Nature or Miracle? The Haftara of the First Day of Sukkot

  • Harav Mosheh Lichtenstein

Translated by David Strauss



            Nature or miracle? Withdrawal from the world or involvement in it? Two different and even contradictory understandings of the essence of the festival of Sukkot that are found in the words of Chazal serve as the starting point for parallel discussions over the course of the generations. One sees Sukkot as an expression of man's natural life and the sukka as blending in with his normal lifestyle. The other goes off in the opposite direction and understands the sukka as an expression of withdrawal from nature and the ordinary human world to a secluded corner, insulated from the din of normal life.


The fundamental source of this disagreement is the well-known baraita cited in tractate Sukka (11b) regarding the sukkot that were fashioned for Israel in the wilderness:


"That I made the children of Israel to dwell in sukkot" (Vayikra 23:43) - these were the Clouds of Glory, says Rabbi Eliezer. Rabbi Akiva says: He made real booths for them.


            The naturalistic understanding of sukka is clearly formulated by the Ibn Ezra, who writes explicitly that dwelling in a sukka is an ordinary human practice prevalent among all peoples. He writes as follows:


In the booths that they made after they passed through the Red Sea, and also in the wilderness of Sinai where they stayed for almost a year. This is the practice in all encampments. Thus, this festival as well serves as a reminder of the exodus from Egypt. One might ask: Why is this mitzva in Tishrei? The answer is that God's cloud was over the camp by day, so that the sun did not beat down on them, but during Tishrei they began to build booths because of the cold.


            Not only does the Ibn Ezra note that dwelling in booths is "the practice in all encampments;" he also looks for a natural rationale to explain a phenomenon that at first glance is quite strange - the choice of Tishrei as the time for building the sukka. His amazing explanation is that owing to the Cloud of Glory that hovered over the camp, a sukka was not needed to provide shade from the summer's heat; they were already covered, and they therefore  waited until the approach of winter to build their booths for protection against the rain.


Needless to say, this answer testifies to the Ibn Ezra's rationalistic bent and his desire to offer a naturalistic explanation for the mitzva of sukka. But it also reveals the built-in tension in the verses according to this approach; this naturalistic explanation is entirely based on the acceptance of the miraculous reality of the Cloud of Glory as so self-evident that it could serve as the foundation for natural human calculations. In any event, what emerges from Ibn Ezra's words is the perception of the sukka as an everyday human phenomenon.


            In contrast, Rashi understands that we are dealing with Clouds of Glory, which were, of course, a supernatural phenomenon unique to the wilderness. The Ramban also advocates this approach, emphasizing the supernatural aspect of Israel's life in the wilderness and the connection between our question and the Tannaitic dispute cited above:


"'That I made the children of Israel to dwell in sukkot' – clouds of Glory."  This is the wording of Rashi. And it is correct in my eyes according to the plain sense of Scripture. For He commanded that [future] generations should know all the great acts of God that He miraculously performed for them, that He made them dwell in the clouds of His Glory like in a booth. This is similar to what is stated: "And the Lord will create upon every dwelling place of mount Zion, and upon her assemblies, a cloud and smoke by day, and the shining of a flaming fire by night; for upon all the glory shall there be a canopy. And there shall be a tabernacle (sukka) for a shadow in the daytime from the heat, etc." (Yeshayahu 4:6). And since He already explained that the cloud of the Lord was upon them by day and the pillar of fire at night, He simply said: "That I made the children of Israel to dwell in sukkot," that I made them clouds of Glory as booths to protect them. Now, He commanded at the beginning of the dry season a reminder of the exodus from Egypt in its month and season. And He commanded a reminder of the continuous miracle that was performed for them during their entire stay in the wilderness at the beginning of the rainy season. According to the opinion that He fashioned real booths for them, they began to build them at the beginning of the winter because of the cold as is customary in encampments, and therefore he commanded them at this time [of the year]. And it is a reminder that they should know and remember that they were in the wilderness and that they did not enter a house or find a settled city for forty years, but God was with them and they lacked for nothing.


            According to the Ramban, the simple understanding that "is correct in [his] eyes according to the plain sense of Scripture" is that of a continuous miracle. And it is precisely the naturalistic explanation that seems less reasonable to him, although he admits, clearly alluding to the words of the Ibn Ezra, that there are conflicting positions in Chazal.


We see, then, that according to the Ibn Ezra the meeting that takes place between man and God on the festival of Sukkot is based on an event in which God watched over Israel in a natural manner, and the special sanctity of the festival was introduced into the world in order to mark the connection between man and God in the framework of the natural world and man's actions in this world. According to the Ramban, on the other hand, the festival of Sukkot is based on God's removing Israel from the world of natural causality, and the encounter between them takes place in the realm of the miraculous. The shade of the sukka that covered Israel in the wilderness was the shade of a miracle, the sukka serving as a miraculous shelter against the hardships of nature.


It is not improbable that this local disagreement regarding the sanctity of Sukkot reflects a more basic disagreement regarding the nature of sanctity in the world in general. Were we to offer a concise definition of sanctity, we could sum it up by saying that sanctity is man's standing before God. Man's standing before his Maker and his cleaving to Him sanctifies man and all that is around him, just as the penetration of God's spirit into the world by way of the creation of a connection between the Creator and His world gives rise to sanctity. When God descends into the world and is present there, we can speak, as it were, of the sanctity of place or time. When "I shall dwell among them" is fulfilled, the place becomes sanctified, and the Temple is the place where this encounter occurs.


All agree that sanctity exists in our world, whether in the form of the sanctity of time or in the form of the sanctity of place. But the question still remains - what is the ideal model for this encounter between God and man? Is sanctity best achieved when God "constricts" himself, as it were, and meets man on his home court and in the framework of his rules (to the extent that this is possible)? Or perhaps a more sublime sanctity tries to break out of this world, to elevate man and to remove him as much as possible from the material world of nature? Is natural law (and the general providence that accepts the world as it is) the preferred way of introducing sanctity into the world? Or perhaps the desired instruments for conducting the encounter between man and God are miracles that ravage the natural order and personal providence that is not subject to natural rules, and it is they that must be used to establish sanctity in the world?


In light of this analysis, let us approach the haftara read on the first day of Sukkot. The haftara (Zekharya 14:1-21) discusses the war that will be fought in the future in the end of days, "on that day," when God goes out to fight on Israel's behalf, and with the nations' reaction to their calamitous defeat in battle. The people of Israel are perceived in the haftara as weak and incapable of defending themselves, so that God intervenes and delivers them from the hands of their conquerors. Thus, Zekharya repeats the message that runs through many prophecies - God's responsibility to redeem His children and save them from their oppressive enemies. The way that he presents this redemption, however, is worthy of attention; the entire prophecy is a description of supernatural intervention whereby God overturns the most basic elements of the natural order, and in this way He defeats the other nations. It is not nature, but rather miracles that serve as God's tools for saving Israel.


The Torah also testifies to the help that God will provide Israel against their enemies. Sometimes, the Torah speaks of a manner of governance that appears to be supernatural. Elsewhere, it asserts that "the Lord is your God who walks before you to fight your enemies for you in order to save you" (Devarim 20:4), and similarly adds, "for the Lord your God walks about in the midst of your camp to save you and to give your enemies before you" (Devarim 23:15). These verses do not promise that the war will be fought in a supernatural manner. On the contrary, the plain sense of these scriptural passages implies that God will help us in our wars against our enemies, but Israel is supposed to rely on human military tactics. And, indeed, if we examine the wars described by the prophets and the nature of the Divine help that was extended to Israel while those wars were being fought, we will quickly conclude that many times God's fighting on behalf of Israel consisted of His helping them to fight in a natural manner, rather than His elimination of the natural order from the battlefield.


Since our haftara deals with the end of days and the war against the nations who will eventually gain control of Jerusalem, it is appropriate to contrast that battle to the war of the conquest of Israel in the days of Yehoshua. Without entering into a broad analysis of the wars fought by Yehoshua, it is possible to point to a transitional process from supernatural wars and miraculous governance at the beginning, as in the case of the war of Jericho, to wars that were fought in a natural manner later in the conquest. A useful example is the second battle at Ai, where God instructs Israel to set up an ambush, a patently human military tactic; He Himself plans out the ambush to its minutest details, without ravaging the natural order and discarding human tactics.


Zekharya, on the other hand, presents us with a model of war fought by way of clearly miraculous governance, breaching nature in absolute manner, with no natural elements whatsoever. God fights against the nations by way of supernatural means that totally disrupt the laws of nature. Nature and history come to a dead end. Jerusalem is described by the prophet as being in grave crisis and distress in the wake of the foreign invasion; it is trapped and ruined, with its men and women subjected to rape and captivity, plunder and exile – "And the city shall be taken, and the houses rifled, and the women ravished; and half of the city shall go into exile" (14:2). There is no alternative but to overturn the natural order. Indeed, the war begins with a great noise that divides the Mount of Olives into two and relocates it, and it continues with a total disruption of the natural order:


And it shall come to pass on that day that there shall neither be bright light nor thick darkness; but it shall be one particular day which shall be known as the Lord's, neither day, nor night; but it shall come to pass that at evening time, there will be light. (14:6)


            Whatever the precise explanation of the wording of the verse, the overall meaning is clear: abolition of the natural light that exists in our world. It goes without saying that there is no greater change in the natural order than a situation in which there is neither day nor night! The most basic elements of the natural order will change, starting with the cycle of light and darkness and ending with the water cycle, which will also change when living waters will go out of Jerusalem. Put simply, the fundamental components of creation – light, heat, and water – which appear at the beginning of the account of creation and from that time on have been the most essential foundation stones for the survival of natural life will utterly change. From that point on, they will no longer give expression to the natural order of the original creation, but will rather reflect the renewed presence of God in the material world.


            The war against Israel's enemies will also be fought in unnatural ways. God will neither strengthen the hands of the people of Israel as they go out to battle against their enemies, nor will He create tactical or strategic conditions that will lead to the defeat of the nations by way of accepted military strategies. Rather, He will deliver a strange blow against them: "Their flesh shall consume away while they stand upon their feet, and their eyes shall consume away in their sockets." In this context, it is difficult not to remember that the classical supernatural war in which God fought the nations laying siege to Jerusalem using fighting tactics that canceled nature and its laws, the defeat of Sancheriv, was by way of a plague.


            The second half of the haftara deals with the nations' response to the war. According to what was stated thus far, their response should be understood not only as relating to Israel's victory over their enemies, but also as expressing their impression of God's actions and their understanding of the principle of His dominion over the world and nature's subjugation to Divine will. In other words, the battle that God will fight in Jerusalem is meant to bring the nations not only to recognition of Israel's right to exist, but also to their recognition of the sovereignty and greatness of the Creator who rules the world.


In light of all this, we can understand how the festival of Sukkot fits in to the picture. The celebration of the festival of Sukkot in the aftermath of a war in which nature is defeated sets the festival and the sukka itself as the opposite of nature. The sukka is not a place that fits in to the ordinary world of man, but rather a refuge and haven for those times when nature cannot meet the needs of the individual or the nation. The people of Israel turned to sukkot in the wilderness after God split the sea for them, thereby canceling ordinary natural governance, and as they are about to begin forty years of eating the manna that will fall for them from heaven.[1] Thus, the sukkot, which are most closely identified with Israel's life in the wilderness, became the symbol for withdrawal from the natural world into the bosom of unique personal providence that cancels nature.


This is also the situation described by Zekharya, wherein the natural world as we know it is cancelled and the world is governed in a "natural" way by means of a miracle. The world of history and day-to-day life is emblazoned with the spirit of God that hovers over the universe; the boundary separating the world of the profane from that of the holy is blurred. For sanctity is God's appearance in the world of man and direct contact with him, whereas the profane is the world in its ordinary natural state – a world created by God but run by fixed laws that were implanted in it.


In the wake of the war, this distinction is cancelled, and all of reality becomes subject to direct Divine intervention, for God ravaged the natural order and subjugated it. Therefore, the horse – the symbol of war and human action in this world,[2] inasmuch as it was the car of the ancient world – will be entirely holy: "On that day shall there be [inscribed] upon the bells of the horses, Holiness to God," and the same will also apply in other realms of human action. This is true with respect to cooking – the focus of domestic human activity and the clearest act of human improvement upon nature that allows nature to fulfill man's needs. Therefore, "And every pot in Jerusalem and in Yehuda shall be sacred to the Lord of hosts," for the Divine presence in private homes will be like His presence in the Temple. The same is true about commercial life, which will no longer stand in opposition to the world of the holy, because the distinction between holy and profane will disappear: "And all those that sacrifice shall come and take of them, and cook in them; and on that day there shall be no more merchants in the house of the Lord of hosts." When the Egyptians and the rest of the nations will recognize the festival of Sukkot and the principle represented by the festival, they will recognize that God intervenes in the profane world in a supernatural way. This explains the importance of Sukkot.


This is also the meaning of the rain in the haftara. In a world governed according to the laws of nature, rain is a natural, expected, and ordinary phenomenon. Certainly in Egypt, which Scripture describes as a land "where you sowed your seed, and watered it with your foot, like a garden of vegetables," the availability of water is perceived as a natural phenomenon. The Egyptians' recognition of the festival of Sukkot signifies their internalization and acceptance of a world governed by way of the direct intervention of providence, whereas their refusal to celebrate the festival is a rejection of direct providence and God's active intervention in the world. Therefore, the withholding of rain is meant to emphasize for them the change that will transpire in the world in the wake of the war and the adoption of a manner of Divine governance different than the past, and to make them understand their error.


This also explains the threat of a plague against the nations who will not celebrate the festival of Sukkot. For in this prophecy, as we saw above, the plague serves as an expression of direct Divine punishment that appears in the world as the hand of God, and it therefore strikes those who deny God's direct intervention in the world.


We see, then, that the festival of Sukkot as it is presented in the book of Zekharya serves as a meeting place between man and God in the quiet that follows the storm. The festival does not, however, merely constitute a world of peace and serenity in the wake of the war. Rather, the sukka and the festival constitute a new world order in which direct Divine governance will replace the natural governance that preceded it. In the haftara, the sukka does not fit into our world as the practice of all camps, as argued by the Ibn Ezra. Rather, it is presented as the very opposite, as a rejection of the natural world of camps and wars in favor of a world where the spirit of God hovers over and protects man.



[1] "Our Rabbis taught: 'Man ate the bread of angels (lechem abirim)' (Tehillim 78:25) – bread that the ministering angels eat; these are the words of Rabbi Akiva. And when these words were reported before Rabbi Yishmael, he said to them: Go out and tell Akiva: Akiva, you are in error. Do the ministering angels eat bread? But surely it was already written: 'I neither did eat bread nor drink water' (Devarim 9:9). How then do I understand 'lechem abirim?' Bread that is absorbed by two hundred and forty eight organs (eivarim)" (Yoma 75b). According to both opinions, the manna was not natural bread, the kind that we eat and over which we recite "ha-motzi lechem min ha-aretz," but rather non-material bread that fell from heaven for Israel in a most miraculous manner.

[2] For example, "The horse is prepared for the day of battle" (Mishlei 21:31); "As the horse rushes into battle" (Yirmiyahu 8:6). In fact, the vast majority of references to horses in Scripture are in the context of war and governmental rule. For our purposes, it should be mentioned that even Zekharya in various places uses the horse as a symbol of strength and fighting, and in one place directly connects a horse to war ("And makes them like the magnificent horse in the battle" [10:3]).