Apocalyptic Sukkot!

By Jean Gerber

Eating in the sukkah, whether at your home or at the synagogue, is such a lovely way to spend a warm late summer day or evening. How relaxing, how joyful. Sukkot indeed was the big pilgrimage holiday in ancient times. It was simply The Hag, and the scene of great celebration and sacrifices in the Temple.

It is the only holiday on which we are commanded to Rejoice! By waving the lulav and etrog, fine symbols of fertility and abundance, we have a faint picture of what it was like when the Temple stood and pilgrims crowded into Jerusalem for this most festive of festivals. Now we make Pesach the Big One, but two thousand years ago it was Sukkot that had all the pomp and majesty.

If you are in Jerusalem at the end of Sukkot you can go down to the spring outside the walls and see really amazing dancing and singing, the Ceremony of Drawing Water. It’s just enough of a whiff of long-ago pagan ceremonies to entice the rains to fall; or, to bring us closer to the promise of redemption.

But read the haftarot associated with the holiday and things turn a bit darker, like the music that accompanies a TV mystery: first you see a sun-filled meadow, then the camera pans to a dead body and the music darkens.

Let’s look at the haftarah from Zechariah for the first day of Sukkot. “A day of the Lord is coming, when… the city [Jerusalem] shall be captured, the houses plundered, and the women violated.” That’s frightening, not joyful.

Valleys will be uplifted, the Mount of Olives will split from east to west, and a terrible earthquake will shake the city. There is plague and punishment for all those who refuse to come up to Jerusalem to celebrate The Holiday.

Or go to the second day of Sukkot. We read about Solomon dedicating the Temple, smoke, and incense filling the sanctuary with clouds so that the priests cannot perform the sacrifices.

On the intermediate Shabbat (Ezekiel 38-39) God warns “in my blazing wrath: on that day, a terrible earthquake shall befall the land of Israel” when Gog sets his invading foot on the soil of Israel. Lots of dead bodies accumulate before they are all buried and the land is purified from its horrors.

It’s not until Shemini Atzeret that calm is restored and Solomon can send the people back to their homes after the dedication of his Temple is complete. Finally, at Simchat Torah, we read about the crossing into the promised land of Israel, the tribes being led by the warrior Joshua.

Why are such apocalyptic prophecies attached to our time of rejoicing?

Whenever the Rabbi asks, “What is the meaning of [insert holiday here]?” the standard and repetitive answer is, “Redemption and the messianic era!” But here is the correct answer. Sukkot really does ask us to consider what that day of judgment will entail, what upheavals those in the land of Israel (and those outside it) may suffer before redemption is accomplished.

We have just endured several years of a noxious plague that has killed millions and is still lurking. The natural disasters of 2022 closer to home—fires, floods, hurricanes, and more—make us all too aware of how fragile we can be in the face of Mother Nature.

May I suggest that these terrifying images of war and destruction offer a not-so-subtle lesson to us of what we can expect when we anticipate that messianic era.

I do not suggest at all that we shouldn’t rejoice at Sukkot—on the contrary, rejoicing at the holiday is one of the three mitzvot associated with the holiday: sitting in the sukkah and taking the lulav and etrog being the other two.

And when we recite the Grace After Meals, just in case we missed the message, we get an extra hint: we pray for the restoration of the “fallen Sukkah of David”, for our Once and Future King to lead us into that messianic era.

Sukkot is a time of joy and of course lots of eating. It becomes even more meaningful if we see it as an entrance to the messianic era: despite the upheavals that may precede it, perhaps redemption is just around the corner.