Kids love to build shelters. They don’t have to be good; they just have to be private. Sometimes it is a fort made out of chairs or tables and some blankets. Sometimes it is a “fort” made of scrap lumber and building supplies. There are two things that tend to characterize these structures: they are temporary, and they are fun. God decided that if kids liked such structures, maybe Jewish adults would, too. And maybe they would learn something in the process.
Also in the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when ye have gathered in the fruit of the land, ye shall keep a feast unto the LORD seven days: on the first day shall be a sabbath, and on the eighth day shall be a sabbath. And ye shall take you on the first day the boughs of goodly trees, branches of palm trees, and the boughs of thick trees, and willows of the brook; and ye shall rejoice before the LORD your God seven days. And ye shall keep it a feast unto the LORD seven days in the year. It shall be a statute for ever in your generations: ye shall celebrate it in the seventh month. Ye shall dwell in booths seven days; all that are Israelites born shall dwell in booths: That your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths, when I brought them out of theIt can be fun to camp out for a week. But what about doing it for forty years? land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God. (Lev 23:39-43)
This was the law for Sukkos, the Feast of Tabernacles, or booths. (Sukkos begins on October 16 in 2016.) There was a reason behind the feast, besides just the gathering in of the fall crops. But it seems to have been more than a mere remembrance of the time the Jewish people wandered for forty years in the wilderness. Camping in the back yard
The Feast of Booths is a time when even adults can enjoy the child-like pleasure of building a hut. The first part of the month is a solemn time, when they were warned of their sins, and then sought forgiveness of those sins. The day after the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), the building of the huts begins. On the Naval base in Subic Bay, Philippines, there was plenty of bamboo. The sukka (booth) there was usually made of that material, although they might have roofed it with the palm branches and willow required by the Law. In other places the sukka might be a wood structure leaning against a wall of the house. It could even be a lean-to like Jonah built outside of Nineveh. With a week to build it, some men figure out all sorts of ways to make it sturdy, yet compliant. Some might make it a real man-cave. Sometimes the women take over and decorate it with rugs and pictures. After all, a lot can be done in one week, even if the roof has to be open enough that you can see the stars at night. Building the sukka brings out the Jewish kid in everyone.
Who doesn’t like building a hut? And then there is the opportunity to camp out in it for a week. OK, some people only take a meal in it each day. Others, though, play it to the hilt. It is a week of camping in the back yard. The thing is, though, that just like little kids camping in a tent in the back yard today, you know that if the going gets too tough, you can always go back inside the house. But there is where some of the learning comes in. Remember what God said? “That your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt.”
It can be fun to camp out for a week. But what about doing it for a year? Or for an additional forty years?
Getting what you want is not always easy. Do you want a new house, or even a new car? Sometimes you have to wait and save for it. The direct route from Goshen to Canaan would have taken the Israelites a couple of months at the most. But it was not the way to go.
And it came to pass, when Pharaoh had let the people go, that God led them not through the way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near; for God said, Lest peradventure the people repent when they see war, and they return to Egypt. (Ex 13:17)
The short, easy way would not be as easy as it looked. The Philistines would have fought with the people. As a slave nation, they were not yet familiar with war. They would have gotten disappointed and turned back. And so God led them through the Sea, and three months into the desert to Sinai. Almost a year later they finally reach the outskirts of the Promised Land. And how do the people react? “And there we saw the giants, the sons of Anak, which come of the giants: and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight.” (Num 13:33) They rebelled against war, and against God.
Lesson two: It’s not nice to rebel against God. It had only taken a year to get where they were. Now it would take forty more to get back to the same area. Every time someone spends time in the sukka they are supposed to think about this lesson. The Israelites who came out of Egypt had the opportunity to “go into the house,” so to speak. They could have spent the equivalent of a couple of hours in the booths, but ended up making it a full week (and then some).
Trust in God. Because there were giants, the people assumed they were as small as grasshoppers. And so they saw themselves as grasshoppers. But these same people had seen just what a swarm of locusts could do to a land. In Egypt, that plague had devastated the economy. With God’s help they could have done the same to Canaan, as small in stature as they were. Every year (every day) we need to remember that lesson. The old saying is that “I and God are a majority.” Well, God doesn’t even need you; but he is willing to work with you. Would you rather be a grasshopper, or a blade of grass in front of a swarm of grasshoppers? Would you rather be in Gideon’s army of 300, or the larger force of fleeing Midianites? Would you rather sleep in your own bed, or spend forty years in temporary shelters in the desert? The choice is offered at this time every year.
Let’s have fun
Trust, though, is only one of the lessons of Sukkos. Another may be even harder for some to learn. The Christian ideal, and even that in other religions, seems to be that of the old Puritan who is always frowning and won’t let people play cards or attend the theatre. Religion, for some, is that which you have to do when you would rather be having fun. But God told the Israelites to “rejoice before the LORD your God seven days.”
Did he specify this seven days as a time of rejoicing because he knew the people would not do so the rest of the year? Or is he saying this is a time of rejoicing, just as you should be doing all year long? In another place, speaking of this same feast, he says:
Seven days shalt thou keep a solemn feast unto the LORD thy God in the place which the LORD shall choose: because the LORD thy God shall bless thee in all thine increase, and in all the works of thine hands, therefore thou shalt surely rejoice. (Deut 16:15)
It seems almost contradictory to say to keep a “solemn” feast and then to command rejoicing. One has to remember, though, that the word solemn is not even implied in the Hebrew. The command is to keep a feast. There is a big contrast between the holiday immediately preceding this one. For Yom Kippur they were told to keep a “solemn assembly” (Hebrew atsarah, which does imply solemnity). For Sukkos>/i> they are told to keep a feast (Hebrew chagag, which carries the idea of dancing in a circle and possibly even drunkenness). This was to be a happy celebration.
So how can you be happy when remembering forty years of wandering in the wilderness? For that we can thank the nature of memory. God says to remember why the people wandered for so long; but rejoice because you aren’t subject to that. Camping in the back yard is fun. One reason it is fun is because it is temporary. Even the most ardent campers are happy to get home and do the laundry.
God tells us to have fun. The word rejoice appears in the Hebrew over 150 times. That doesn’t sound like the dour Calvinist. Instead, it’s party time. (In moderation, perhaps, or a little less than moderation.)
Even the thought of partying comes from the same root as the remembrance in the booth. Trust in God. Yes, you should remember to trust in God. But you should also rejoice because you have trusted in God. The memory may be of forty years of wandering, but it is also of the conquest of Canaan and the inheritance of the promise. Religion, for some, is that which you have to do when you would rather be having fun. But God says to rejoice.
Do you have a reason to trust God? He doesn’t ask for mere belief; it is easy to believe there is a God. Rather he says to trust. Did something work out just the way you wanted it to? Was that coincidence, or was it a reason to trust? Did something work out in a way you didn’t want it to, but you realized that it was better? Mere chance, or a reason to trust? David said, “I have been young, and now am old; yet have I not seen the righteous forsaken, nor his seed begging bread.” (Ps 37:25) He had a reason to trust God. With that trust came also a reason to rejoice. Of the 152 times the word rejoice or be glad appears, 50 are in the Psalms. Many of those are in the psalms of David. Here is a man who had been chased by the king in order to execute him. He had been chased out of his capitol by his own son. And yet he knew why God told the people once a year to rejoice. God had not abandoned him; and he will not abandon us.
Whether you celebrate the Feast of Booths or not, the message is still there. Remember what can happen if you don’t obey God. But have fun when you do follow him. After all, it’s good to be a kid once in a while. It’s fun to build a hut that could fall in on you with the slightest wind. But it is good to know you are welcome back in the house, just in case.