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You shall make the Festival of Tabernacles for a seven-day period, when you gather in your produce from your threshing floor and from your winepress. You shall rejoice on your festival… and you will be completely joyful (16:13-15).
This section on the Festival of Tabernacles is the last of the three small sections in the Book of Deuteronomy concerned with the Festivals.
The Talmud derives from the words: 'You shall make the Festival of Tabernacles… when you gather in your produce from your threshing floor and winepress', that the covering of the sukka - the sechach - is made out of materials that actually share the characteristics of produce from the threshing floor and the winepress. Thus, it must be made out of natural, untreated materials of plant origins. In addition, the covering must be cut off from its source bush or the tree - in that sense it is 'harvested' (Rosh Hashanah 13a). If the branches are not 'harvested' the sechach is invalid: as the Talmud states, 'If a person builds a sukka under a tree it is invalid: it is as though he built it in his own house' (Sukka 9b).
The above leads to two questions:
1. Why must the twigs be cut off from their source of growth before they become valid for sechach?
2. Why does the Torah, on three occasions, state that one must be happy on the Feast of Tabernacles? It says so twice in this section (You shall rejoice on your festival… and you will be completely joyful), and once elsewhere (You shall rejoice before the L-rd your G-d for seven days - Lev. 23:40). There is no explicit requirement to be happy on Passover: there is on Pentecost, but it is only mentioned once (16:11).
The simple answer to the latter question is given by the Da'at Zekeinim mi-Baalei ha-Tosafot (c12-c13). From the point of view of the annual harvest cycle, on Passover there is less to be happy about, on Pentecost there is more, but Tabernacles brings the greatest source of satisfaction. For on Passover, the reaping of the grain just begins. By Pentecost, the grain is in, but the plantations and orchards are still waiting to ripen and be harvested. The time to really rejoice and be grateful for the year's produce is on the Feast of Tabernacles: by which time the entire year's harvest has been gathered in.
If rejoicing must be complete, why does the Torah invalidate the use of 'complete' plants - i.e. attached to the ground or the tree - for use as sechach? Would they not be more beautiful, and give a greener look? Once branches and leaves are detached from their source of growth, they shrink, wither, and turn a more unsightly brown - symbolizing decay and death, rather than growth and prosperity.
A clue may be found in looking at the words ve-hayita ach sameach (16:15). Although this is generally translated 'you will be completely joyful', Rabbeinu Bachya (1263-1340) interprets the word in the more Talmudic sense as meaning 'you will be joyful, but (literal translation of ach) that joy has its limits'. One should of course be happy on the Feast of Tabernacles, but that exhilaration ought not to get out of hand, and certainly not degenerate into ribaldry. One should remember that one's stay in this life is only temporary, and that the real joy is the eternal one in the World to Come when, 'seeing the Face of the Divine Presence and having all needs provided for, continuously and abundantly.'
This happiness - of 'serving the Almighty with joy' (Psalms 100:2), but at the same time 'with fear' (ibid. 2:11) and respect is illustrated with the Talmud's description of the Temple ceremony of the Drawing of the Water on the Feast of Tabernacles - focussed on the service of G-d:
'He who has not seen the rejoicing at the place of the water-drawing has never seen rejoicing in his life. At the conclusion of the first festival day of Tabernacles…they made a great ceremony. There were… golden candlesticks with four golden bowls on the top of each of them and four ladders to each, and four youths drawn from the priests in whose hands were held jars of oil containing one hundred and twenty measures, which they poured into the bowls. With lighted torches in their hands, they sung songs and praises. (Sukka 51a,b)… They said of R. Simeon b. Gamaliel that when he rejoiced at the Rejoicing at the place of the Water-Drawing, he used to take eight lighted torches [and throw them in the air] and catch one and throw one and they did not touch one another'(ibid. 53a).
The wrong sort of joy and ensuing disorder is typified by the seventeenth century English diarist, Samuel Peyps. On visiting a London synagogue on the Rejoicing of the Law after Tabernacles, he wrote of:
'…the disorder, laughing, sporting and not attention, but confusion in all their service, more like brutes than people knowing the true G-d, would make a man forswear ever seeing them more: and indeed I never did see so much, or could have imagined that there had been any religion in the whole world so absurdly performed as this.'
This also explains the reason why the sechach is made out or materials that wither. Looking at the sechach reminds a person of the temporary nature of joy on this Earth, and of Man's temporary stay on this Earth. This must not be forgotten even when everything seems to be complete and perfect - as with a good harvest in time for Tabernacles. As the prayer of R. Amnon - recited in the Ashkenazi rite on the High Holidays - states:
Man comes from dust and ends in dust; he wins his bread at the risk of his life. He is like the potsherd that breaks, the grass that withers, the flower that fades… the dream that flies away…
However, the joy can become permanent when used in the service of the Almighty and Man - as the penultimate verse of Ecclesiastes states:
Fear God, and keep his commandments; for this is the whole duty of Man (Eccl. 12:13).
Rashi explains that means that all one's actions and endeavors should be in order to fulfil the Will of G-d. That is the challenge of the Feast of Tabernacles - to be ach sameach - to enjoy it, within the guidelines of 'finding favor and good understanding in the eyes of G-d and Man' (Prov. 3:4). And the 'eyes of G-d' include reward for good deeds in the World to Come.
QUESTIONS ON THE TEXT AND COMMENTARIES OF PARASHAT RE'EH
1. 'See! Today I am putting before you a blessing and a curse (11:8). What is this 'blessing' and 'curse', according to (a) Rashi and (b) the Ramban?
2. After the Israelites are instructed to destroy objects of Canaanite idolatry, Moses tells them 'not to do likewise to… G-d' (12:4). What is the meaning of that seemingly obvious prohibition according to the two explanations given by Rashi?
3. Why is the prohibition of eating blood preceded with words 'Be strong' (12:23), according to Rashi?
4. What is the connection between the prohibition of following practices of pagan nations (12:29-31), and the one that immediately follows it - against adding to the laws of the Torah (13:1) - according to the S'forno?
5. How may a settlement qualify as an 'ir hanidachat' - 'doomed city'?
6. Why, according to the S'forno, are the Israelites called 'G-d's children' specifically where they are prohibited from self-mutilation in mourning for a dead person? (14:1)
7. In which two ways does the Midrash Tanhuma explain the words 'aser ta'aser' - 'you must surely tithe'? (14:22)
8. From where do the Rabbis learn that 'charity starts at home'?
9. From where may it be learnt that having an Israelite slave may indeed be compared to having an Israelite master?
10. Why, according to Hirsch, is the last day of Passover called 'atzeret' - an 'assembly'? (16:8)
ANSWERS TO QUESTIONS ON THE TEXT AND COMMENTARIES OF PARASHAT RE'EH
1. According to Rashi, the 'blessing' and 'curse', was that which would be given on Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal after Moses' death. The choice was set out here - the details of the elaborate ceremony are brought later in 27:11-16, and the event was recorded to have taken place in Joshua 8. The Ramban, however, understands this passage in general terms - those who kept the Commandments would be blessed and those who did not would be cursed.
2. The simple explanation is that the Israelites were not permitted to offer incense wherever the pleased (as was the Canaanite pagan practice), but such worship of G-d was only to take place where He chose. Homiletically, Moses was warning the Israelites not to turn Divine worship into idolatry, so that they would not merit the same ultimate fate as the Canaanites.
3. Rashi brings two opinions. One is that that the Israelites needed special encouragement as they had a predilection to eating blood. The other view holds the opposite - if one has to be strong, and is assured of a long life for not eating blood which is generally most unappetizing, how much more does the same apply to commandments forbidding unjust gain of money and forbidden sexual relations, which 'the soul of man craves'.
4. The S'forno holds that this connection is meant to teach the following. Certain pagan practices may seem attractive enhancers of the Torah way of life and worthy of being followed. However, the Torah forbids adding them to its teachings - what may appear attractive to Man can be abhorrent to G-d.
5. A settlement needs the following to qualify as an 'ir hanidachat' - a 'doomed city'? Based on 13:14 and Talmud Sanhedrin 111b, the city only reaches such a status if the inciters to idolatry were male local people from that city, who perverted most of the entire male population of that city into idolatry.
6. Death is not final - it is merely where the soul separates from the body and takes a different form. Therefore the dead should not be mourned excessively - exemplified by the prohibition of self-mutilation.
7. Both explanations are directed at those who delay giving what is due to others. The first explanation links 'you must tithe' with the 'you must not cook a young goat in its mother's milk' of the preceding verse. If one does not give to others what the Torah requires, He will see to it that that person will go short of food - the small grains ['kids'] will be 'cooked' by the harsh winds which burn the 'mother' - the husks containing and nourishing ['milk'] the small grains. The second explanation is a play on 'aser ta'aser' which relates that word to 'wealth' - meaning 'Tithe, so that you will become rich.' And G-d will not allow anyone who gave his dues to suffer financially because of it.
8. The Torah states that one must open one's hand to 'your brother' and only then to 'the poor in your land'. (15:11) This order suggests that those nearest come first.
9. This is derived from where the Torah considers the possibility that the Hebrew slave will not wish go free at the end of his term 'because it is good for him with you'. (15:16) The Talmud (Kiddushin 20a) uses this source to state that the living and working conditions of the slave must at least be as good as those of his master - he should not eat black bread whilst the master eats white…
10. Hirsch derives that the last day of the festival is the time when a person should do an 'atzeret' - a 'gathering' - of his thoughts from the festival. The last day should bring the entire experience to a spiritual climax to such a degree that it will stay with him after the festival is over.
ADDITIONAL QUESTION ON PARASHAT RE'AH.
A person who refuses to grant a deserving person a loan for fear that its repayment will be legally cancelled by the Shemitta (Sabbatical) year is described as beliyaal - 'lawless' (15:9). The only other place in the Torah where that expression is used is in connection with the Ir Hanidachat (the 'doomed city') - to describe a group of people who purposely perverted an Israelite city's population into idol worship (13:14). What is the connection between idolatry and failure to help those in need?
My attempts to answer the above may be found on the Shema Yisrael website under Re'ah 5762
Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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