Alex Levin, By the Kotel at Sukkot, Painting

Who is Honored on Sukkot?

Epicurus used to say, “Were the gods to answer the people’s prayers, people would deteriorate and die, for so multitudinous are the tribulations which each one wishes upon his fellow.”

Epicurus may be right as regards the prayers of the nations, but not as regards our prayers. We well know “This is the book of the generations of man,” and every year we begin our supplications with “And now, Lord our God, place Your awe upon all whom You have made, Your dread upon all whom You have created…”

-Rabbi Moshe Avigdor Amiel
Chapter 13: The First Man and the Jewish Nation, p.75
Translated by Kadish Goldberg
Jews, Judaism, & Genesis: Living in His Image According to the Torah

Last week, I spent some time writing about those things that make Jewish people unique and distinct from the people of all the other nations, including Gentile Christians, in three blog posts: Upon Reading a Rant About “Messianic Jewishism”, Diminishing the Moon and Israel, and Are Messianic Jews Not Expected to Practice Judaism?. I suppose I could be accused of fomenting discord between Jewish and Gentile members of the ekklesia of Messiah, or to put it in more Christian-friendly terms, the members of the “body of Christ”.

In the spirit of unity which is aptly expressed during this time of Sukkot, I thought I’d take a different tack.

As we discussed last year, the fruit symbolizes the Torah inside a person, while the fragrance represents the Mitzvos, the deeds a person does which affect those around him or her. The four species represent those who have both Torah and good deeds, those who have one but not the other, and even those who have neither.

And what are we told to do? We bind them together! Every Jew is a unique and essential part of our nation.

from “Note from the Director”
News from Project Genesis and Torah.org for Sukkot
Torah.org

Unfortunately, I can’t find this note from Rabbi Yaakov Menken on the Project Genesis website which would allow you to read all of the Rabbi’s comment, but as you might imagine, he is specifically addressing unity among Jewish people and not including non-Jewish believers in Jesus (Yeshua). However, giving Rabbi Menken’s words a “Messianic spin,” I think we can include the entire population within the ekklesia of Messiah, the Jews and the Gentiles, at least for the sake of my example. While unity doesn’t require uniformity, we still are united with each other by love of the Moshiach, may he come swiftly and in our day.

Earlier in his email newsletter, the Rabbi wrote:

The Torah tells us to take four species: the Esrog, a citrus fruit with a pleasant taste and smell; the Lulav from a Date Palm which produces fruit but is not fragrant; Hadasim, myrtle branches which are aromatic but does not provide edible fruit; and aravos, from the willow, which has neither taste nor smell.

Consider the differences and the distinctions involved in each of the four species. What does a citrus fruit, a lulav, myrtle branches, and aravos from a willow have in common?

Not much apparently.

And yet all four of these highly different items are absolutely required for the observance of Sukkot as it is written:

Now on the first day you shall take for yourselves the foliage of beautiful trees, palm branches and boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days.

Leviticus 23:40 (NASB)

four species
Photo by Gili Cohen Magen

Those distinctively different objects are required to be bound together and, in essence, to “work together,” in order for Sukkot to be observed properly. While it’s impossible to offer the appropriate sacrifices related to Sukkot today due to a lack of the Temple and the Priesthood, the celebration is nevertheless observed by religious Jews and not a few believing Gentiles as well.

In a recent comment on one of my blog posts and then again in commenting on a different blog post, I said:

According to Jewish tradition, on the first seven of the eight days of the festival, we are to extend a special invitation to a specific guest in this order:

  1. Abraham, who represents love and kindness
  2. Isaac, who represents restraint and personal strength
  3. Jacob, who represents beauty and truth
  4. Moses, who represents eternality and dominance through Torah
  5. Aaron, who represents empathy and receptivity to divine splendor
  6. Joseph, who represents holiness and the spiritual foundation
  7. David, who represents the establishment of the kingdom of Heaven on Earth

Now before you think I’ve flipped for considering something so far-fetched, look at this:

“I say to you that many (Gentiles) will come from east and west, and recline at the table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven (meaning the Messianic Kingdom here on Earth established by Jesus upon his return)…”

Matthew 8:11

This at least suggests a sort of feast occurring during Sukkot in which we non-Jewish disciples of Christ will join the Jewish disciples in participating in the Sukkot festival with the greatest prophets, priests, and kings in the Bible, all in honor of King Messiah.

While I crafted the above quoted-statement to be easier for a traditional Christian to comprehend, I want all of us to understand that Jews and Gentiles will be together at the feast with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (and perhaps Moses, Aaron, Joseph, and David) to give glory and honor to King Messiah upon the establishment of his Kingdom. Maybe this will even happen on Sukkot, although of course, I can say that for sure.

Certainly the Prophets, Priests, and Kings represented by the Seven Ushpizin guests are not exactly alike, and although they exist within the unity of the Jewish people, they are not identical in type or function. So too it can be said that even though Jew and Gentile in the ekklesia of Messiah and as citizens in the Kingdom of Heaven have unity within that assembly, they also are not identical in type and function.

sukkotBut you won’t see Abraham, Moses, and David arguing about it, so why should we?

About twelve years ago, Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffman wrote a Sukkot commentary called “Shaking Up Our Priorities” which you can find at Torah.org. It’s worth the read and won’t take much of your time, but I’d like to quote just a part of it here:

One year, as he always did before Sukkos, R’ Yitzchak gathered his belongings, including all the rubles that he had put aside, and left home to travel to a nearby town where the Four Species could be bought. Travelling along the roadside, he stopped suddenly when he heard the sound of someone crying. Indeed, a Jewish man sat in a nearby field, head in his knees, crying and moaning bitterly. R’ Yitzchak approached him. “Reb Yid, what’s the matter?”

“Don’t even ask,” the Jew said, “a bittere pekel tzures – what a bitter portion the Almighty has dealt me! Woe is to me. I had one horse. That might not seem like much, but it was enough to support my family. It was a good horse. I rode it from town to town, delivering people’s mail, parcels – whatever they needed. I didn’t make a fortune, but we had what to eat, and we were happy. But today I awoke, and – woe is me – I found her dead. She must have passed away overnight. As it is, we live from hand to mouth. If I have to deliver by foot, I don’t stand a chance of making a living. Woe is me!”

“Tell me,” asked R’ Yitzchak, “what would a new horse cost you. I’m sure she was a good horse, but there are other horses out there.”

“Of course there are other horses, for someone who has 300 rubles to spend! It would take me almost a year to earn that kind of money! So you see, all is lost!”

Without further ado, R’ Yitzchak took out his wallet and counted out 300 rubles, leaving for himself only the smallest sum from all the money he had so carefully put aside. He placed it in the pocket of the forlorn Jew, who had all the while never taken his head out from between his knees. Sticking his hand into his pocket, he was flabbergasted to find the entire sum he needed to buy himself a new horse. “What… What have you done. I… I never expected.” Completely choked up with emotion, he barely managed to thank R’ Yitzchak for his magnanimity. Little did he know, R’ Yitzchak himself was not a rich man, and that he had just parted with the lion’s share of his own savings.

That year R’ Yitzchak had to settle for the plainest of Esrogim, much to the surprise and wonder of his friends and family. Despite their best attempts to find out, he told no one of what had come of his plans to purchase the most beautiful Esrog, nor of his savings, except to say, cryptically, that “the money was not lost – in fact it had just galloped off and was being put to very good use.”

If you are a (non-Jewish) Christian or otherwise are a person who does not observe Sukkot (or who does so in a rather casual manner), you won’t understand the tremendous significance involved in R’ Yitzchak’s generosity. In a sense, he had before him two apparently conflicting mitzvot. He could do as he had done every year and dedicate the more than 300 rubles it had taken him all year to save for the purchase of the most beautiful Esrog he could find in honor of the festival and God, or he could alleviate the sorrow of a Jew even poorer than he was by freely handing over his money for the purchase of a horse, and settle for the plainest Esrog he could still afford.

Again, from a Christian point of view (and probably the viewpoint of most people), the decision to help his fellow Jew seems clear, but remember, what is at stake is the honor of both God and of human beings at this Holy time of year.

Perhaps, even after performing tzedakah (charity) by giving up his Esrog money, R’ Yitzchak was still unsure that he did the right thing, for we find:

During Chol Ha-Moed (the Intermediate Days of Sukkos), R’ Yitzchak travelled to Lublin to visit his Rebbe, the famed Choize (Seer) of Lublin. At the festive Yom Tov meal, the Choize remarked to his disciples, “The mitzvah of Arba Minim must be performed with great joy. We must thank Hashem that we all managed to perform the mitzvah of waving the Lulav and Esrog. When we wave the mitzvos, all the Heavenly spheres and realms are awakened, and much joy and goodness permeate the upper realms, ultimately reflecting that joy and goodness back down to this world where we can reap its benefits. We all shook the Lulav and Esrog, but, R’ Yitzchak,” he said, turing as he did so to face him, “to wave a horse – now that is a truly original and exceptional way to perform a mitzvah!”

davening_morningChristians, most other non-Jews, and even some Jewish people often think of the Rabbinic Sages as inflexible, rule-bound, and even “anti-Bible” in considering halachah and Talmud as having any sort of authority when compared to the commandments clearly written in the Bible, but here we see that kindness, mercy, and “waving a horse” for Sukkot are not only original and exceptional ways to perform a mitzvah,” but deserving of special honor as expressing the heart of God.

In one of the commentaries for Tractate Yevamos 5 as collected and distributed in the Daf Yomi Digest by the Chicago Center for Torah & Chesed, we find the following based on “Each person shall fear his mother and father, and guard my Shabboses…”:

On today’s daf, we find that the Beraisa proposes that were it not for the verse, one might think that honoring parents overrides the Shabbos!

The famous Yehudi HaKadosh, zt”l, would deliver a regular Gemara shiur to his students that explored the commentary of Tosfos. One of his students was an extremely talented local boy who was unfortunately orphaned of his father. Once, the Rebbe interrupted their learning so that he could concentrate deeply on a certain subject. His young student knew well that such a break could last an hour or more, so he took advantage of the pause to go home and eat.

The boy ate a quick meal and hurried out back to his Rebbe’s home, but his mother called out after him that she wanted him to go up to the attic and bring something down for her. In his rush to return to study, he ignored her call, but half-way back the boy had second thoughts. “Isn’t the whole purpose of study to fulfill the mitzvos? Shouldn’t I honor my mother instead?” he asked himself. So he ran home and did as he was bid.

Afterward he returned to his studies, and as he opened the door to the Rebbe’s house, the Yehudi HaKadosh snapped out of his reverie and rose to his full height as a sign of respect. Beaming, the Yehudi HaKadosh asked, “What mitzvah have you just performed, because it has brought the spirit of the great Amorah Abaye with you into my house.”

The student told his story, and the Rebbe explained to the rest of the students: “It is well known that Abaye was an orphan—his name is an acronym of the verse, ‘For in You does the orphan find mercy.’ This is why his spirit accompanies a person who fulfills the mitzvah of honoring his parents—so that he should have a part in a mitzvah that was denied to him. You want to know why am I smiling? Because Abaye came and answered my question on the Tosafos!”

Again, this may not resonate with most people, including many Jews, but we see a comparison between the authority of a Rebbe over his young students and the mitzvah of honoring parents. It is said that a Rebbe is to be considered greater than one’s own father, so you can see that the young student put himself in a bind by going home to eat and then having to decide between his mother’s request and his obligation to promptly return to the Rebbe’s home.

MidrashIn choosing to honor his mother, he not only did the right thing from a human point of view, but he achieved a certain amount of respect from his Rebbe. Did “the spirit of the great Amorah Abaye” really accompany the boy to the Rebbe’s house and answer the Rebbe’s question on the Tosafos he had been pondering?

There’s no way to know for sure and probably no way to know if any of these events ever actually occurred. But whether or not they did, there’s a principle being taught here, the same principle as was taught in the previous Rabbinic story.

Even if we know nothing of the Torah, the mitzvot, or anything else, we know, or we should know as disciples of Rav Yeshua, our Rebbe, that extending mercy, kindness, compassion, and respect are the greater and loftier mitzvot, the acts of obedience and response to God that, even in moments of doubt, cannot fail.

I said in a comment last week that “if I’m going to err, I’d rather err on the side of humility”. I also quoted one of the Master’s parables:

And He began speaking a parable to the invited guests when He noticed how they had been picking out the places of honor at the table, saying to them, “When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for someone more distinguished than you may have been invited by him, and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give your place to this man,’ and then in disgrace you proceed to occupy the last place. But when you are invited, go and recline at the last place, so that when the one who has invited you comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will have honor in the sight of all who are at the table with you. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Luke 14:7-11

When we finally attend the “feast of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” and it will be a massive affair no doubt, I suppose seating arrangements will be a big problem. What are you going to do with all of the people who show up from all over the world to honor King Messiah and to actually recline at the table with men like Jacob and Joseph? Where should we sit?

In retrospect, and considering the example the Master laid out for us, the answer should be obvious. We should consider ourselves as having no honor of our own, but only seek to honor the King and those Seven Ushpizin guests who represent the Prophets, Priests, and Kings of Israel, and indeed, all the Jewish people. If we mistakenly think we are greater than they, won’t our host, Yeshua, be forced to embarrass us by asking us to take the last place at the table?

Ben Zoma says: Who is honored? The one who gives honor to others…

(Talmud – Avot 4:1)

As non-Jewish disciples of the Jewish Messiah King, if we seek to honor him and believe we are worthy of honor, respect, equality, and inclusion within the ekklesia, then both the teachings of the Master and of the great Sages are clear that to be honored, we must honor others, and not deliberately strive to honor ourselves.

UnityThe Master also teaches:

Jesus answered, “If I glorify Myself, My glory is nothing; it is My Father who glorifies Me, of whom you say, ‘He is our God'”

John 8:54

If our Rebbe and Master did not glorify himself, should we not follow his example? Will he not take the different “species” within the body and unite us, regardless of our extreme differences…or perhaps because of them, and in our honoring him, won’t he honor us?

Chag Sameach Sukkot.

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6 thoughts on “Who is Honored on Sukkot?”

  1. very well said James , from the heart. To me this is true teligion and reflects the heart of God. Thank you gut yontif.

  2. On the final day of Sukkot this week, I will most certainly open the door of my house to David, not having a sukkah, and invite him in. I want very much for the Messianic Age to be established. If I can catch a glimpse of that time to come upon the last day of the Feast of Sukkot, and invite my seventh day guest in, along with what his presence means, I may get a semblance of it a little more established in my own home, and while waiting for the real thing to come with Yehoshua, I can have shalom.

    Thank you, James.

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