Shabbat Chol Hamoed Sukkot
Each year on Sukkot, it is customary to read the Book of Ecclesiastes right before the Torah reading. We read these famous words of Ecclesiastes (Kohelet):
“There is a season for everything, a time for every experience under heaven. …a time for tearing down and a time for building up. . . .a time for throwing stones and a time for gathering stones… A time for keeping and a time for discarding.” (Kohelet 3:1, 3-6).
To speak of building during a holiday dedicated to erecting a temporary structure seems fitting. Surely, “a time for building up and a time for tearing down” would align more closely sukkah building process. We begin to build it right after Yom Kippur, and put a lot of pride and effort into decorating and making it feel special (as did our mighty TBI volunteers last Saturday). We dwell in it for eight days and nights, we welcome guests, we make memories, we connect with each other and with the world around us. And then, we tear it down.
And then there are the stones! A stone was something on which I might stub my toe or skip on the water. If I resided in a glass house, I should know not throw stones, nor cast the first one. We stand between a rock and a hard place. And so on. But really, the inanimate stones are alive with the narratives of all that stones have witnessed since the dawn of time. For Jews, we gather up stones as a symbol of permanence and the strength of our memories, to put on the grave markers of those who have passed on. We don’t consider stones an incumbrance to set aside or kick away, or throw away. Indeed, we all avoid throwing stones and tell our children not to do it, so as not to hurt any living and breathing target.
Then, why the opposite order in the Ecclesiastes quote for stones, and especially for buildings? And what exactly are “we tearing down and building up”?
At first glance, the somewhat disjointed sections of the chapters 33 and 34 seem a strange fit for the Sabbath of Sukkot and appear to offer no answer to our questions about tearing down and building up. However, looking more closely at the text we might see that there is a lot of rebuilding going on — not of structures but of relationships.
We remember that Exodus 33 and 34 occur in the aftermath of the sin of the Golden Calf. God is furious, Moses is distraught, and the people are in peril. Our small section is the coda to the entire episode — the events that transpire after Moses intercedes on behalf of the sinners, and God forgives, and the people are spared complete destruction. Here, God, Moses, and the people all try to move
forward — to rebuild their relationship and their eternal covenant.
In just a few short verses, the Torah portion reveals a path to repair. We can visualize the steps along this path:
- For the reassurance of God’s Presence, Moses asks God to lead the people and reveal God’s Presence (Exodus 33:12-18)
- For granting a Second Chance: God commands Moses to write the second set of tablets (Exodus 34:1)
- For restating the Terms of Relationship: God restates the requirements of the three pilgrimage Festivals (Exodus 34:18-26)
The incident of the Golden Calf creates a tear in the fabric of the relationship between God and the people of Israel. The postscript to this episode is a healing and restoration — a building up.
In the wake of Yom Kippur, we, too, have experienced a tearing down—of our defenses, of our disappointment in ourselves, of all the weightiness of our ills—physical, emotional, psychic, spiritual—and on Sukkot, we, too, now look forward to a building up, way more important than the flimsy sukkah in our backyards. We have bared our souls on our Day of Atonement, and we are now beginning a path forward, from fear and despair and hopelessness to hope and a more positive attitude towards ourselves, our loved ones, and our community. So, Kohelet – Ecclesiastes reminds us in proper order, that there is “a time for tearing down and a time for building up.” Our Torah portion for Shabbat Chol HaMo-eid Sukkot reflects a process for that rebuilding. Even the laws for constructing a sukkah reinforce the importance of the shift toward rebuilding, as we are reminded that “it is meritorious to start building the sukkah immediately after Yom Kippur” (Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, [Code of Jewish Law, Condenced], 134:1).
The contemporary poet and liturgist, Alden Solovy, expresses the multifaceted concept of our shift toward rebuilding in his poem for Sukkot, “The Season of Building:”
This is the season of building:
Of building tents of holiness,
Shelters of peace
In our land and in our hearts.
This is the season of rejoicing:
Of rejoicing in God’s bounty and grace,
In the radiance and splendor
In heaven and on earth.
This is the season of thanksgiving:
Of giving thanks for the gifts of the land,
For gifts yet to come
As we delight in the wonders of creation.
This is the season of building.
As we celebrate our holiday of Sukkot, our season of building and rebuilding, may we all be blessed with the assurance of Divine Presence, abundant second chances, and a clear vision of a path toward repaired relationships.