There is a fascinating discussion in the Talmud (BT Kiddushin 31a) about which person is on a higher spiritual level, the one who is commanded to do mitzvot (commandments) and does them, or the one who is NOT commanded to do mitzvot and volunteers to do them. You might think that the person who volunteers to do mitzvot is on a higher level because he is doing them out of his own free will. But the Talmud decides that it is in fact the person who is commanded to do mitzvot and actually does them that is on the higher spiritual level.
The rabbis of the Talmud understood human nature and knew that we all have a natural inclination to resist commands given to us. I am sure that every parent or educator reading this can fully understand this concept, and all of us can relate to it on some level. But for a people governed by a series of laws and commands, this discussion in the Talmud reveals a worldview that both respects and admires people who manage to follow the commands that we believe God gave us, and to do so in a meaningful way.
Sukkot is a holiday that teaches us the value of living a life of meaning and following through on our obligations (another way to understand commandments) amidst the tumult of the “everyday” world of work, school, and life pressures. The three pilgrimage festivals – Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot – are all connected and they share certain observances and practices. But more important than any liturgical connection, the themes of the three holidays come together to create the flavor of the Jewish year.
Passover defines the Jewish people. The degradation we felt at being slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, as well as the jubilation we felt at being redeemed from slavery by God, have forever marked the people of Israel. Shavuot, the holiday on which we celebrate the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, confirms the covenant between God and the Jewish people. The covenant illustrates our commitment to persist in this world until our hope for a world redeemed by God is realized.
And Sukkot, the third pilgrimage holiday, teaches us how we are to live our lives until that dream occurs. It teaches us how we are to actually get from here (the unredeemed world) to there (the redeemed world).
Both Passover and Sukkot are about the exodus from Egypt. Passover reenacts the great event of liberation and Sukkot celebrates what happens the day after all of the excitement dies down. While the exodus from Egypt, and God’s role in that exodus, obviously deserve a holiday of commemoration, is it so obvious that our forty years in the desert should be marked or remembered at all? After all, aside from the revelation of the Torah at Mt. Sinai, which has its own holiday (Shavuot), the people of Israel spent much of the time in the desert complaining and revolting against God. Do we really need to celebrate this time in Israelite history? Maybe we would be better served to put it behind us and forget it ever happened?
The answer is, yes, we do need to celebrate this time in Israelite history. And the reason why we need to celebrate this time in our people’s history is not only to remember our past, but also because this time period can teach us something about our own lives as well.
The story of the Exodus is a story filled with great drama, events like the ten plagues and the splitting of the Red Sea. But when the great drama of the exodus was over, the daily routine of life almost overwhelmed the Israelites.
The long, hard journey through the desert is marked by many physical dangers, but the most treacherous part of the journey is the danger that the Israelites will lose faith, that the routine of life in the desert and the boredom of the daily grind will prevent them from remaining close to God. The story of the Israelites in the desert teaches us a lesson that we know intuitively, that it is easier to believe in God and to act in the way that God demands of you the day after you witness the sea in front of you splitting in half, or a few weeks after you see the Nile River turn to blood right in front of your eyes. But to remain close to God years later, that is not easy. Miracles, it turns out, do not work as a long-term impetus for following the mitzvot. The fact that the Israelites remained close to God, that some of them revolted, and many of them complained, but that as a community they kept their covenant with God, is definitely worth celebrating.
Without Sukkot, the holiday cycle would be incomplete. We would have the dream of a redeemed world that we gain from Passover and the knowledge that we need to be patient as we wait for the future that we gain from Shavuot, but that is where we would be left. Sukkot tells us how to get there. Sukkot tells us that life is about a balance between happiness and desperation, between being strong and being vulnerable, between relying on ourselves and relying on God, who took us out of Egypt. Sukkot is about today. Sukkot is about a journey through the desert, with the Torah leading the way, showing us how to get from where we are, to where we are going.