By Rabbi Naftoly Bier
When one focuses on the dynamic of the שלש רגלים, it is natural for one to view פסח, Passover as the festival in which we celebrate the birth of the Jewish nation, שבועות, Shavuos as the time we received the Torah and סוכות, Sukkos as the commemoration of Hashem’s miraculous providing us daily in the desert.
What is fascinating is that when we are introduced the first time to these days – ימים טובים, holidays, in Exodus 23:14-17, the focus is on the agricultural cycle of the yearly crop. Pesach is the time slot on the calendar when the fields are planted. Shavuos is the חג הקציר, the harvest of the first fruits of our dedicated labor, and סוכות is called חג האסיף, when we gather all the produce into our “homes”. It initially seems odd that the Torah instructs us to focus on the physical gifts of Hashem rather than the defining attribute, that being that we are the עם הנבחר, the purpose of creation, we having accepted the Torah.
The רמב”ן, Nachmanides, in his commentary on Exodus 23:16 states: “All these ימים טובים, holidays, refer to the actions done in the field in order to articulate our profound appreciation to Hashem, who governs nature and brings forth from the earth to satiate one who desires and the hungry one. We therefore journey to the בית המקדש, the Holy temple, to ask Him what he desires to do, before we partake of the gift of produce.” The ספורנו, Sforno, points to the name of G-d used here (23:17) as אדון, Master, that is only used here in the whole Torah; to reinforce the idea that all of our existence is dependent on Him; and this is what we must focus on.
The רמב”ן, Nachmanides, Leviticus 23:39, teaches; “And the Torah adds the mitzvah of the four species, for Sukkos is a time of jubilation when we thank and praise Hashem for our success in developing our bountiful crop. We therefore take four distinctly different plants to acknowledge Hashem’s infinite benefaction.” The Medrash explains how each one of the four species represent Hashem!
Nachmanides explains that the שתי הלחם, the special offering that was brought on Shavuos, was an expression of profound thanks that Hashem guarded the timely process of agricultural growth. Despite the fact that there are only seven weeks between the onset of the new season of produce—Pesach and Shavuos—nevertheless the Torah obligates us to travel two weeks for some of the inhabitants each way to thank Hashem for His infinite kindness and love!
In Deuteronomy 16:8, Nachmanides explains the noticeable non-mention of the mitzva of Sukkos, lulav, the prohibition of work on Shavuos, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, for the Torah is coming to emphasize the mitzvahs of שמחה, joy and ראיה, to appear in front of His Divine Presence in the בית המקדש, Holy Temple, with a sacrifice. שמחה, jubilation that stems from appreciation and gratitude for all of Hashem’s blessings and ראיה, to stand in awe of Hashem.
The second idea is emphasized, according to the Ramban, in פרשת בהר, Leviticus 26:1. A Jew who is impoverished to an extent that they are hired as an indentured servant by a non-Jew is exhorted by the Torah, “ומקדשי תיראו, and my Holy Places you should treat with utmost reverence and respect.” Nachmanides explains that this admonition is that despite the Jew living in the non-Jewish home, nevertheless, he must journey to the Holy Temple in order to refresh his awe and reverence of Hashem.
We are being taught a profound, elemental lesson of how it is possible to develop true, unadulterated focus on serving Hashem, as a totally selfless person, as one who only wants to be subservient to Hashem by emulating Him as a compassionate, loving, merciful, tolerant and magnanimous personality—and to dedicate one’s life to conforming and observing all His precepts.
The חובות הלבבות, “Duties of the Heart”, introduction to שער הבחינה, “the section of examination,” lists three reasons that hinder one’s recognition of Hashem.
1) One who is absorbed in the pleasures of life, their lusting for it and not attaining it, their neglect to recognize the benefits Hashem bestows upon them, for they are preoccupied to satisfy their cravings. Even what they recognize they perceive as the minimum and more so if another has and they don’t, it is if tragedy befell them, and they never appreciate the vast gifts of Hashem.
2) Due to their coming into the world and constantly receiving an abundance of recurring Divine favors, it becomes so familiar that one regards these as intrinsic parts of their existence. In turn they foolishly ignore these benefits and in turn can’t consider thanking Hashem.
3) Human beings are struck in this world with various mishaps, pain, damages to their bodies and possessions, not recognizing that is to be a benefit to them, to learn from it. For what one has is totally a gift from Hashem and the removal of it is to learn from the Torah the reasons for the adversity. In turn, sometimes, one denies Hashem’s providence.
It is no wonder then that when there is such emphasis on the spiritual heights of the year, the שלש רגלים, when all personal activity to a halt and we all would travel to the center of spirituality in the world, the Holy Temple, one must reflect on His beneficence.
Human nature being, that if one doesn’t consistently concentrate and assimilate all His kindness, one invariably gets totally involved in their physical needs and desires. We therefore are commanded to celebrate every facet of the agricultural cycle in the בית המקדש imbuing in ourselves the presence of Hashem in every aspect of one’s living. In turn all our spiritual activity—to learn Torah—to do Mitzvos is done with complete selfless dedication to Hashem, with complete selfless dedication, without a drive for acclaim or fame.