Purim and Providence: Who Knows?

This coming week we will be celebrating the holiday of Purim and reading the megilla. Famously, God’s name does not appear once in the entire account of the story of Purim. Our sages tell us, that this is because the miracle of Purim is hidden; God’s role in the events which transpired was subtle, behind the scenes. This is characteristic of our lives in exile. God’s presence is more removed from us; we don’t have open miracles and clear demonstrations of His providence the same way we once did. Nevertheless it is essential that we recognize, that although we may not always be able to discern it, God’s hand is involved in the history of our nation.

Mordechai and Esther provide us with the model, of how to properly relate to God’s providence. Mordechai speaks to Esther, asking her to intercede on behalf of the Jews. He says, “For if you are quiet at this time, then relief and deliverance will arise to the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish; and who knows whether you have not come to royalty for a time such as this?” This does not strike us a particularly “religious” question. What do you mean “who knows?” Of course it must be for this moment, this is God’s plan.

What Mordechai was telling Esther, was that she must do her part to work towards the safety of the Jewish people. That is all that we can have control over. We don’t know what God’s plan is in the moment, sometimes not even after years, and sometimes never. Most of the time we can’t say definitively that particular events are directly from God. Not even Mordechai felt like he could say that at that time. But we do know what we are supposed to do – to live our lives with wisdom and according to the principles of the Torah. It is up to God to do the rest.

We have to be able to understand the middle ground. We can’t sit back and assume that God will take care of everything. We must first do all that we can to carry out our mission. But we must also realize that our ultimate success lies out of our hands. That we often do everything we possibly can and it is still not enough. There are always a multitude of factors which lie out of our control. We can only follow the lead of our ancestors. Esther responded to Mordechai saying, “Go, gather together all the Jews that are present in Shushan, and fast for me, and neither eat nor drink three days, night or day; I also and my maidens will fast; and so will I go in to the king, which is not according to the law; and if I perish, I perish.” Esther agreed to Mordechai’s plan, but recognized that without prayer, and without repentance, the likelihood of their success was limited. This is the way of our people – we live and plan our lives with wisdom. But we couple that with the recognition of our limitations as well as the One who ultimately guarantees our success.

Rememberance of a Shade-Hut

Rememberance of a Shade-Hut

                                                                                                By: Jonah Mishaan


You shall dwell in booths seven days; all that are home-born in Israel shall dwell in booths, so that your generations may know that I caused the children of Israel to dwell in booths, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt. I am Hashem your God. (Vayikra 23:42-43)


The Torah commands us to live in sukkot for seven days in order to remember the sukkot that Bnei Yisrael dwelt in when God took them out of Egypt. The word sukkot is normally translated as booths or huts, however in this instance there is a question regarding the pasuk’s usage of the term. While everyone agrees that the sukkot which we are commanded to live in to fulfill the mitzvah are the familiar booth-sukkot, there is a well-known Tannaic dispute concerning what it is that the mitzvah is commemorating.

The Gemara in Sukkah daf 11b references the machloket while inquiring about the origins of the halachot regarding permissible materials for the sukka.

The Baraita teaches;“For I caused the children of Israel to dwell in sukkot etc.” these were the Clouds of Glory; the words of Rebbi Eliezer. Rebbi Akiva said they were actual booths (sukkot mamash).

That is the extent of the Talmudic discussion of the issue. Without any further elaboration we are left with some difficulties. It seems as if there is something fundamental which the two sides are grappling with. They are not simply arguing about a halachic detail, but are offering radically different explanations as to the nature of the mitzvah, and by extension, the nature of the Chag Ha’Sukkot as well. Such vastly differing explanations regarding the identity of a holiday is unexpected. What is it that we are we trying to remember by living in sukkot for a week? Is it the Clouds of Glory that surrounded Bnei Yisrael’s encampment in the midbar, or is it actual booths which they constructed and dwelt in?

Although this would seem to be an especially significant machloket, there is not much in terms of an actual analysis of the disagreement, despite numerous references to it by later commentators. The major Talmudic and Biblical commentators for the most part gloss over the machloket, or simply record it as stated. If we analyze the machloket on our own, it seems that both explanations present their own challenges. According to Rebbi Eliezer, who holds that sukkot is a reference to the Clouds of Glory, it’s unclear how this explanation emerges from the Torah’s language. If we are basing our analysis on the words of the pesukim, the simpler approach would be to explain sukkot as actual booths. Booths is the usual meaning of sukka, certainly its definition in general has nothing to do with clouds. The Torah even used the term in this very section in a way which clearly refers to booths. We would expect it to maintain a consistent use of the term, especially in consecutive sentences. And if the Torah was speaking about the Clouds of Glory, why does the pasuk use the word sukkot? It could have very simply said clouds explicitly if that was in fact its intention. It appears that Rebbi Eliezer’s interpretation deviates from the simple pshat of the text.

Rebbi Akiva’s position, that sukkot refers to actual booths, has the advantage of being rooted in the language of the Torah. However his understanding has a different, and seemingly bigger problem. And that is, quite frankly, who cares? Why does it matter that Bnei Yisrael made booths and lived in them for forty years in the desert? Certainly we are aware that they did not sleep on the desert floor, they had to have lived in something. What significance does this have, and why is it worthy of a mitzvah and a festival to commemorate this? Intuitively, we can sense the direction that Rebbi Eliezer is going with in his approach. Although it is still unclear why the Clouds of Glory are so special that they require a remembrance, we can at least see that they are miraculous. But according to Rebbi Akiva, why should we commemorate a mundane detail of how Bnei Yisrael lived in the desert? There were many miracles which were performed for the nation while they sojourned in the desert: manna which descended from heaven, a continued supply of water that traveled with them, birds which fell from the sky ready to consume, protection from beasts and diseases, their clothes not withering. Out of everything which occurred to the people in the midbar, why are we remembering the huts that they lived in?

It seems difficult to answer the questions on each side, much less to pin down precisely what they are arguing about. In order to move forward, let’s first determine what common ground the two positions share. We can first say that both sides are not arguing over the factual historical experience of Bnei Yisrael. The Torah openly tells us that the nation was surrounded by clouds which protected them and led the way on their travels. And it would seem that even Rebbi Eliezer would acknowledge that the people did live in some kind of dwelling. Where the two sides differ is in which aspect of Bnei Yisrael’s existence in the midbar the Torah is highlighting as worthy of commemoration.

It would seem both sides agree that, in a general sense, the mitzvah has something to do with Bnei Yisrael’s life in the desert. Whether it is the Clouds of Glory, or the booths which the people lived in, each of them reflect the nation’s stay in the desert. As the pasuk says, “because I placed Bnei Yisrael in sukkot when I took them out of the land of Egypt.” Looking at Sukkot in comparison to Pesach and Shavuot, the other holidays which are tied to particular historical-national events (as opposed to Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur whose significance is primarily ahistorical), we can notice a difference in the identity of Sukkot. Whereas Pesach and Shavuot remember Yetziat Mitzrayim and Matan Torah, specific national milestones, Sukkot recalls Bnei Yisrael’s stay in the desert which occurred over a span of forty years, a much more general phenomenon. The stay in the midbar was more of a historical period than particular event.

Jumping off of this distinction, we can say that this lack of association with a particular event, is precisely what we are recognizing with Sukkot. The people were taken out of Egypt in miraculous fashion and became the nation of God. They received His law, the Torah, and were spoken to directly by God on Har Sinai in a national revelation never again to be repeated. It is entirely conceivable that this would have been enough. They were out of Egypt, they were given the Torah, and they had Moshe to lead the way into Eretz Yisrael. There would be no more need for a direct involvement of God in the life of the nation. And yet despite that, the hashgachat (providence) Hashem continued to intervene in their lives in a miraculous manner, making His presence known in all facets of their existence. He revealed Himself not only as Redeemer and Lawgiver, but as the God of their daily lives; the God who nourishes, shelters, protects, and directs them. The midbar represents the awareness that His providence was not, and is not, limited to a particular time or setting. The chesed Hashem is such that His relationship with Klal Yisrael is everlasting. And it is a part of Bnei Yisrael’s very identity to recognize that we are not the nation of God solely because of events which occurred in our remote past, but because of the continual involvement and concern of God with the nation. It is our obligation to not only be aware of this reality, but to actively strive towards the actualization of a relationship with God.

Sukkot is thus a holiday which is dedicated to perceiving and recognizing God’s providence in our lives. Through the significance of the midbar era, we reflect on the hashgachat Hashem and the persistence of His presence with our nation. We can look at the two positions as reflecting different aspects of God’s hashgacha. For Rebbi Eliezer, Sukkot is meant to bring to mind the Clouds of Glory, a symbol representing the direct and manifest involvement of Hashem in our lives, known as hashgacha peratit. For Rebbi Akiva on the other hand, Sukkot relates to the structures which Bnei Yisrael themselves constructed. Rebbi Akiva veers away from highlighting the miraculous involvement of God with the nation and instead focuses on the more general and indirect ways in which His presence manifests. Bnei Yisrael’s construction of booths and survival in the desert represents the more concealed revelation of God, the dimension of His providence which expresses itself through the laws of nature, known as hashgacha kellalit.

Despite this initial step, it still seems as if the two positions are far apart. After all, recognizing both Hashem’s hashgacha peratit and kellalit are essential. We still need a better understanding of the machloket and something to bridge the gap between the two sides.

This is where the explanation of the Rashbam comes in, and with his analysis of the mitzvah I believe that we can fully define the machloket. The Rashbam (23:43) connects the mitzvah of dwelling in the sukkah with the parasha in Eikev which details the future entry of the nation into the land of Israel. To fully appreciate the Rashbam’s interpretation, I included the pesukim from that section in full.

So that your generations will know: the simple meaning is like the words of those who say in masechet Sukkah (11b) they were actual booths. And this is the meaning of the matter. Make for yourself a festival of Sukkot when you gather from your threshing floor and from your winepress; when you gather the produce of the land and your houses are filled with all types of goods – grain, wine, and oil, so that you remember that I caused the children of Israel to dwell in sukkot, in the desert for forty years without a settlement or an inheritance. And through this you will give thanks to the One who gave you an inheritance and houses filled with all types of goods. And you won’t say in your heart “my strength and the might of my hand that has accumulated this wealth for me.” And this order is found in parashat Eikev (Devarim 8:1-18).

1) Every commandment that I command you this day you shall keep to do, that you may live and multiply, and come and possess the land that the Lord swore to your forefathers. 2) And you shall remember the entire way on which the Lord, your God, led you these forty years in the desert, in order to afflict you to test you, to know what is in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not. 3) And He afflicted you and let you go hungry, and then fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your forefathers know, so that He would make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but rather by, whatever comes forth from the mouth of the Lord does man live. 4) Your clothing did not wear out upon you, nor did your foot swell these forty years. 5) You shall know in your heart, that just as a man chastises his son, so does the Lord, your God, chastise you. 6) And you shall keep the commandments of the Lord your God, to go in His ways, and to fear Him. 7) For the Lord your God is bringing you to a good land, a land with brooks of water, fountains and depths, that emerge in valleys and mountains, 8) a land of wheat and barley, vines and figs and pomegranates, a land of oil producing olives and honey, 9) a land in which you will eat bread without scarcity, you will lack nothing in it, a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose mountains you will hew copper. 10) And you will eat and be sated, and you shall bless the Lord, your God, for the good land He has given you. 11) Beware that you do not forget the Lord, your God, by not keeping His commandments, His ordinances, and His statutes, which I command you this day, 12) lest you eat and be sated, and build good houses and dwell therein, 13) and your herds and your flocks multiply, and your silver and gold increase, and all that you have increases 14) and your heart grows haughty, and you forget the Lord, your God, Who has brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage, 15) Who led you through that great and awesome desert, [in which were] snakes, vipers and scorpions, and drought, where there was no water; who brought water for you out of solid rock, 16) Who fed you with manna in the desert, which your forefathers did not know, in order to afflict you and in order to test you, to benefit you in your end, 17) and you will say to yourself, “My strength and the might of my hand that has accumulated this wealth for me.” 18) But you must remember the Lord your God, for it is He that gives you strength to make wealth, in order to establish His covenant which He swore to your forefathers, as it is this day.

And that is why we leave our houses which are filled with all types of goods, at the time of the gathering [of the grain] and we sit in sukkot to remember that they did not possess an inheritance in the desert, and no houses to dwell in. And for this reason God established the festival of Sukkot at the time of the gathering from the threshing floor and the winepress, so that their hearts will not be exalted on account of their houses which are filled with all kinds of goods, so that you will not say that it is our hands which made all of this wealth.

According to the Rashbam, the goal of Sukkot is to uproot the feeling of kochi ve’otzem yadi asa li et ha’chayil ha’zeh, “my strength and the might of my hand has accumulated this wealth for me.” That is why Sukkot was established at this time in the calendar year, the gathering in of the harvest. After a long year of hard work and toil, the farmer is finally able to enjoy the fruits of his labor. At the height of his material success, he feels proud of his accomplishments and his skill in amassing his wealth. He begins to feel that his success is due to his own innate greatness and qualities. It is then that he is commanded to leave his strong and sturdy house to dwell in the temporary structure of the sukkah. To prevent him from falling into a state of shichecha (forgetting). He remembers the lessons that it is God who has given him the strength to make his wealth and that he subsists not only on bread, but on the word of the Lord. Lessons which our people learned long ago, on our journey through the wilderness.

The time in the midbar was meant to prepare the nation for their entry into the land of Israel, a good land, a land in which their material needs would be provided for. There they would be able to eat to their satisfaction, build big strong houses, and accumulate silver and gold. Just like the farmer, they would be at risk to forget about God and succumb to the temptation of shichecha. Their experience in the midbar however, served as a correction for the tendency to forget. They lived in a state where their day-to-day existence was totally dependent on God. Their food, shelter, wealth, and security were directly supplied by God’s hashgacha. As the Torah tells us this was not an easy life. At times the conditions were harsh, but what was even more difficult, was living a life in which their dependence on God was so glaring. There is a part of us which wants to feel that we are in full control, that we are self-made beings. The midbar was an educational experience which shattered that illusion. It was a training in how to relate to the hashgacha, and forever altered the national consciousness of Klal Yisrael. In the midbar was a message to Bnei Yisrael. ‘Right now in the desert, when you are alone and helpless in a vast wilderness, and you are being spoonfed by the Hand of God, you remember Him. But you will soon be settling into a new land. You, and not God will plant and harvest your own crops, will lay down the foundations of your own houses, will build your own walls and forge your own weapons. The presence of God will be more obscure. You will have the illusion that you are entirely self-sufficient. But you will remember the lessons of the midbar. That your success, your nourishment, your safety, your very existence stem from God. That His presence is with the nation continuously and is not just limited to a certain time. You may not see it the same way that you do now, but it is still there and nonetheless just as real.’ We must see that the God who sheltered us with his Clouds of Glory in the wilderness is the same one who manifests Himself in the beauty and lawfulness of the universe. The One who is with us when we build our houses and collect our bounty.

Using the Rashbam’s insight we are in a position to explain the machloket. Both sides agree that the midbar experience was meant to educate Bnei Yisrael, the developing nation of former slaves who were redeemed to live as God’s people. Before inheriting the land of Israel they were given a tutorial in how to properly relate to God’s providence. The miracles and direct intervention of God was meant to teach them how to relate to God as a provider and protector, when His presence would not be seen as demonstrably. They were shown that just as God provides for your needs in the desert, so too is it necessary to recognize that He is the provider even when you are under the illusion that you alone support yourselves. For Rebbi Eliezer, the Clouds of Glory are what recall the midbar experience. When Hashem educated the people through a prolonged manifestation of His hashgacha, unparalleled throughout history. The mitzvah of sukkah is meant to commemorate the means through which God revealed Himself to our nation in its infancy in order to change our orientation towards the hashgacha. And that is why the pasuk didn’t explicitly mention Clouds of Glory. Because the goal of Sukkot and of the entire midbar process was meant to show that the God who revealed Himself through miraculous Clouds of Glory is the same One who is revealed through this ordinary shade hut. He is the same One who provides us with the power to succeed over our environment. The sukkah and the Clouds of Glory must be seen in this identical manner, and that is precisely the intent of the Torah.

For Rebbi Akiva on the other hand, the sukkot that the pasuk discusses are not the miraculous Clouds of Glory. The miracles and wonders of the midbar were vehicles which were meant to change the way Bnei Yisrael viewed the hashgacha and how they related to their environment. To focus on the Clouds of Glory is thus missing out on the entire goal of the midbar process. Rebbi Akiva’s literal understanding of the term sukkot brings to mind that the midbar experience was meant to change the way Bnei Yisrael related to their homes, just as our dwelling in the sukkah is meant to change the way that we relate to ours. The booths represent the end of the midbar process.

To summarize, both sides agree that the sukkah is meant to recall our nation’s development in the midbar. A unique time of revelation which was meant to provide Bnei Yisrael with the tools for how to relate properly to the hashgacha. To become a nation which recognizes God through the supernatural as well as natural. The two sides differ in the object which symbolizes this experience. For Rebbi Eliezer, the education of the people was achieved through the means of the supernatural, thus the Clouds of Glory are most suitable for what we are remembering. For Rebbi Akiva, the entire goal of the midbar was to prepare the nation and their descendants for how to relate to their homes, their land, their wealth. The booths are thus the appropriate symbol, to illustrate to Bnei Yisrael in the desert, as well as to us, the way we should be oriented towards our material goods and in which we perceive God’s providence.

The sukkah is a symbol of the eternal bond between God and Klal Yisrael. We turn our gaze upwards and look through the leaves of the sukkah to the stars (Rambam Hilchot Shofar, Sukkah, Ve’Lulav 5:21) and we remember the God who provides us with the tools to recognize His presence through a simple shade-hut.