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Torah Commentary
Chol HaMo-eid Sukkot (September 21, 2013)

Robyn Weinstein Cimbol, Senior Director of Development and Philanthropy

MORE THAN ANY OTHER Jewish ritual, the pilgrimage festival of Sukkot most resembles pagan practice. It is our most sensory holiday. The Four Species (the etrog, lulav, willow and myrtle) echo cultish props for worship. And yet, the Torah reading for the Shabbat during Sukkot contains concepts at the core of Jewish theology. Central is the recitation of the Thirteen Attributes of God. This image of God as the expression of ethical behavior is a far cry from paganism.

After the calamity of the Golden Calf incident, Moses intercedes on behalf of the people and secures both a pardon and a promise that God’s presence will not depart from their midst. The verses from Ki Tisa read this morning find Moses trading on his own “preferred” status to beg God to forgive the Israelites — not once but twice, as we see in Exodus 33:13 and 34:9.

And, Moses is not merely content with God’s guarantee of everlasting promise of protection. In what can only be seen as an act of chutzpah, Moses pushes further: “Oh, let me behold Your Presence!” (Exodus 33:18)

But why did the Rabbis select these verses to be read on Shabbat during Sukkot? Rabbi Sampson Raphael Hirsch, considered to be the founder of contemporary Orthodox Judaism and one of the most vehement opponents of Reform Judaism as it was developing, wrote the following regarding the sukkah itself:

The building of the sukkah teaches you trust in God. Whatever may be your station in life…you know that whether men live in huts or in palaces, it is only as pilgrims that they dwell; both huts and palaces form only our transitory home…The sheltering love of God is everywhere and constantly with you, where it protects you, there you dwell, were it only for a moment, in the most fleeting and transitory dwelling, as calmly and securely as if it were your house forever.

The response to the demand for a physical manifestation is the elaborate demonstration described in the verses above. Being human limits our capacity to comprehend. The “proof” of God comes not through perceiving God directly but rather by the existence of graciousness and mercy — human behavior at its most divine. These verses offer irrefutable and unshakeable validation of God’s presence and our limited access to it.

Chag Sameach v’Shabbat Shalom!

But let’s return to our desert wanderers and the special parashah designated for Shabbat Chol HaMo-eid Sukkot.

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