Sukkot: The victory lap of the holiday races

by | Oct 3, 2014 | Torah Thought

Listening closely to the reading from the second Torah scroll this past Rosh Hashanah, you would have come across a puzzling reference: “On the first day of the seventh month” (Numbers 29:1)… If this is the New Year, then why isn’t it the first month? Why the seventh month?

The answer takes us back to Babylonia. In that region, a fully developed religious calendar treated the autumn as the New Year. The first part of the month was devoted to repentance and fasting, and then, by the full moon, the mood turned to celebration and feasting. The ancients believed that in the first part of that month, their gods were deciding whether or not to renew their lease on life. By the 15th of the month, they believed, the powers they worshiped had indeed given them permission to go on. (Interested readers can learn more about this in Theodore Herzl Gaster, Thespis.)

We are the Children of Israelites, not Babylonians. Our first month, as we know from Exodus 12, is the springtime month, the month of Passover. The autumnal equinox is therefore the middle of our seventh month. But when our people, still in the formative era of our religion, was exiled to Babylon, we synthesized the majority’s calendar with our own distinctive monotheism, and the seventh-month “day of shofar sounding” developed into our solemn New Year, where the Holy One judges every human and determines our destiny.

This religious adjustment worked well with the full moon festival, Sukkot. In ancient Israel, as in ancient Babylon, it was a peak time of rejoicing. The Bible commands, in connection with Sukkot, “You shall be especially joyful” (Deuteronomy 16:15).

The seventh month, in Babylon as in Israel, was the month of the Harvest Moon. The successful completion of the harvest, before rains could spoil the crops in the field, was a time to rejoice, whatever one’s religious system may have been. It is a universal emotion.

But Judaism, true to its genius, put a special interpretation on this basic human experience. For us, not only is Sukkot the time to thank God for the harvest, but also the time to celebrate God’s watchful care during our sojourn in the wilderness, after the Exodus from Egypt. The Jew knows God not only from nature, but also from history.

Sukkot comes at the end of the High Holidays. There is a time for awe and a time for joy. God reigns; God cares; God redeems. We respond by opening our hearts, sharing our food, caring for the needy, and leaving our permanent buildings to dwell that much more in contact with God’s blue sky.

Enjoy the victory lap of the autumn holidays! Happy Sukkot!

—Rabbi Michael Panitz, Temple Israel