“Death is very likely the single best invention of Life,” said Steve Jobs during his 2005 Stanford Commencement address. This phrase aptly describes one of the themes underlying the most joyous Biblical festival, Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles).
Before beginning the Passover seder meal, which falls half a year distant from Sukkot, we extend an invitation to those who are hungry to join us. However, before the Sukkot meal, we invite seven dead people to join us; Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, and David. Sounds a little like Halloween dinner at Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion doesn’t it?
Yes, Sukkot, which is set by an exquisitely precise lunar calendar, always occurs close to Halloween. That time of the year as the leaves die and the days get colder and shorter, can feel quite lifeless. Hence Halloween’s frivolous mocking of death. Sukkot’s association with death couldn’t be more different.
Actually, Sukkot has an additional name. It is called the Festival of the Gathering because of this verse:
Observe the Festival of Sukot for seven days
after you have gathered in your grain and your wine
you have gathered
However, in Hebrew, that word ‘gather’ ASaF, also means dying, as we see in these examples:
Isaac expired, and died, and was gathered to his people…
When Jacob finished commanding his sons, he gathered up his feet into the bed, and expired, and was gathered unto his people.
Die on the mountain where you go up, and be gathered to your people; as Aaron your brother died in Mount Hor, and was gathered to his people.
and he was gathered
As if to emphasize the connection between joyous life and death, Sukkot contains a celebration of life-giving water but is also the holyday on which we read the book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) with its reminder that:
…and the day of death (is better) than the day of one’s birth.
It is better to go to a house of mourning
than a house of feasting…”
As Thought Tool enthusiasts already know, when any Hebrew word seems to mean two separate things or ideas, they are really closely related. Thus the Festival of the Gathering also means the festival of death. But why would the most joyful Biblical holyday carry even a hint of death?
For a clue, we need to examine an incident late in the life of Moses.
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, avenge the people of Israel from the Midianites; afterwards shall you be gathered to your people. And Moses spoke to the people, saying, arm yourselves for war and go against the Midianites to do the God’s vengeance in Midian.
A lesser man hearing that this would be his final mission, might have dawdled in launching the war against the Midianites. He might have rationalized the delay as necessary for adequate military preparation. But ancient Jewish wisdom observes that though Moses clearly knew that after this mission he’d die, he nonetheless wasted no time in carrying it out.
This final opportunity for Moses to obey God carried a special quality that it wouldn’t have possessed if there’d be countless future such opportunities. If great wine cost a dollar a bottle, it would soon lose its taste. The value of any limitless commodity is zero. Without death, there can ultimately be no joy. A life lived forever is not a good deal and whether this is exactly what Steve Jobs meant in June 2005, we’ll never know. But the words he uttered are true. This is why Sukkot, the greatest holyday of joy, must contain within it some small reminders of death.
In observance of Sukkot, our offices and store close this Wednesday at sunset through nighttime on Saturday. In appreciation of your tolerance of our sporadic holyday schedule, we want to offer you a gift. When you purchase the Library Package or Library Package PLUS, at checkout we will automatically add a copy of Judy Gruen’s new book, The Skeptic and the Rabbi. We trust that the ancient Jewish wisdom contained in these packages will add to your appreciation for and quality of life while Mrs. Gruen’s book (in which I am the rabbi in the title) will make you chuckle and tug at your heart as you join her in her journey to faith.
The Skeptic and the Rabbi