Monthly Archives: September 2013

Succos: missing the whole point

As we lamented regarding Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, just think how different the world would be if everyone celebrating Succos (/Succot) – the Holiday of the Ingathering of the Crops – this week would be aware of the following two things:

Perhaps no song is heard on Succos more ubiquitously than “V’samachta b’chagecha [You shall rejoice in your festival].” But there’s actually a lot more to that verse:

You shall rejoice in your festival – you, your son, your daughter, your male servant, your female servant, the Levite, the resident alien, the orphan, and the widow who are within your gates (Deuteronomy 16:14).

The whole point of the holiday is: While you’re celebrating how wonderful it is that you can finally bring in your crops, after spending the last year planting them, harvesting them, drying them, threshing them, … and now you can finally enjoy the fruits of your labor, you need to make sure that those who have no land in which to grow their own crops are rejoicing like you are.

Just singing “You shall rejoice in your festival” misses the most important part!

The other thing is Ushpizin.  Many have the custom of reciting a text every night of Succos in which they “invite” the Ushpizin – the exalted “guests,” as the Kabbalistic legend has it that Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph, and David visit each person’s Sukkah every night.  But, as a good-hearted man in yeshiva showed me a few years ago, the whole point is that the idea of inviting the Ushpizin is simply a metaphor for inviting the poor!

Here is the magnificent source in the Zohar.  Notice the beautiful manner in which the author uses “their portion” to refer to the Ushpizin’s and the poor’s portions interchangeably, emphasizing that the Ushpizin merely represent the lofty status of the impoverished guests:

At the time when a person sits in this abode (the Sukkah), the shade of faith, the Shekhinah (divine presence) spreads its wings upon him from above, and Abraham and five other righteous ones set their place of dwelling with him.  Rabbi Abba said: Abraham and five other righteous ones and King David set their place of dwelling with him…. 

A person should rejoice every day with his face lit up with these guests who are dwelling with him….  And he [the host] should bring joy to the poor.  What’s the reason?  For the portion of those guests he has invited is the poor’s.  Whoever sits in this shade of faith and invites these exalted guests, guests of faith, and does not give them their portion, they all get up and say, “Do not eat the bread of a man who is stingy. Do not desire his delicacies (Proverbs 36:6).”  It is clear that table he has prepared is his and not the Holy One’s, blessed be He….  Woe is to such a person, when these guests of faith get up from his table.

Rabbi Abba said: Every day, Abraham would stand at the path of the travelers to invite guests and to prepare tables for them.  Now that there are those who invite him and all the righteous ones and King David and they [the hosts] do not give them their portions, Abraham gets up from the table and declares, “Depart, please, from the tents of these wicked men, and touch nothing of theirs (Numbers 16:25)….”

Rabbi Elazar said: The Torah has not burdened a person [to give] more than he is able, as it is written, “Every man shall give as he is able, according to the blessing of Hashem, your God, that He has given you (Deuteronomy 16:17).” [However,] let not a person say, “I shall eat and drink and be satiated first, and whatever is left over I shall give to the poor.”  Rather, the first of everything is the poor’s.  And if he brings joy to the poor and allows them to be satiated, the Holy One, blessed be He, rejoices with him; Abraham declares, “You will take delight by Hashem (Isaiah 58:14);” Isaac says, “No weapon fashioned against you will succeed (Isaiah 54:17);….”  Meritorious is the lot of such a person who has merited all this.                                                                                                              (Zohar, Emor, 276-281)

Reading a text to invite Abraham to your Sukkah misses the whole point!  The point is to invite Abraham et al by inviting poor and making them happy!

So we’ve shown, in this post and in the last two, that the most important and beautiful messages of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Succos have all been pushed aside.

How did this happen!!

UPDATE: Dov F just informed me of another wonderful source, courtesy of Rambam (Maimonides):

When a person eats and drinks [in celebration of a holiday], he is obligated to feed resident aliens, orphans, widows and others who are destitute and poor. In contrast, a person who locks the gates of his courtyard and eats and drinks with his children and his wife, without feeding the poor and the embittered, is [not indulging in] rejoicing associated with a mitzvah, but rather the rejoicing of his gut.                                  (Hilchot Shvitat Yom Tov 6:18)


The wrong Yom Kippur

Just think how different the world would be if all the Jews who are observing Yom Kippur this weekend would observe it the way the prophet Isaiah (chapter 58) taught:

1 “Cry aloud; do not hold back;

lift up your voice like a trumpet;

declare to my people their transgression,

to the house of Jacob their sins.

2 Yet they seek me daily

and delight to know my ways,

as if they were a nation that did righteousness

and did not forsake the judgment of their God;

they ask of me righteous judgments;

they delight to draw near to God.

3 [They say,] ‘Why have we fasted, and you see it not?

Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?’


[God responds] Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure,

and oppress all your workers.

4 Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight

and to hit with a wicked fist.

Fasting like yours this day

will not make your voice to be heard on high.


5 Is such the fast that I choose,

a day for a person to humble himself?

Is it to bow down his head like a reed,

and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him?

Will you call this a fast,

and a day acceptable to the Lord?


6 “Is not this the fast that I choose:

to loosen the bonds of wickedness,

to undo the straps of the yoke,

to let the oppressed go free,

and to break every yoke?

7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry

and bring the homeless poor into your house;

when you see the naked, to cover him,

and not to hide yourself from your own flesh [i.e. your family]?

8 Then shall your light break forth like the dawn,

and your healing shall spring up speedily;

your righteousness shall go before you;

the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.


9 Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;

you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’

If you take away the yoke from your midst,

the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness,

10 if you pour yourself out for the hungry

and satisfy the desire of the afflicted,

then shall your light rise in the darkness

and your gloom be as the noonday.


11 And the Lord will guide you continually

and satisfy your desire in scorched places

and make your bones strong;

and you shall be like a watered garden,

like a spring of water,

whose waters do not fail.

12 And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;

you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;

you shall be called the repairer of the breach,

the restorer of streets to dwell in.

If an atheist like me finds so much beauty and inspiration in this passage, why don’t all the Jews who will be spending their fast in synagogue the whole day?  If you think those words came from God, why aren’t you inspired to follow them more than I am?

So explain to me again how Yom Kippur ended up being observed in exactly the way that the prophet warns NOT to observe a fast day?