“God said, My presence will go and provide you rest.” (Exodus 33:14)
The Torah reading for Shabbat Chol Hamoed describes the aftermath of the episode of the golden calf. It’s a curious selection for a holiday known as z’man simchateinu, the time of our rejoicing. After all, the golden calf represents the Israelites’ ultimate betrayal of the covenant. It is a self-absorbed act, driven mostly by fear. Moses destroys the original tablets of the covenant and only his intercession persuades God to forgive the Israelites and to try again. This is definitely not a happy time.
God’s second attempt to reveal the Torah differs from the first. This time, Moses participates in the crafting of the tablets (as opposed to merely receiving them from God). This establishes the covenant as a collaborative venture and not merely a divine act. The reckoning of the calendar reinforces this interdependence.
Sukkot falls on the 15th day of the seventh month of Tishrei (the Jewish holiday cycle begins with the month of Nisan and the holiday of Pesach). Two eyewitnesses must verify the appearance of the new moon. This triggers the announcement of the beginning of the new month (in this case, also Rosh Hashana, the New Year). Only then can the 15th day be calculated. So while God mandates the holiday (Es. 34:22), only humans decide when exactly to celebrate.
Sukkot, then, is z’man simchateinu because we abandon a barren narcissism for a fruitful collaboration with God in creating a distinctive way of life. The sukkah (booth) reminds us of the fragility of collaborative relationships, just as the holiday itself reminds us the joy of partnering with God.
Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom