My beloved readers, of course, I wrote this post a few weeks before the war (it feels like an eternity ago), and even in the worst nightmare nobody could then have imagined the horrific attack that happened on October 7th and all that would unfold (and continues to unfold) after that. It’s really hard to read it now, knowing what happened on Simchat Torah and living in the tense and almost surreal reality of Israel today. Yet, after many doubts, I still decided to publish this post. First, I want my readers to know that these unspeakable and unimaginable atrocities of Hamas were committed on the day that, according to the Lord’s calendar, was supposed to be one of the most joyful days of the year.Also, because of the last Torah portion that is always read on Simchat Torah, now, in hindsight, how dramatically these words resonate: “Hear, Lord, the voice of Judah!”. So, here is the post that was supposed to tell you about the joy of Sukkot and Simchat Torah.
What is so special about Sukkot?
Sukkot, or the Feast of Tabernacles, is the last of the “solemn assemblies” of Tishrei, the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar. I suppose, for many Christians around the world, the Feast of Tabernacles is the most familiar of all the Jewish Festivals: thousands of Christians come to Israel and to Jerusalem to celebrate this Feast! There is a lot of joy in all these Christian celebrations of Sukkot – but do you know that Sukkot is defined as a Festival of Joy, zman simchateinu (literally, “the time of our joy”)? Scripture commands us explicitly to be joyful during Sukkot:
13 Celebrate the Festival of Tabernacles for seven days after you have gathered the produce of your threshing floor and your winepress. 14 Be joyful at your festival—you, your sons and daughters, your male and female servants, and the Levites, the foreigners, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns. 15 For seven days celebrate the festival to the Lord your God at the place the Lord will choose. For the Lord your God will bless you in all your harvest and in all the work of your hands, and your joy will be complete.
Why? What is so special about Sukkot? According to Jewish tradition, on Yom Kippur, God forgave His people after their terrible sin of Golden Calf and Moses came back with the second set of tablets. However, it is only at Sukkot, that God’s presence came back to abide among His people; it’s only at Sukkot that Divine presence covered the hand-made booths. This is the mystery and the joy of Sukkot – the mystery and the joy of God’s return and of renewed fellowship. That is why Sukkot is indeed the holiday of divine intimacy and divine presence; that is why Sukkot is called zman simchateinu, the Season of our Joy—because God, in His mercy, came to tabernacle with His people!
In Jewish texts, we find two different approaches regarding the symbolism of the sukkah – these booths that we are commanded to live in: “You shall dwell in booths for seven days. All who are native Israelites shall dwell in booths, that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”. According to the first one, since the people of Israel actually built little huts in the wilderness to protect themselves, we are commanded to build sukkot (plural from sukkah) in order to remember those huts in the wilderness; but according to the second approach, sukkot symbolize the divine clouds that God protected His children with in the wilderness—the Clouds of Glory that miraculously surrounded the Jews for the forty years they spent in the desert. United, these two approaches reflect Israel’s twofold experience in the wilderness—both extremely difficult and extremely glorious: living in humble huts but lead and covered by God’s Glory!
Let Us Make Here Tabernacles …
We also find a hint of this “Clouds of Glory” concept in the New Testament. You would know one of the most beautiful stories in the Gospels—the account of the transfiguration. All the synoptic Gospels describe Jesus going to the mountain and being transfigured there—shining “like the sun” and talking to Moses and Elijah. The whole scene presents a beautiful picture of heavenly glory. And what is the reaction of the apostles witnessing this scene? All of a sudden Peter suggests that they should build tabernacles: “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if You wish, let us make here three tabernacles: one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” At first glance, it sounds like a very strange, unexpected suggestion! Where did it come from?
It is only in the light of that second approach that we just spoke about – that sukkah is a powerful symbol of the divine presence – that we understand the reason why Peter offered to build sukkot. He was referring to this traditional symbol and trying to express the glory of God’s presence he was experiencing!
The Last Portion
The joy of Sukkot reaches its peak during Simchat Torah. Simchat Torah (lit. The Joy of Torah) is a holiday that marks the conclusion of the annual cycle of public Torah reading. We complete the cycle, and immediately begin the new cycle, reading from the first Torah Portion – Bereshit. In previous years, I wrote a lot about this first portion; today, lets’ talk about the last Torah Portion which concludes Deuteronomy and is also read on Simchat Torah – V’zot HaBrachah (Deut. 33, 34).
We are in Deuteronomy 33. Just as Jacob had blessed his sons before his death, so does Moses now bless the tribes of Israel. Of course, from a New Testament perspective, the most important blessing is the blessing of Judah, because it is from the tribe of Judah that Jesus came! According to the book of Hebrews, Jesus coming from the tribe of Judah, not from the tribe of Levi, signifies a change from the Old to the New Covenant – but you won’t be able to comprehend the full meaning of this change if you don’t understand the blessing that Moses gives to the tribe of Judah before his death.
“Hear, Lord, the voice of Judah,
And bring him to his people;
Let his hands be sufficient for him,
And may You be a help against his enemies.”
Every word of this blessing is highly meaningful! First of all, it starts with the word “Listen” – Shema – the same word that opens “the Shema”, the most sacred and solemn Jewish prayer. Here we read: Shema Adonai – Hear Lord! Undoubtedly, this solemn beginning marks this blessing as especially significant.
“Hear, Lord, the voice of Judah”. Most of the commentators interpret this line in a sense that the Lord would hear the prayers of Judah’s descendants, starting from David and Solomon; and of course, I would agree with that. However, if we remember that New Testament speaks of Jesus interceding in Heaven for believers before the Father, we would realize that there an additional layer of prophetic significance in these words: “Hear, Lord, the voice of Judah”.
Then, we have this very enigmatic sentence: “And bring him to his people”. The most famous Medieval Jewish commentator, Rashi, interprets: “bring him home in peace, from a war” (we know that David, for instance, was often involved in military campaigns); but once again, it seems to me that these words imply much more. This blessing becomes extremely profound if we juxtapose these words with the words of John: “He came to his own, and his own received him not”! In the light of these words, the blessing of Moses sounds much more significant than just “bringing him home in peace”.
Finally, in the book of Revelation, Jesus is described as “the lion of the tribe of Judah” (see also Gen. 49:9), and here we also see the “conquering” side of Judah: Moses is prophesying of this tribe as overcoming, with God’s help, his enemies.
“Let his hands be sufficient for him,
And may You be a help against his enemies.”
The descendant of the tribe of Judah, who overcomes his enemies with God’s help, whose voice God listens to and who will be brought to his people! I think, once again we have clear evidence that one really needs to know the Torah and Tanach (the Old Testament) in order to understand the New Testament.