Lessons from the Festival of Booths

Shalom and welcome to my Sukkah! Before I enter, I want to stop and say the special prayer.

ברוך אתה יי אלהינו מלך העולם אשר קדשנו במצותיו וצונו לישב בסכה. אמן.

Barukh Atah Adonai, Eloheinu, melekh ha-olam, asher kidishanu b’mitz’votav v’tzivanu leisheiv basukkah. Amein.

Blessed are You, Lord, our God, king of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to dwell in the sukkah. Amen.

I wish you could walk around Brooklyn with me this week. It is a BIG PARTY! Sukkah booths are popping up everywhere.

The Feast of Tabernacles is all about joy, unlike Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which are somber and sober.

And there is much to celebrate, especially for followers of Yeshua the Messiah, even in the midst of this pandemic, economic hardship, and social unrest.

The Bible enumerates a number of Feast of Tabernacles essentials.

Leviticus 23

Again, the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the sons of Israel, saying, ‘On the fifteenth of this seventh month is the Feast of Booths for seven days to the Lord. On the first day is a holy convocation; you shall do no laborious work of any kind. For seven days you shall present an offering by fire to the Lord. On the eighth day you shall have a holy convocation and present an offering by fire to the Lord; it is an assembly. You shall do no laborious work. (Leviticus 23:33–35, emphasis added.)

There is more information about the festival in verses 39–44:

“On exactly the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the crops of the land, you shall celebrate the feast of the Lord for seven days, with a rest on the first day and a rest on the eighth day. Now on the first day you shall take for yourselves the foliage of beautiful trees, palm branches and boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days. You shall thus celebrate it as a feast to the Lord for seven days in the year. It shall be a perpetual statute throughout your generations; you shall celebrate it in the seventh month. You shall live in booths for seven days; all the native-born in Israel shall live in booths, so that your generations may know that I had the sons of Israel live in booths when I brought them out from the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” So Moses declared to the sons of Israel the appointed times of the Lord. (Leviticus 23:39–44, emphasis added.)

Let us look at some Sukkot basics.

The Date

Sukkot is observed in the seventh month on the fifteenth day of the month for a total of seven days. There is one additional day. and then Jewish tradition adds a ninth day.

Sukkot is also called the Feast of Ingathering

“Also you shall observe the Feast of the Harvest of the first fruits of your labors from what you sow in the field; also the Feast of the Ingathering at the end of the year when you gather in the fruit of your labors from the field. Three times a year all your males shall appear before the Lord God” (Exodus 23:16–17).

Sukkot, like the other feasts, is God’s spiritual classroom

The game “Show and Tell” must have been God’s idea! He uses the physical to teach us about the spiritual. By touching, seeing, hearing (as in the case of the shofar), and even tasting (matzah, etc.), the festivals are His spiritual classrooms, where all of our senses are engaged to teach us profound and beautiful spiritual truths.

The Major Symbols and the Lessons

The holiday is filled with lessons, but we will look at three, based upon the biblical text and traditions of the festival.  

  • God Provides

The lulav and etrog teach us that God provides for His children.

We are commanded to take “the foliage of beautiful trees, palm branches and boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days” (Leviticus 23:40–41).

We weave the following elements together to form what is known as the lulav, which represents the four species mentioned in the biblical text.

Etrog

The foliage of beautiful trees is p’ree eitz hadar (פְּרִ֨י עֵ֤ץ הָדָר֙), which literally means “fruit of beautiful trees” and refers to what we call the etrog—a fruit that looks like a large lemon.

The palm branches

The palm branches, orlulav, is a frond of the date palm tree.

The boughs of leafy trees

The boughs of leafy trees refer to thebranches of a myrtle bush.

The willows of the brook

The willows of the brook refer to the branches of the willow tree.

The palm branch, myrtle, and willow are combined into what is called a lulav. We use three willow branches, two myrtle, and one long palm frond to which the others are tied.

The joyful shaking of the lulav reminds us that God provides through the harvest.

He causes the rain to fall, the sun to shine, and the seeds to germinate. Our job is to harvest what He creates. It is difficult for those of us who are not farmers to appreciate this firsthand. Some of us do not even go to the grocery store these days, choosing instead to have our food delivered!

Still, we are commanded to be happy because God is our Provider! Waving the lulav and etrog is an expression of joy—joy that is tied to the harvest.

Mustering up authentic joy is not easy in the midst of a pandemic. Our lives have been so disrupted, and many of us have endured such significant loss; of a loved one, a friend, a business, income, education, fellowship with others in worship, and the joy of everyday life. We miss our normal lives, and we are eager to recapture what we have lost.

Yet, God commands us to rejoice—even in the midst of suffering.

In some ways, this has been the story of Jewish life and history—smiling while suffering!

For followers of the Messiah Jesus, the command to rejoice during Sukkot reminds us of the words of Rabbi Paul again, who wrote, “Finally, my brethren, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things again is no trouble to me, and it is a safeguard for you” (Philippians 3:1), and also, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4).

So, what is the secret to having joy? Should we rejoice when everything around us tells us not to? Are we speaking about some type of Jewish stoicism that ignores the hardships we face?

Not at all!

Sukkot reminds of God’s care for the Israelites through the desert wanderings.

We are encouraged to ask the Lord for the same provision and care today as we travel through the desert of this life. He provided the manna, quails, and even water out of a rock for our ancestors. He has not changed!

The Jewish people, my ancestors, experienced this supernatural provision. According to Moses:

He led you through the great and terrible wilderness, with its fiery serpents and scorpions and thirsty ground where there was no water; He brought water for you out of the rock of flint. In the wilderness He fed you manna which your fathers did not know, that He might humble you and that He might test you, to do good for you in the end. Otherwise, you may say in your heart, ‘My power and the strength of my hand made me this wealth.’ (Deuteronomy 8:15–17)

Yeshua said much the same, but a little differently in the Sermon on the Mount, “For this reason I say to you, do not be worried about your life, as to what you will eat or what you will drink; nor for your body, as to what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” (Matthew 6:25). And also, “But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the furnace, will He not much more clothe you? You of little faith!” (v. 30). And He concludes, “But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. So do not worry about tomorrow; for tomorrow will care for itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own” (vv. 33–34).

Hardship and suffering purify our souls as we learn to distinguish between our needs and wants and to thank God who provides our “daily bread”. This is what we learn from fasting on Yom Kippur and what we learn from the lulav and etrog—God always provides.

Applying the Lesson

Which grows out of the first…

The Lord wants us to serve Him by serving others.

Sukkot calls upon us to be thankful and generous, be grateful to God for all He has done, and to rejoice, but also to remember the poor and those who do not have what they need.

You might look for one needy family this week and give from the abundance God has given to you. I believe God will bless and reward your generosity as you care for others the way God has cared for you.

As Yeshua said, again in the Sermon on the Mount:

So when you give to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be honored by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But when you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving will be in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:2–4)

  •  God’s Protects

Moses commands the Jewish people to live in booths for seven days. Moses wrote, You shall live in booths for seven days; all the native-born in Israel shall live in booths, so that your generations may know that I had the sons of Israel live in booths when I brought them out from the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 23:42–43).

The Hebrew word for booths is sukkot סֻּכֹּ֥ת—the plural, which is where we get the name for the holiday.

The booths are not built for long term occupancy; they are God’s classroom. These flimsy structures with see-through roofs are supposed to remind us of the structures we lived in while travelling in the Sinai desert for forty years.

Let me put it this way: If built correctly, without nails, with a see-through ceiling, and a fragile foundation, you would not want to be in a sukkah during a strong wind!

The Sukkah also reminds of the frailty of human life.

According to Jewish tradition, we are supposed to eat and sleep in the sukkah booth for seven days. The rabbis compare the sukkah to the human body, which is frail and eventually wears out. It reminds me that we are Chevrolets, built with planned obsolescence—we are designed to eventually wear out.

I love the old hymn that says, “This world is not my home, I’m just passing through.” We need to view ourselves as perpetual tourists and live with the future in mind. A famous rabbi, Samuel ben Maier, commenting on Leviticus 23:43, believes the booths also call us to humility and to appreciate the simple things of life. He wrote:

Why do I command you to do all this? For the Lord your God brings you to a good … and you will eat and be satisfied, etc. As a result, your heart may become haughty and you will credit yourself with all this as your own achievement. (Deuteronomy 8:7–8) In order that this will not happen, and to show the Israelites God’s part in their success, they will move out of their solid houses as a reminder to the time when they had not been blessed with any of these benefits which they enjoy ever since inheriting the land of their forefathers. (Rashbam Leviticus 23:43)[1]

This lesson is repeated in the Shulchan Aruch, which means “the prepared table,” one of the guiding manuals on Jewish spiritual life.[2]

Jewish tradition suggests that God is our sukkah, and He is all we need. He protects us from life’s dangers. He guards and guides us through the twists, turns, and turbulence of life.

Unless He wants us to learn lessons from hardship or maybe He is simply calling us home. We agree with the rabbi from Tarsus, “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28). And David wrote in Psalm 23, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me” (Psalm 23:4).

God uses the desert to bring us to our knees. Deserts are not very hospitable to human life. The days are too hot, the nights are too cold, the water is scarce, and the oases few and far between. We have lived in a type of desert for the last six months, and we have learned more than we wish about life and death through the pandemic.

The pandemic has driven many of us into the arms of a loving, caring, and protecting Savior to seek protection. We have been humbled! The pandemic has revealed our weakness and limitations. We also recognize that we cannot easily defeat our enemies, especially when they are invisible. It is really hard to fight what you cannot see. The Apostle Paul reminds us of the battle we are really fighting as believers, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore, take up the full armor of God, so that you will be able to resist in the evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm” (Ephesians 6:12–13).

We are fighting against far more than an invisible virus; we are doing battle with the world forces of darkness and spiritual forces of wickedness. This battle will not be won with worldly weapons but with the power of God by His Spirit and the spiritual armor He provides to fight; truth, righteousness, the gospel of peace, and the shield of faith.

So, it is time to read a Jewish children’s story! We learn so much about Jewish life and lessons from these stories. this is one for Sukkot.

Debbie and Danny were very unhappy.

When they tried to fast all day on Yom Kippur they hadn’t been able to go without food past 2 o’clock. Even though their parents had told them that when they were older they would have the self-discipline to be able to fast all day on Yom Kippur, they wanted to do it now.

And when they had tried to blow the Shofar after Rosh Hashanah family services they hadn’t been able to make a real sound; just a little squeak. Now their parents were telling them they were too young to sleep overnight in the Sukkah. It wasn’t fair.

Debbie and Danny had helped their parents build the Sukkah. In fact, the reason their family had a Sukkah of their own this year was because of Debbie and Danny. Their father had said he didn’t have the time to build a Sukkah this year, but the kids had offered to help with everything. When the Sukkah was finished their father was proud of how much they had helped. They carried a table and chairs into the Sukkah and prepared to eat their meals in the Sukkah. But when the kids said they wanted to bring their sleeping bags into the Sukkah and sleep overnight their parents said, “NO”.

First their parents said it was too cold to sleep in the Sukkah. Then they said the kids were too young. Finally, they said that it wasn’t safe.

Debbie and Danny said a Sukkah was as safe as a house. A Sukkah was God’s shelter for the Jewish people for all the years when the Jews lived in the desert after they left Egypt. And a Sukkah was the shelter Jewish people used in the Land of Israel when they were harvesting their crops and thanking God for the harvest. They reminded their parents that:

‘It is a Mitsvah [commandment] to build a Sukkah.’

‘It is a Mitsvah to eat meals in a Sukkah.’

‘And it is a Mitsvah to sleep in a Sukkah.’

Their parents were impressed that Debbie and Danny had such a great desire to do Mitsvot [commandments] so they agreed that the kids could sleep overnight in the Sukkah on Saturday night.

When Saturday night came Debbie and Danny were eager to sleep in the Sukkah. They had decorated the Sukkah with drawings and old Shanah Tovah [Happy New Year!] cards. They had hung different kinds of fruit and vegetables on the Sukkah. Now they got in their sleeping bags, ate a night-time snack from the fruit hanging on the Sukkah, and went to sleep.

In the middle of the night they were suddenly awakened. The Sukkah was shaking, but it wasn’t from the wind. The ground itself was shaking. It was an earthquake. They heard a loud crash. A tree had fallen on their house. They were scared. Then they remembered that they were in God’s Sukkah. They didn’t feel so frightened. They said the Sh’ma [a traditional Hebrew prayer from Deuteronomy 6:4] a few times and they felt even better. The earthquake stopped.

Their parents came out and they seemed to be more upset than the kids. The tree that had fallen had landed on the roof above the bedroom where the children slept. They might have been hurt if they had been sleeping in the house.

Thank God the kids had been sleeping in the Sukkah.[3]

  • Lesson #3.  God Gives us Hope

Like the children of Israel, we have a destination. Ultimately, it is not we who are going to Him, but rather He is coming for and to us.

If we pass from this life and enter His presence, or if we are taken up to meet the Lord in the air, the end of the story is all about His coming back to the world He created to establish His kingdom in a renewed and reclaimed earth.

Heaven ultimately comes to earth.

The sukkah reminds us that, one day, as promised, the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters fill the sea. In fact, a day is coming when the entire earth will become his sukkah booth and tabernacle. We caught a glimpse of this with the coming of Jesus the Messiah, who, according to the gospel writer John, dwelled—literally tabernacled—among us.

I love Sukkot because it reminds me of the glory ahead. Knowing Him is a foretaste of the glorious future God has prepared for those who love Him. The sukkah reminds us of what is to come! As John wrote:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there is no longer any sea. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them, and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.”

And He who sits on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new. And He said, “Write, for these words are faithful and true.” (Revelation 21:1–5)

Invitation:

Are you joyful? Do you feel protected? How are you doing right now in the midst of our season of trouble and trial when it comes to hope?

If you have never received Jesus as your Messiah, now is not too soon.

Pray this prayer with me:

If you are a believer and you are running on one or two but not three of these cylinders; joy, safety, and hope, then maybe you need to dwell in God’s sukkah booth for a while. You have all week to find or build one! Either way, I urge you to turn to the Lord and experience His provision that will give you joy, sense His protection, once again enjoy a sense of safety. In Him, you will also find hope. We are not locked down by the present if we know the Lord and believe that He is with us. In fact, the hope we have for better days is good practice learning how to hope for the best days when He returns.

Chag Sameach and Happy Sukkot…may you always dwell in the presence of the Lord.

God’s Sukkah is Safe

A Story of Hope

With the help of his two young neighbors, Justine and Duane, elderly Mr. Roth builds a sukkah, a little hut built by Jews to commemorate the harvest festival and to remind them of generations of homelessness. After the two children spend the night in the hut, they go to the market with Mr. Roth to buy foods for a festive Sukkoth meal to be shared in the hut. While they are at the market, a firestorm that has erupted in the hills rapidly obliterates their neighborhood. Miraculously, the only building left untouched by the rampaging flames is Mr. Roth’s sukkah. Amid the ghostly stillness at the scene, where not even the crickets have survived to chirp, can be heard another miracle–the cries of Mr. Roth’s cat, Tikvah, who has managed to escape the fire.[4]

And guess what Tikvah means—hope! The author was trying to tell the children that the sukkah was more than a little tent or temporary shack, it is a symbol of the hope we have in a God who always cares for and protects His children.

May the Lord fill your heart with hope, as even if things do not work out well for us on earth, we put our trust in the One who has overcome the world and has gone before us to build a mega-sukkah—a mansion where we will live forever. And nothing—not a wildfire, hurricane, pandemic or far worse—can destroy what He is building for those who love Him.

Let me summarize and close:

God is always faithful to provide for our needs—it is His nature.

Provision should lead to our taking action by providing for others.

He protects us, which should calm our fears and enable us to trust the One who protected the Jewish people in the desert.

We can have hope because a new world is coming for those who love Him, and we will live with our glorious God and Messiah forever.


[1] Rashbam, “Rashbam On Leviticus 23: 43,” Sefaria, accessed October 2, 2020, https://www.sefaria.org/Rashbam_on_Leviticus.23.43.1?lang=bi&with=all&lang2=en.

[2] Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chayim 639:1. According to very important Rabbinic document, the Shulkan Aruch – the Prepared Table, we are told the following about the Sukkah, “What is the Mitzvah of sitting in the Sukkah? That he should eat, drink, sleep, lounge, (Tur) and reside in the Sukkah all seven days, both in the day and in the night, in the same manner in which he resides in his house the rest of year. And all seven days a man makes his house temporary and his Sukkah permanent. How so? The fine dishes and linens, should be in the Sukkah; and drinking vessels, such as glass cups and mugs, in the Sukkah; but eating vessels after eating (Tur), such as pots and plates, outside of the Sukkah. The lantern should be in the Sukkah.” “Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chayim 639,” Sefaria, accessed October 2, 2020, https://www.sefaria.org/Shulchan_Arukh%2C_Orach_Chayim.639?lang=bi.

[3] Allen S. Maller, “A Succot Story for Children: God’s Sukkah Is Safe,” The Jewish Magazine, accessed October 2, 2020, http://www.jewishmag.com/126mag/succah_children/succah_children.htm.

[4] Polacco’s story is based on the firestorm that ravaged her hometown of Oakland, California. Actual framed photos of family members shown on bureau tops and posters of sports idols on a bedroom wall helpÿ20convey the reality of the event and of the personal losses suffered. Polacco’s vibrantly colored illustrations pulse with energy and emotion as the characters bend with the whipping wind, comfort each other in the temporary shelter, and rejoice in the sukkah when Tikvah is found. Good Sukkoth stories are rare; rooted in an actual event as well as in ages-old tradition, this one is a priceless gem

Ellen Mandel, review of Tikvah Means Hope, by Patricia Polacco, Amazon.com,  https://www.amazon.com/Tikvah-Means-Hope-Patricia-Polacco/dp/0385320590?pd_rd_w=7BZfa&pf_rd_p=3fdb7f7b-31a2-4f37-b9bc-1469e3d4fb18&pf_rd_r=4P0M388T0HVKA6JFQ5PY&pd_rd_r=e4469531-db4c-4746-9a31-7579e745830b&pd_rd_wg=met5J.

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