A few months after our wedding, my wife and I embarked on a brief vacation in the Swiss Alps. At each stop on our itinerary, I found myself awestruck by the breathtaking beauty that surrounded us. The towering mountain ranges, glistening glaciers, cascading waterfalls, and the array of wildlife all brought to mind the verse, “and you shall love God, your Lord” (Deuteronomy 6:5). Maimonides explains that the path to loving God involves appreciating the marvels of creation, as expressed in Psalms 8:4-5:
When I behold Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and stars that You set in place, what is man that You have been mindful of him, mortal man that You have taken note of him
As we sat atop one of the mountain peaks, immersing ourselves in this divine splendor, a small commotion caught my attention. Turning, I observed a group of approximately 50 individuals approaching the lookout. For a moment, I questioned whether we were at a mountain summit or a press conference as cameras clicked away with remarkable fervor, as though the mountains might vanish and the photo opportunity would be forever lost. The group ascended to the lookout, continued to snap their shutters, and then promptly departed.
Reflecting upon these photo-hungry tourists, I wondered: why do some people perceive the beauty of nature as a spiritual encounter while others remain unaffected, seeing it only as a fleeting, picture-worthy moment?
The answer to this question can be found in the observance of the holiday of Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles), a week during which we are commanded to engage with the natural world. Sukkot distinguishes itself significantly from other Jewish holidays, as it necessitates our departure from our permanent dwellings to reside in temporary huts. Additionally, we bring various plant branches and citrus fruits into the synagogue, holding them during parts of the morning prayer service.
These two distinctive practices hold a unique position in Jewish tradition throughout the year. By vacating our homes, we eliminate the artificial barriers that separate us from God’s natural world. We behold the sun and stars, and feel both warmth and chill, all intended to evoke a sense of proximity to God. Subsequently, by incorporating various elements of the natural world within the synagogue service, we affirm that all aspects of creation are intended for the service of God.
The question then arises: why is this practice observed specifically on the holiday of Sukkot? We find no comparable practices in scripture with regard to the other holidays or daily rituals.
I believe the answer lies ironically in the observance of Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement). On this day, Jews spend the entire day in the synagogue engaged in prayer, introspection, and repentance. However, in order to partake in these spiritual activities, we are instructed to “afflict our souls” (Leviticus 23:32), necessitating abstinence from physical pleasures. Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, occurs a mere five days prior to Sukkot, both falling in the Hebrew month of Tishrei.
Thus, we encounter Yom Kippur, a day characterized by abstaining from physical indulgence, immediately preceding Sukkot, a celebration of nature. This juxtaposition conveys the message that to discover God within the physical world, spiritual preparation is indispensable. Only by strengthening our souls within the sanctuary can we authentically connect with God through the wonders of nature. People who encounter the beauty of nature, without proper spiritual preparation, will therefore fail to be inspired.