Today is the first day of the Feast of Tabernacles, which is known in Judaism as “Sukkot” (“booths,” or “tents”).
I kept the Feast of Tabernacles when I was growing up in a Worldwide Church of God offshoot. Or at least I thought I was keeping it, since many Jews may not count my “observance” as actual observance. During this time of year, my family would pack up and go to a distant location, such as Panama City, Florida, or Williamsburg, Virginia, any place we liked that the Church designated a “feast site.” We would go to church every day, and we would have fun as a family. One year, we visited historical sites. Another year, we swam a lot. The Feast was also a time for exchanging gifts. We did not keep Christmas (which we considered pagan), so the Feast was our Christmas-substitute.
As far as the festival’s significance was concerned, we believed that it meant a lot of things. First, we thought that it foreshadowed Christ’s millennial reign on earth. As I mentioned before, the WCG connected the Feast of Trumpets with the second coming of Christ, since Christ will return with the blast of trumpets. If you interpret the festivals chronologically, and Christ’s millennial reign succeeds his second coming, then you might conclude that the Feast of Tabernacles depicts the millennium. As the Feast was a time of great joy (Leviticus 23:40), so will Christ’s earthly rule be a period of peace, prosperity, and happiness.
Second, we interpreted the Feast in light of II Corinthians 5:1-4. There, Paul likens our earthly bodies to tabernacles. For Paul, our current tabernacles (bodies) are temporary in the sense that we will one day possess incorruptible heavenly bodies. Similarly, during the Feast of Tabernacles, we stayed in a temporary dwelling, which, in our case, was a hotel room (sometimes good, and sometimes not so good). The Israelites dwelt in tents for seven days to remember their experience in the wilderness prior to their entrance into the Promised Land (Leviticus 23:42-43). As the Israelites lived in tents temporarily while hoping for something better, so Christians endure this troublesome earthly life in hope of a glorious eternity. As Stephen Curtis Chapman said, “Don’t be content to stay. We are not home yet!”
Third, at some stage in our Church’s history, the Feast became more than our Christmas-substitute. It became our actual Christmas, as Garner Ted Armstrong proclaimed that Jesus was born during the Feast of Tabernacles. He based his argument one of E.W. Bullinger’s appendices in the Companion Bible, and possibly other sources. In addition to the calculations about when Zecharias was in the temple, the season of John the Baptist’s birth, and the precise date 33 and 1/2 years before Jesus’ death, the sources relied on John 1:14, which one can translate, “And the Word became flesh, and tabernacled among us.” So there you go!
To be honest, I do not entirely know what the Feast of Tabernacles means in Judaism, though I have read some things. I once read Harold Kushner’s To Life, which is his introduction to Judaism. He offered a historical-critical interpretation of the festival. According to Kushner, Israelites (or maybe he said Canaanites) used to pitch tents in their fields when they were harvesting their crops. Kushner may believe that the Bible historicized an agricultural practice when it related the tents to Israel’s wilderness experience.
A rabbi at Harvard once said that the sukkah’s vulnerability reminds us of our dependence on God. This, I believe, is the lesson that the Torah wants us to learn from the festival. For the Israelites, the wilderness was a time of humility, dependence on God, and dwelling in vulnerable tents. After the Israelites entered the Promised Land, grew crops, and became prosperous, God wanted them to remember their humble origins. Pride can easily accompany prosperity, so God gave them a ritual reminder that they needed him to arrive at where they were. God wanted them to celebrate and enjoy his blessings, but also to keep in mind that they were his blessings.
I also read Irving Greenberg’s The Jewish Way, a detailed description of the Jewish festivals. According to Numbers 29:12-34, the Israelites offered seventy bulls during the seven days of the Feast of Tabernacles. For Greenberg, the Israelites did so on behalf of the seventy nations of the world. Michael Brown makes an interesting statement in Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus:
“In b. Sukkah 55b (see also Pesikta deRav Kahana, Buber edition, 193b-194a) we read that the seventy bulls that were offered every year during the Feast of Tabernacles…’were for the seventy nations,’ which Rashi explains to mean, ‘to make atonement for them, so that rain will fall throughout the world.’ In this context–and in light of the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 C.E.–the Talmud records the words of Rabbi Yohannan: ‘Woe to the nations who destroyed without knowing what they were destroying. For when the Temple was standing, the altar made atonement for them. But now, who will make atonement for them?'” (Volume 2, 152-153).
Within Jewish tradition, the Feast of Tabernacles was a reminder that God loved all of humanity, and that Israel had a responsibility to be concerned for other nations.
So the Feast of Tabernacles means a lot of things to me: memories, Christ’s coming kingdom, hope, blessings, dependence on God, and concern for others. Hopefully, it will gain more meaning as I continue to grow.