There is a beautiful Talmudic discussion that I learned from my father found in Tractate Avodah Zarah 3a. This page discusses the scenario in which one comes before God begging to accept God’s Torah and be a part of the Jewish people. God, in return, asks for the observance of one mitzvah. It is as simple as that: do one mitzvah, one act, and just like that one becomes a part of the Jewish people. Which mitzvah did God choose? One would think the celebration of Shabbat or the observance of Kashrut, daily prayer, or the laying of tefillin. However, the one act that God asks one to perform in this text to express one’s renewal and devotion to the Divine is the building of a Sukkah!
Ironically, the mitzvah on Sukkot is to dwell in a sukkah: to sit, eat, and yes, even sleep in a sukkah, but not to build a sukkah. Yet, we are taught that the first thing that we do after the break the fast on Yom Kippur is put the first nail into our sukkot. Why do we immediately begin building our sukkot after Yom Kippur — and why does the above text suggest that the building of a sukkah is the one act that God wants us to participating in? The building of the sukkah is a full body experience.
There are few full body experiences and rituals in our tradition. Immersion in the mikveh (ritual bath) is an example of one such full body experience. When one leaves the living waters of the ritual bath one is in a way reborn, having entered a new state of spiritual purity. So too, on Sukkot, we build the sukkah to surround ourselves with God. We show that with our full selves, we are embracing God and community in the new year.
The well-known midrash in Vayikra Rabbah 30:14 links the Lulav and Etrog, the four species, to different body parts. The palm branch represents how we praise God with our spines – through movement and physical labor. The myrtle branch represents how we praise God with our eyes – recognize and appreciating that all we see are God’s works and creations. The willow branch represents how we praise God with our lips – through song and speech, fixed liturgy praise and spontaneous prayer. Finally, the etrog represents how we praise God with our hearts — and how we strive to love God with all our heart. What is most powerful about this midrash is not the analogies. What is powerful is the fact that we do not shake these four species separately. The palm branch is meaningless to us without the myrtle and willow flanked at its sides, and the lulav is nothing without the etrog alongside it. Each represents another way we use our bodies to praise God, but we shake all four together as a sign of acceptance that we praise God with our full bodies and our full selves.
We are truly made b’tzelem Elohim, in God’s image, and our bodies are sacred vessels. We use these vessels to reconnect with God and with ourselves. As we begin this New Year, we do not recommit a portion of ourselves to God. Rather, we recommit our full selves.
There is a powerful prayer, although often found in gospel circles, that speaks to the notion of using our bodies on Sukkot to recommit ourselves to God. The lyrics are as follows:
Lord, prepare me to be a sanctuary,
Pure and holy, tried and true
I’ll be a living Sanctuary
May we rejoice on this holiday, and as we dwell in sukkot and shake our lulavim and etrogim, may we all be reminded that each of our bodies are living sanctuaries!
Moadim l’simcha and Chag Sameach!
– Rabbi Jesse Olitzky