Celebrating SUKKOT 5780

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The Midrash chooses a very unusual way to describe the festive holiday of Sukkot.

Noting the Torah’s command to hold the arba’ah minim (four species) on “the first day” of the holiday, the Midrash comments that the first day of Sukkot marks “the first day of the accounting of sin.”  The common understanding of this mysterious remark is that our sins are atoned on Yom Kippur, and during the next several days, we are too preoccupied with the preparations for Sukkot to commit sins.  And thus, the onset of Sukkot marks what we might call “the new year of sins” – when we begin committing sins anew.

Can this really be what the Midrash means?  Were our sages so pessimistic as to assume that we would start sinning, and lose everything we achieved during the High Holiday period, once Sukkot begins?  And even if they were, is this really what Sukkot is all about, that they would describe it this way?

Some commentators therefore proposed a deeper interpretation of the Midrash’s comment, explaining that Sukkot brings us back to the very first sin – the sin of Adam and Havah in the garden of Eden.  On this holiday, we seek to correct the mistake they made, the sin they committed which resulted in the condemnation of all mankind for all time to a life of hardship and, ultimately, death.

But how is this done?  What connection is there between the celebration of Sukkot and the forbidden tree in Eden?  How do the mitzvot of this particular holiday reverse the catastrophic effects of Adam and Havah’s sin?

The Forbidden Tree

We begin our answer by noting a subtle nuance in the story of the forbidden tree.

When the snake approached Havah, and attempted to lure her to partake of this tree, it asked, “Is it true that Gd said, ‘You may not eat from any of the trees in the garden?’” (Beresheet 3:1).  Havah then immediately corrected the snake by explaining that they were allowed to eat “from the fruit of the trees of the garden,” and were forbidden from eating only from the one tree which was designated as off-limits.

Why would the snake make such a ludicrous claim – that Gd forbade Adam and Havah from partaking of any of the garden’s trees?  And how did the snake hope to persuade Havah to violate Gd’s command through this claim?

We might also wonder why the snake mentions only the trees of the garden, and says nothing about the fruit.  The snake told Havah that Gd forbade eating any of the trees, and Havah replied that Gd allowed them to eat all the “fruit” except that of the forbidden tree.  Why?

The Hida (Rav Haim Yosef David Azoulay, 1724-1806), in his work Rosh David, offers a fascinating interpretation, citing an insight of the Arizal (Rav Yitzhak Luria of Safed, 1534-1572) which he found in a manuscript written by his grandfather, Rav Avraham Azoulay.  He draws our attention to the first chapter of the Book of Beresheet, the story of creation, where we read of the creation of the world’s trees.  Gd pronounced that the earth should produce “etz peri – fruit trees” (1:11), but the Torah tells us that the earth instead produced “etz oseh peri – trees that produce fruit” (1:12).  This might not sound like a significant difference, but Rashi, citing the Midrash, comments that there was a very important difference between what Gd wanted and what the ground produced.  Gd wanted trees that would be entirely flavorful – that not only would produce tasty, nutritious fruit, but would also have flavor in the bark.  Even the trees’ bark was meant to be edible food.  But the ground disobeyed Gd, and instead of giving forth “etz peri” – trees that would be entirely tasty – it gave forth “etz oseh peri” – trees whose only nourishing component was its fruit.

Of course, we cannot understand what it means that the ground disobeyed Gd.  The ground is an inanimate object, which cannot make decisions on its own, and so we have no way of knowing the full intent of the Midrash cited by Rashi that speaks of the ground’s disobedience.  For our purposes, though, it suffices that Gd had intended for the trees to be made entirely of an edible substance, but the ground instead produced trees that would bear edible fruit and otherwise be inedible.

With this background, the Arizal suggested a brilliant explanation of the snake’s scheme.  The snake approached Havah and tried to convince her that Gd forbade not the fruit, but the tree.  It wanted Havah to believe that Gd allowed her to eat the delicious fruits of all the trees, including the forbidden tree.  It was only the barkof the trees that Gd forbade.

At first, Havah didn’t listen.  It is true that when Gd spoke to Adam, He told him that they must not eat “from the tree” (2:17), without mentioning the fruit.  However, Adam and Havah understood that this referred to the fruits – the only edible part of the tree – but not the bark.

However, the Torah says that Havah then saw “ki tov ha’etz lema’achal – that the tree was good for eating” (3:6).  The Arizal explained that Havah noticed something unusual about the forbidden tree – that the bark was itself edible and flavorful.  Whereas all the other trees in the garden had no taste other than in the fruit, this tree was special.  This was the one tree that was flavorful in its entirety, the way Gd had intended from the outset.  It seems that the ground betrayed Gd when producing its trees, producing trees with inedible bark – but it made one tree the way it was commanded, and this was the tree that Gd forbade upon Adam and Havah.

The peculiar quality of this tree got Havah thinking…

If this is the single tree that Gd forbade, and this is the single tree that has edible bark, then maybe the snake was correct.  When Gd said that she and Adam should not eat “from the tree” – maybe He meant that they must refrain from the special bark of this tree.  After all, why else would Gd single out this tree?  And why else would Gd not mention the word “fruit” in announcing this tree’s unique prohibited status?

She started putting two and two together…and tragically concluded that the snake was right, that Gd forbade eating only the bark of this special tree.  And so, she ate its fruit, and shared it with Adam – bringing great suffering upon mankind forever more.

Punishing the Ground

This explains also another anomaly of the story of the forbidden tree.

Returning to Rashi’s comments on the creation story, Rashi concludes that the ground was punished for disobeying Gd’s instructions.  After Adam and Havah’s sin, Gd placed a curse not only upon mankind, but also upon the earth.  He pronounced to Adam, “Cursed is the ground because of you!” (3:17).  The ground here received its due punishment for deviating from the command to produce trees that would be entirely flavorful.

The question is obvious.  Why wasn’t the ground punished immediately?  If Gd felt the ground was worthy of being cursed for producing the wrong kind of tree, then why did He delay this curse until after Adam and Havah’s sin?

In light of the Arizal’s analysis, we have an answer.  The ground was partly responsible for this catastrophe.  Had all the trees been created the way Gd had wanted, with flavor in the bark, the snake would not have been able to confuse Havah.  The confusion arose only because she noted the special quality of the forbidden tree – that its bark had taste.  If all the trees had this quality, she would never have made any mistake, and would have assumed – correctly – that Gd forbade the entire tree, both its bark and its fruit.

And so, it turns out that the ground’s disobedience is partly to blame for Adam and Havah’s sin.  While it might not have seemed like much of a big deal to have tasteless bark, it was a VERY big deal – because it caused Havah to misunderstand Gd’s command, leading to tragic consequences from which we still suffer even today, thousands of years later.

The Spies’ Fateful Arrogance

Part of reason why the Jewish Nation was created was to correct the sin of Adam and Havah, and thereby eliminate, at least in some way, the devastating curse that befell the earth after this sin.  By strictly obeying Gd’s commands, we correct Adam and Havah’s disobeying the single command they were given.  We then help bring the world back to “Eden,” to the serene, peaceful, blessed condition that was lost.  To achieve this purpose, Gd brought us to the Land of Israel, where He would provide for us ample vegetation – like in Gan Eden – and we would live as Adam and Havah were supposed to live, faithfully obeying Gd’s laws and in return receiving His bountiful blessings.

If so, then we can gain a clearer understanding of another tragic story told in the Humash – the story of the spies, who were sent to scout the Land of Israel in advance of Beneh Yisrael’s entry into the land.

When we read the story of the spies, it is hard to overlook the unusual emphasis placed on the land’s fruits.  Moshe specifically instructed the spies to examine the trees of Eretz Yisraeland to bring back samples of its fruit (Bamidbar 13:20).  The Torah takes great pains to tell us of how the spies took some grapes, figs, and pomegranates from the Land of Israel and showed them to the people upon their return to the camp (Bamidbar 13:23,26-27).  What is so important about the land’s fruits?  Were the fruits going to arouse the people’s excitement?  Is this what makes the Land of Israel so special – its grapes, figs, and pomegranates?

A remarkable explanation is offered by the work Imreh Yosef.  He explains that as the purpose of the nation’s settlement of the Land of Israel is to correct the sin of Adam and Havah, the fruit of the land of Israel is, ideally, to be the way all trees in the world were supposed to have been – with flavor in the bark!  As the cause of the sin was the ground’s disobedience – the reversal of the sin’s effects includes the reversal of the ground’s betrayal of Gd, such that the trees are made of tasty bark, as originally intended.

This is what Moshe wanted the spies to see, and to show the people – that even the bark of the trees in the Land of Israel had flavor!

The Imreh Yosefexplains on this basis why the Torah describes the spies as cutting both a zemorah(branch) and a cluster of grapes (Bamidbar 13:23).  They brought back not just grapes – but also a branch, a piece of bark, in order to show the people that in Eretz Yisrael, the curse is reversed, the world returns to its initial idyllic condition!

Alas, the spies failed.  The Torah continues, “vayisa’uhu,” which literally means, “they carried it,” or “they lifted it.”  But the Imreh Yosefexplains that the spies “lifted” themselves, feeling proud and conceited over their status of distinction.  And as a result of their arrogance, the Torah continues, “bamot bishnayim” (“with a stick, with two”) – the branch and the fruit became “two,” separate and apart.  Nothing can ever be achieved through arrogance and conceit.  And so, once the spies began priding themselves, the Land of Israel lost its special idyllic quality – and the bark once again lost its flavor.

The Etrog

With this background, we can return to the celebration of Sukkot and gain deeper insight into the significance of this holiday.

The Torah refers to the etrog with the term peri etz hadar – literally, “a beautiful fruit of a tree.”  But the Gemara infers from the words “peri etz” that the etrog tree has a unique quality – “the flavor of its bark and fruit are the same.”  The taste of the etrog can be sensed even in the bark of the etrog tree. 

This means that the etrog tree resembles the forbidden tree in Gan Eden, and represents the ideal world to which we aspire, the world which Gd intended at the time of creation.

We have thus arrived at a new, exciting perspective on the celebration of Sukkot.  After going through the difficult but exhilarating period of repentance, beginning from Rosh Hodesh, through the period of Selihot, followed by Rosh Hashanah and the Ten Days of Repentance, culminating with the intensity of Yom Kippur, we now anticipate the ultimate tikkun(rectification), the world’s long-awaited return to its ideal state of perfection.  We leave the High Holidays uplifted, encouraged and inspired, confident that we are on our way to absolute tikkun, to seeing the universe perfected.  And so, we celebrate with an etrog, which represents the ideal world that we have never known but we very much look forward to experiencing.

Sukkot is the “first day of the calculation of sin,” the day when we seek to once and for all eliminate the effects of the first sin.  Having just repented and eliminated our sins, we look forward to the time when all human sin will be erased – including the very first sin, in Gan Eden.

The Ground’s Mistake

As mentioned, we cannot fully understand what it means that the earth made the conscious decision to disobey Gd and produce a different kind of tree than it was commanded to produce.  But leaving this question aside, we might ask, why did it deviate from Gd’s command?  Why didn’t it simply produce the kind of trees it was supposed to produce?

Rav Avraham Yehoshua Heschel of Apta (1748-1825) explained that the ground had “altruistic” motives for its disobedience.  Knowing that man would be created from the earth, the earth decided to commit a sin so that man would have an excuse, of sorts, for his own sins.  We human beings can come before Gd and say: “We were created from the flawed earth, which itself sinned.”  Indeed, we cry in the Avinu Malkenuprayer, “Our Father and King, remember that we are but earth.”  We plead to Gd to recognize that we came from the earth, which had betrayed Him, and for this reason we are inherently flawed creatures, worthy of compassion and forgiveness.

This is a beautiful insight, one which certainly gives us a good deal of encouragement when we reflect upon our flaws, our mistakes, and our failures.  We are only human, created from the earth, and Gd lovingly and compassionately takes this into account when He judges us.

But let us not forget – the ground was punished, and even cursed, for its disobedience.  Altruistic as its motives were, they did not excuse the decision to disobey Gd, or the earth’s responsibility for the grave consequences of its disobedience.  Even if one is driven by lofty and noble ambitions, this does not mean that his actions are correct and proper.  We must not just mean well, but also act well– and this requires educating ourselves and thinking very carefully to determine the right thing to do.  Sincere motives do not automatically make our actions correct.

May Hashem always help us in our efforts to ensure that our noble intentions lead us to noble conduct, that we not only want to do the right thing, but also actually do the right thing, amen.