In 1965, a good 20 years before I was even around to enjoy it, The Byrds reached number 26 in the UK Singles Charts with their rather catchy number Turn! Turn! Turn! which is an adaptation of the third chapter of Kohelet (aka Ecclesiates). Across the country, anyone with a radio, or tuning into Top of the Pops on television, would have heard the popular song:
To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, a time to reap that which is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to gain that which is to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time of love, and a time of hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.
Every year, at Sukkot, we read those words from Kohelet during our services, and some of us may have even heard them a few times over the Yamim Nora’im; that does not, though, change the fact that the order of the tearing down and building up are in fact not the way we experience Sukkot. It is rather the very opposite and begs the question then: tearing down what, and building up what in its place?
My first thought when trying to answer that question was of the roof of the sukkah itself, the s’chach, because the material we use for the rooves of our sukkot is arguably one of the most important things occupying discussions of the halakhah of the sukkah;
- like the sukkah it must be of a temporary nature
- it must be completely organic, and most importantly for the question,
- it must be something that has grown, and been subsequently cut down before being used as roofing
This really did not satisfy me as an answer, and it felt almost like an aside or simply incidental to the text. So, I did what any normal person in 5782 would do, and I turned to Google and rabbinic commentaries.
As it happens, I found my answer, or at least one I am relatively happy with, in the Torah portion for chol ha-moed Sukkot – Exodus 33:12 – 34:26. The portion itself opens with Moses asking for God to reveal the divine glory, leads us through the narrative of the second set of tablets being carved, and closes with a relatively short overview of the shalosh regalim. This whole episode is a story of tearing down, and building up relationships; between God and Moses, Moses and the Israelites, and between the Israelites and God.
Our tradition teaches that the broken tablets were placed in the aron hakodesh, the Holy Ark, and remained there together with the unbroken tablets protected and safe as the Israelites journeyed through the wilderness. Kabbalah teaches that the Ark is a symbol of the human heart (in Reshit Chochmah) and perhaps this image of the broken and unbroken tablets residing together reminds us that brokenness and wholeness can and do exist side-by-side even in the holiest of spaces, and moreover that sometimes the torn down and the built up belong as much together as they do in contrast to one another.
In the narrative context of the Torah as a whole, this week’s portion follows the incident with the Golden Calf, and emotions are all over the place: God is angry with everyone, Moses is beside himself in distress at what happened whilst he was away, and the Israelites themselves stand to lose everything they’ve got (which frankly, at this point, isn’t a lot!), and so everyone has a lot of building up to do.
Denver based Cantor Elizabeth Sacks points out that in relatively few verses, the Torah “reveals a path to repair”:
- the reassurance of God’s presence: Moses asks God to lead the people and reveal God’s Presence (Exodus 33:12-18)
- the granting of a second chance: God commands Moses to write the second set of tablets (Exodus 34:1)
- the restating the small print of the Israelite-Divine relationship: God restates the conditions of the three Festivals (Exodus 34:18-26)
The incident with the Golden Calf, she says, tears a hole in the very fabric of the relationship between the Israelites and the Divine, and everything that happens after is a blueprint for healing, and rebuilding.
So, back to the original question: what are we tearing down, and building up, at Sukkot?
Well, if we think of the yamim noraim as our “Golden Calf moment”, when we admit our sins, denude our souls of their worldly trappings, and plead before God to help us reconnect, then Sukkot becomes our reparation and healing route – the beginning of our process of building up what has been torn down.
We have, as our tradition asks of us, spent many weeks stripping ourselves down to our bare essentials, facing our brokenness so reminiscent of the broken tablets that we keep inside of ourselves, and reflecting on parts of our existence and personality that we wouldn’t normally have time, or the inclination, to reflect upon.
Sukkot is our time to redress, repair, and rebuild – so Kohelet maybe doesn’t have things as backwards as I might have at first imagined, and given that the Shulchan Arukh tells us that “it is meritorious to start building the sukkah immediately after Yom Kippur”, it is clear that even our halakhah for the building of a sukkah highlights the importance of shifting immediately from breaking down to building up.
Sukkot is a time of fulfilment, and some might say, a time of redemption. Sukkot is a time of ingathering and accounting. The moon is full, and so are we; full of opportunity, full of hope, and given a second chance to rebuild with everything we have learnt and gathered in. This is the season of building.
Rafe Thurstance LBC Student Rabbi
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.