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Isha Bekia

Sukkot – the festival of the time of our joy

Sep 2, 2019 | Chaggim


There is an integral connection between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur on the one hand, and Sukkot on the other. To understand that connection, we need to delve into the nature of the four species that we take in hand on Sukkot. These four species are the etrog – the fruit of a citron tree; the lulav – a date palm branch; hadass – leafy boughs from a myrtle tree; and aravah – leafy branches from a willow tree. On each day of Sukkot, we bring these four species together, say a dedicated blessing and shake them in a specific way.
Our sages ask – what is the common denominator in the requirements of all four of these species? We know we bring them together because they are so different – in taste, in smell and in structure; but what is the one requirement that is common to them all?
Rabbeinu Bechaya, one of our great sages from the Middle Ages, explains that what these four species have in common is their connection to water. He says they are fresh throughout the year and a very important requirement is that they be fresh for use for the mitzvah of Sukkot. As the Gemara points out, if your lulav is dried out, you cannot use it, you cannot fulfil your mitzvah; the same applies to your etrog, aravah and hadass.
Thus, a really important shared requirement for all four of these species is their freshness – their connection to a water source. That remaining life-giving liquid encapsulated within each of them is an integral part of the fulfilment of the mitzvah on Sukkot.
But why? What does this water represent? What is this liquid, this juice within them, and what does it mean for us? Rabbeinu Bechaya explains that it represents life. When we bring these four species together, we celebrate, and give thanks to G-d, that we are more alive than ever. And we are saying that we are now ready to dedicate that life to G-d in His infinite wisdom and kindness.
The connection to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur becomes so clear. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we pray for many things. We pray for a good year, for a sweet year, and we pray for all of G-d’s blessings. But, most fundamentally, we pray for life itself. The words of the machzor are filled with so many rich examples. We ask Hashem: “The King, who desires life” to “remember us for life” and “inscribe us in the book of life”.
Chayim, chayim, chayim. Life, life, life. Over and over again – that is what we pray for. Because being alive is a privilege, and we never take it for granted.
And so comes along Sukkot, immediately after Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and you know what we give thanks to Hashem for? For the very fact that we’re alive. For the fact that we have breath in our lungs and blood pumping through our veins – that is what we are thankful for. And that is why we bring together the four species, as fresh as can be, filled with as much moisture as possible, and we thank G-d for the life that He has given us. We take them and we say the blessing of shehechiyanu: “Thank you G-d, Who has sustained us and kept us alive to reach this point.”
Now, let’s take this idea one step further. It’s not only about gratitude for being alive. Yes, we are incredibly grateful, but Sukkot is a declaration of what we plan to do with this new life. We take the four species, we bow before G-d and we sing Hallel – recognising G-d’s infinite greatness and magnificence, dedicating our gift of life to Him. And how do we do that? Through the Torah, which is the gateway to life.
The Torah is the Torah of life. It says in the Torah (Leviticus 18:4): “You shall keep my statutes and my laws that a person should do them and live by them.” The Ramban explains that the Torah is the blueprint for how to live life in this world in our interactions with other people. And what is the best possible way to do that? Through the values and the principles and the laws of the Torah, which guide us on how to be a mensch, to be kind to people, to interact in good conscience with people.
It goes even deeper and further than this. By dedicating our lives to G-d – by taking opportunities to fulfil His mitzvot – we unlock the gift of another life… life in the World to Come. As Rashi says on that verse “…and you shall live by them” –refers to Olam Haba, the World to Come. The mitzvot that we do in this world enrich us with life in the World to Come.
And here’s the really fascinating thing. The Hebrew word for life is chayim, which is plural. We never speak about life, but lives. And I came across an amazing explanation of this in a book by the brother of the Vilna Gaon, Rabbi Avraham Ben Shlomo Zalman. He explains that the word chayim is plural because it refers to two lives, life in this world and life in the World to Come. Whenever we refer to life, we refer to both.
As Sukkot comes in, we give thanks to Hashem for life, not only in this world, but for the infinite life He has allowed us in the World to Come. And we give thanks and praise to Him for the Torah that He has given us – the gateway to life in both worlds. Sukkot is known as the “festival of the time of our joy”. We are filled with joy and gratitude for the gift of life and the Torah, which is its gateway.
The Hebrew word for water, mayim, just like life, chayim, has no singular. We only refer to waters, never water. When we speak of water, we don’t only speak of physical waters, but of Torah – the “water” that connects us to our spiritual source.
This Sukkot, as we bring together the four species, let us recognise and celebrate the infinite gift of life we are reminded of when holding the lulav and etrog. Let us dedicate ourselves our Creator and His Torah – the source of all life and all blessing.