This week, Jews around the world are celebrating the holiday of Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles). This holiday has become my favorite holiday of the year. I love sitting outside in the Sukkah (temporary dwelling) with a good book and some hot coffee, feeling connected to God.
But for such a beautiful holiday, Sukkot has a rather weak rationale. The Sukkah is meant to remind us of the miracle of the Clouds of Glory that led the Jewish people through the desert so many years ago. This is certainly very beautiful, but there were many miracles that took place in the desert. God provided manna from heaven and water from a rock, He sweetened the waters at Marah (Exodus 15:22-25) and ensured the Israelites’ clothes would not wear out during the forty-year trek through the desert. The whole desert experience was one great array of miracles!
Why, then, did God establish the holiday of Sukkot to remember the Clouds of Glory in particular? What is unique about that miracle that makes it more memorable than any other aspect of the desert experience? Why is this miracle worthy of a holiday?
As a kid, whenever I would hear about a house burning down, after it was clear that nobody was hurt the first question was always: “Were the photo albums destroyed? Were they able to save their pictures?” Photo albums, and particularly old photo albums, are so precious and valuable because we cherish the memories of our youth. They bring us back to some of our most beautiful moments.
If this is true of human beings and the relationships that we share with each other, this idea must be rooted in something even deeper – in the relationship that we share with our Father in Heaven.
God, of course, remembers everything that has ever happened in human history. But which “photo albums” from the history of our relationship with Him does He love to look at most? What are God’s favorite memories?
The holiday of Sukkot is the answer to that question. The defining words of this holiday are the words found in Jeremiah 2:2:
“I have remembered the kindness of your youth, the love of your nuptials when you went after Me in the desert, in a land that was not sown”
God recalls with great love how the people of Israel followed Him out of Egypt and into the desert. We left Egypt with little food or water and followed God into the barren wilderness, entrusting our very lives to the Clouds of Glory which guided us through the desert.
What, specifically, does God praise us for? God does not praise us for our lofty intellectual or spiritual accomplishments. He doesn’t talk about the great levels of prophecy that every Jew achieved at Mount Sinai. Instead, He praises us, and establishes the holiday of Sukkot, to commemorate the faith we had in Him in our “youth,” when we were still in a state of immaturity at the lowest of the forty-nine levels of impurity. He praises us for following Him into the desert at the very beginning of our relationship with Him.
When God opens up His picture album, he goes right back to the earliest photos. The ones in which we are still awkward and unsure of ourselves. The faith we showed in God when we were just beginning our spiritual journey as a nation means more to God than all of our attainments and achievements that followed.
In a similar vein, Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, a Hasidic rabbi known for his main work called the Sfat Emet, teaches us that the worship of God we do when we are in a “desert” is more precious to God than anything else. What does it mean to serve God in a “desert”?
When we do something for the first time it is always more challenging. When a commandment is new to us, at that moment we are still in a “desert.”
When our path to serving God is not yet clear and defined, but we still find a way to squeeze in some time for studying the Bible or fulfilling a commandment, in a certain way that gives God the greatest possible joy.
The sages teach that the moment of greatest joy on Sukkot, the happiest celebration in the Temple, was the water drawing ceremony. All year long we would bring wine libations in the Temple, but these offerings to God did not bring the same joy that the water offering on Sukkot would bring. Why not? Shouldn’t wine be more joyous than water? After all, wine represents the highest levels of wisdom and symbolizes the great Torah scholar and advanced levels of serving God.
Based on what we have been saying until now the answer is clear. Wine is very holy and is used in many of Judaism’s rituals. But it represents a more sophisticated and established form of worship. Water is the simplest liquid. It represents simplicity, the beginning of our relationship with God and those first awkward steps forward in serving Him. Water represents the simple service of the “desert” celebrated on the holiday of Sukkot.
Our routine worship of God is important. But equally important is to take a new step forward in serving God every once in a while. When you take a step out of your comfort zone, your first step into the “wilderness” is likely to be wobbly. But there is something so sweet and beloved to God when we serve Him in the “desert.” Though those steps will likely be awkward and uncomfortable, God says “I remember the great love of that moment, the moment when you followed Me into the desert, to a land that was not sown.” These are the pictures of us that God treasures. These are His favorite memories!
This Sukkot, may we merit to not only physically step outside our homes, but to find the courage to step outside of our comfort zones; to follow the Clouds of Glory into the “desert,” and to create beloved memories with our Father in Heaven.