial very soon.

[1] The Ramban suggests that if the commemoration refers to simple booths, it stands to reason that we only required them towards the winter months, which is why the Tishrei commemoration is fitting. This, of course, does not solve the problem according to R. Eliezer’s opinion, and it is difficult to assume that such a major difficulty will apply to one opinion and not to the other without the Talmud making any mention of the issue. Moreover, it seems that the booths were no less required in the summer, as shelter from the sun, than in the winter as protection from the cold.

[2] The Tur gives a climate-based answer, explaining that our leaving home for the Sukkah would not be as pronounced in Nissan, when the Clouds of Glory first descended on the Israelites. Another well-known answer is given by the Vilna Gaon, who explained that the Clouds departed the Jewish People after the Sin of the Spies and returned on the Fifteenth of Tishrei, after Yom Kippur (see Commentary to Shir HaShirim, 1:1-4; Aderes Eliyahu, Parshas Ki Tisa). See also: Maharam b. Chaviv Emor 2; Pachad Yitzchak (Hutner) Sukkos 106; ).

[3] R. Chaim Yosef David Azulai mentions the question in his Rosh David (Parashas Emor). The Chida notes several answers; for additional answers, see R. Chaim Falagi’s Nefesh Chaim (Letter Samech).


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2 thoughts on “Key Lessons of the Sukkos Harvest: Gratitude, Trust, Joy

  • While all of the three festivals, at least in Rabbinic Judaism, mix an agricultural and historical event, Sukkot stresses the agricultural event most profoundly.

    But sitting in a Sukkah as a remembrance of the Ana’nei haKavod, adds an important dimension to the celebration of a hopefully successful harvest. Even our successes must acknowledge an element of Divine providence. I often wondered if the reason to dwell in Sukkot as a remembrance of the Ana’nei haKavod, is to remind us that our normal more elaborate surroundings are not just the result of kochi ve’otzem yadei. While in the Sukkah, God’s providence through the cooperation of the elements is viscerally felt.

    Particularly this year with the death of two soldiers in “peacetime,”i think the need for the Haredi community to appreciate that its very existence is dependent on the State and its inhabitants who serve in the IDF. Byond secular Jews, those attending hesder programs or otherwise serve, deserve at least not to be castigated, if not respected. It would be helpful if all elements, or at least a majority, of Hareidi society condemn those calling other Jews Nazis. Secular Israelis must acknowledge those traditional Jews who are actively engaged in enhancing their commitment to our traditional heritage.

    As a traditional Jew who has, in “retirement,” spent much time consulting with Israeli technology companies, I received nothing but respect even when my practices negatively impinged on my clients.

    The historic hatred of traditional Judaism by many early Zionists is dying; the vast majority of its only remaining adherents will soon pass on. In the next generation the ability for greater unification continues to grow.

  • One can also note that the return of the Annanei HaKavod marked the return and rapprochement of the relationship of Klal Yisrael with HaShem after the catastrophic events of the Golden Calf that was achieved by the Bris Chadashah that took effect by means of the willing acceptance of the Luchos Shniyos

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