Arguably, the best part of getting older is having grandchildren. Second to that is having a built-in excuse to let younger guys do the heavy lifting. As I recently mentioned, I finally swallowed my pride, bit the bullet, and got my first pair of bifocals. And now, apparently, I have reached the age where I forget why I came into a room. There is, however, an upside to forgetfulness. One of the best things is that when people ask my forgiveness for something they said or did, it’s become really easy to forgive them… because I have no memory of it.
Age-related issues aside, the fact is that all of humanity is beset with forgetfulness; one of the side-effects of the sinful nature we inherited from our first parents, Adam and Eve, as a result of their rebellion against God. By ‘forgetfulness’, in this context, I mean that our appreciation for all that God has done for us evaporates so easily and quickly, we forget how He rescued us, and we cease being thankful. And when gratitude to God wanes, we are prone to become discontented, envious of others, indifferent to needs around us, and thoroughly self-centered.
So, in the wisdom of Adonai, Israel was given annual festivals designed to remind us of the good things He has done for us. And the seventh and greatest of these is Chag HaSukkot – the Holiday of Booths or Tabernacles.
I’ve always thought it was cool that 21 years ago Alexandra and I drove right from signing the papers for our house to the Shema Sukkah Party! A sukkah is a little booth, a temporary shelter, and while we are grateful to God for our home, we know full well it’s temporary. We who have put our trust in Yeshua, Jesus the Messiah, have a heavenly home awaiting us.
Here’s what Leviticus 23 (vss. 39-43) says about Sukkot:
“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.
Why did Adonai tell us to put up little huts and decorate them and rejoice for a week and a day? The answer, simply, is that He wants us to remember. Sukkot is retrospective. God designed Sukkot to help us to remember and, as a result, to be appreciative. Isn’t it just like us to be momentarily thankful, but chronically forgetful? Just as soon as we forget to count our blessings, we lapse into self-centeredness. By dwelling in sukkahs for a week, we remember God delivering us from slavery in Egypt, we remember our wandering in the Sinai wilderness for a generation with His protection, and how He faithfully brought us into the Land He promised us. God intended Sukkot to be a joyful retrospective.
Notice that God didn’t say He wanted us to make ugly little huts for ourselves. His purpose for Sukkot was not that we be miserable, but that we rejoice and have a great time! That’s why we were to decorate it with beautiful foliage. I can think of a lot worse things than a week-long festival, replete with singing and dancing, a lovely decorated booth, and recounting the mighty acts of God – not to mention a lamb roast! Like so much of life, the sukkah is meant to be pleasant but temporary, and it was God’s way for us to remember and be grateful.
Sukkot – The Feast of Booths or Tabernacles, is the most joyous of holidays; so much so, that it has come to be known as Zeman Simchateinu – ‘The Season of Our Rejoicing’. So significant is this, the seventh of seven God-ordained festivals, occurring in the seventh month and lasting seven days, that by the First Century it came to be known as Ha Chag – The Feast!
Speaking of the First Century, let’s consider what we know of Sukkot during Yeshua’s time of sojourning on Earth. In John chapter 7, Yeshua was being taunted by His brothers, who dared Him to go to Jerusalem for the upcoming Sukkot holiday and announce His Messianic claim. We’re told that, not even His brothers were believing in Him. He told them He wasn’t going up, at least not with them. Later, He decided to go, though by Himself, without any following, keeping a low profile.
In verses 10-31 we find that He was the topic on everyone’s mind in Jerusalem. His miracles and teachings engendered countless conversations. No doubt our people were hoping the time was at hand for Messiah to appear and confront and destroy the tyrannical, oppressive rule of the Romans. Yeshua arrived in Jerusalem and began to teach and the people marveled; the Jewish leaders were astounded, because they couldn’t figure out how He became so learned, never having attended any of their Yeshivas. The people, likewise, because His comments were startling; comments such as “If anyone is willing to do God’s will, he will know by My teaching whether I speak from God or just from Myself.” He also predicted His impending death and resurrection.
But I want you to hear especially what He said in verses 37-38. Now on the last day, the great day of the feast (this is a reference to Hoshanna Rabbah, “the great salvation” which is the 7th day of Sukkot) Yeshua stood and cried out, saying, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink. Whoever believes in Me, as the Scripture said, from his innermost being shall flow rivers of living water!”
Why did Yeshua speak of Himself as the source of living water during Sukkot? Why the imagery of water? It is because one of the two major ceremonies that took place during the week of Sukkot in First-Century Israel was known as the “ceremony of the water drawing”.
The great 19th century Messianic Jewish scholar Alfred Edersheim described it in great detail. Here is what he wrote:
“In the First Century, there was a water pouring ceremony during Sukkot. It was a joyous occasion with grand activity and high drama. A priest went to the Pool of Siloam (Shiloach, which means “sent”). He was accompanied by throngs of worshipers and musicians. He filled a golden pitcher with water and ascended back up to the Temple. Shofars were sounded when he returned. Simultaneously, Levites would sing Psalm 118:25: O Lord do save, we beseech You; O Lord we beseech You, do send prosperity. The worshipers shook their lulavs towards the altar until all the water was poured out.
It was done every day of Sukkot, but on the seventh day, the priest proceeded around the altar 7 times before he poured out the water into the altar. It was a symbolic prayer for rain after the dry summer and harvest time, and for those who were more spiritually-minded, it was also a prayer for the refreshing outpouring of the Holy Spirit…”
Picture this great processional, tens of thousands of Israeli worshipers and all the Levitical singers chanting, returning to the Temple via the Water Gate at the southernmost tip of the city (which got its name on account of this ceremony), where the water would be poured out amid the sound of shofars blowing and tremendous shouts of jubilation!
Understand, then, the impact of Yeshua’s words when… on the last day, the great day of the feast, Yeshua stood and cried out, saying, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink. Whoever believes in Me, as the Scripture said, from his innermost being shall flow rivers of living water!”
Water is essential to life. The ground needs it in order to produce a harvest of food, and without it you have famine. Likewise, the human body needs it to function and without it you suffer dehydration and eventually will die. The imagery of water speaks to our need. Through the prophet Jeremiah, God described Himself as Makor Mayim Chayim – The Fountain of Living Water. Israel had forsaken Him and made broken cisterns for ourselves. Our need of Him is every bit as real today. We are a spiritually thirsty people, and He is our Source.
The other great ceremony which took place during Sukkot in the First Century was known as The Illumination of the Temple. Once again, Edersheim tells us about it:
By the time of Jesus, the Jewish people had added significantly to the celebrations commanded by God. One such addition centered on the illumination of the Temple during the week of Sukkot. According to the Talmud, which gives detailed descriptions of the Temple in the 1st-century period, during Sukkot four enormous candelabrums, each of them 75 feet high, were erected in one of the Temple courtyards. Each candelabrum had four large bowls at the top, which each held 10 gallons of pure oil. Each night of the feast, young men with torches would climb the candelabrums and ignite the oil. The light of the burning oil, the Talmud records, was so bright that that every courtyard in Jerusalem was illuminated by them.
So imagine yourself at the door of your home in ancient Jerusalem, and it’s almost sunset, and you look up and see the Temple Mount, and towering above it are these enormous and lovely candelabra, casting their beautiful golden light upon the entire city. It was at that time that Yeshua said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”.
Light is also essential to life. Without it there would be no sight, and without it there would be no growth of any plant life on earth. Sunlight also provides us with vitamin D, which is necessary for our health. Light is something we take for granted, but it so important to us. Even our emotions are helped by the light of the sun. A common phenomenon during the short days and long nights of winter now has a name: Seasonal Affective Disorder, abbreviated S.A.D.
The imagery of light speaks to our need to know what is true. Light reveals what is real, versus what was supposed. Light is a symbol of God revealing to us the truth and giving us eternal life. In fact, the New Jerusalem is described for us as having no need of the Sun for light, because God the Father and Messiah Yeshua the Son will be the Source of illumination for that great City To Come.
But there is another aspect to Sukkot. It not only causes us to remember, but it is a great opportunity to reflect – a time for introspection.
The very nature of a sukkah tells us something of God’s intent for the festival. The booth goes up quickly, and comes down quickly, and is only up for a matter of days. It isn’t meant to last. I believe God wants us to see the Feast of Booths as an opportunity to reflect on the fact that our bodies are temporary dwellings, that this world is a temporary dwelling, and the things of this world even more so.
Sukkot, with its emphasis on what is temporary, should cause us to reexamine our priorities. On what do you spend the vast majority of your time, energy and finances? Are your priorities directed Heavenward, or is it all dedicated primarily to earthly endeavors? Look, there’s nothing inherently wrong with happiness, or with having wealth. It’s a question of where your first affections lie.
Jerry will be coming up in a moment to talk about the future implications of Sukkot. Let me conclude with this: God intended Sukkot to remind us that this world and the things in it are destined to pass away, and that we shouldn’t place too much stock in it. Life is short. Messiah is about to return to Planet Earth. Eternal judgment will soon take place. What should our perspective be in light of these things? Hear the words of Rabbi Paul to the believers in Corinth,
But this I say, brothers, the time has been shortened, so that from now on those who have wives should be as though they had none; and those who weep, as though they did not weep; and those who rejoice, as though they did not rejoice; and those who buy as though they did not possess; and those who use the world as though they did not make full use of it; for the form of this world is passing away (1 Corinthians 7:29-31).
God designed Sukkot to help us remember, and to reflect, and to rejoice. Like my gray hairs and diminishing eyesight, and failing memory, the lovely but temporary sukkah reminds me that better things are to come.