There is much more to Succot than meets the eye. There is the physical Succa of walls and schach (roofing), the Succot of the four species, the exhilaration of “the season of our rejoicing” and the Succot of the Torah, the commemoration of G-d’s preservation of the Jewish people during our sojourn in the wilderness and beyond.
But there is also the hidden Succot – another dimension that looms beneath the surface – the Succot of the seventy sacrificial bulls, offered in the Temple on behalf of the nations of the world, and the Succot of the future, when all nations will gather to celebrate Succot in Jerusalem. How do we get from one Succot – the particular celebration of the Jewish people – to the global celebration of Succot ?
And what exactly do we celebrate ? Succot is the only one of the festivals that does not commemorate a specific event – Pesach celebrates the moment of our national birth, and Shavuot the revelation of G-d that gave us the Torah. But Succot has no individual event associated with it. So what are we celebrating ?
And perhaps the greatest mystery of Succos is a Midrash cited in Yalkut Iyov 927: “R. Levi said: whoever fulfills the mitzva of Succa in this world, G-d will place him in the future in the Succa of Leviathan.” But what is that, and why do we aspire to such a Succa ?
Leviathan is one of the two creatures singled out by G-d in the book of Iyov as examples of His infinite power and wisdom – behemoth, the enormous land animal, and leviathan, the monster of the sea. To further complicate matters, Leviathan itself has two forms – the nachash bariach, the straight serpent, and nachash akalaton, the coiled serpent, both referenced as well in Isaiah 27 where the prophet states that in the future G-d will unsheathe His mighty sword and kill both. So who and what are these, and why do we want them dead ?
Rav Shamshon Rafael Hirsch writes in a brilliant essay (Collected Writings, Volume II) that Leviathan represents the forces of evil in the world that are submerged, and yet threaten the stability of mankind again and again. The nachash bariach, the straight serpent, are the nations that rule through brute force and impose their will on mankind directly, through their power, while nachash akalaton, the coiled serpent, are those nations that rule through cunning and manipulation, that achieve their ends through stealth and secrecy. Both are dangerous – and both need to be kept apart.
“If the two forces ever mated, the whole world would be destroyed” (ibid 926), i.e., if might ever combined with cunning, they would be unstoppable. Built into history is the inability of powerful empires to sustain themselves, because they become impressed with their own might and their own invincibility. And they usually self-destruct.
It is both depressing and astonishing when we contemplate the persistence of evil in the world. From the time of the primeval serpent until today, the world has not seen a moment’s respite – and especially since the creation of the Jewish people, evil has always had a defined target. Sometimes the enemy’s assault is frontal and sometimes it is circuitous – but it lingers – and our enemies are, usually, the oppressors of others, as well. Even if one evildoer disappears, another appears; even if we think that the world learned a lesson through a spasm of violence and mayhem, the lesson is short-lived. The carnage of World War I – “the war to end all wars” – was a trifle compared to World War II, and the savagery and depth of evil did nothing to prevent the rise of Communist tyrants. And their demise did not thwart the ascension of the despots and terrorists of the Arab and Muslim world. It never ends. And this week’s gathering of despots and tyrants among the free world’s leaders at the UN seemingly underscores that bleak prospect.
But it does end, and that is the eternal message – the hidden message – of Succot. Rav Lior Engleman notes that, unlike the other holidays, Succot does not commemorate an event, but it celebrates a process, the long road, with all its twists and turns, all of its surprises and dangers – with one constant: the protective hand of G-d. On Succot, we are reminded of the cycle – every day (except Shabbat) we circumambulate the shul, starting and ending at the same point; on Succot, we are judged on the year’s water supply – which is not only a palindrome (mayim in Hebrew) – but also comes to us through nature’s cycle.
On Succot, we live our normal life and rejoice in the Succa, because there is unlimited joy in our regular lives under the protective wings of the Divine Presence. Whoever can do that in this world – with all the evil lurking around us – the evil of the brutes and the evil of the sophisticates – with all the enemies who wish us ill, and with all the “good” people who make their accommodations with evil – whoever is able to see history as a process, with a beginning and an end and not lose faith – “G-d will seat them in the Succa made from the skin of Leviathan.” When evil is vanquished, and human society – the great Leviathan – is tamed and refined, then the righteous will bask in the Succa made of that fishy substance and become the foundation of a new society dedicated to G-d’s service, when the remaining nations gather to serve G-d in Jerusalem, when He will be One and His name acknowledged as One.