Sukkot is a Biblical Festival of Joy, it’s even called zman simchateinu – “the season of our joy”. The Scripture commands us explicitly to be joyful during Sukkot:
13 Celebrate the Festival of Tabernacles for seven days after you have gathered the produce of your threshing floor and your winepress. 14 Be joyful at your festival—you, your sons and daughters, your male and female servants, and the Levites, the foreigners, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns. 15 For seven days celebrate the festival to the Lord your God at the place the Lord will choose. For the Lord your God will bless you in all your harvest and in all the work of your hands, and your joy will be complete. (Deut. 16:13-15)
Why? Why Sukkot is such a joyful Festival? Today we are going to discuss the Torah reading for Shabbat that falls on intermediate days of Sukkot: Exodus 33:12-34:26. The 33rd chapter of Exodus describes events happening right after the terrible sin of Israel – the golden calf incident – right after the tablets were broken by Moshe. At the end of the previous chapter, we saw Moshe interceding for the people and being able to convince God to forgive Israel. At the beginning of this chapter, Moshe had already received God’s confirmation: Yes! He will allow Moshe to continue his mission of leading the people of Israel into the Promised Land, the Land flowing with milk and honey. However, in His words we can still hear the echo of His recent wrath. While commanding Moshe and Israel to depart for the Land, He says, “Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey; for I will not go up in your midst, lest I consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people.”
This seems to be an absolute and definitive statement, completely clear and completely expected and fair after the terrible sin the people of Israel had just committed. This Torah portion is actually all about this – about God’s holiness, and about how He and His presence cannot, by any means, dwell with sinful man. I will not go up in your midst …
How great must be the reader’s surprise however, when literally several verses later we read: And He said, “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”
How could it possibly be? He is not a man that He should change his mind (1 Sam.15:29), so what can the explanation be for this seemingly contradictory and sudden change of His decision?
This is the profound mystery we are about to touch upon in this chapter. All of a sudden we realize that Scripture is telling us, not only about God’s holiness, but also about His mercy. Yes, His holiness is such that He cannot dwell and cannot go with sinful and sinning people, and yet He chooses to dwell and walk with His people, for such is His mercy. The statement: My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest, testifies to the very mercy of God extended to sinful and sinning man – unworthy to be near Him, unworthy for God to walk alongside him. Each of us knows that he fully deserves for the Lord to tell him: But I will not go with you, because you are a stiff-necked people and I might destroy you on the way. But herein is the great mercy of God, that despite this, He says to each person who is willing to call on Him: My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest. Herein is the completely astounding interrelationship between God’s holiness and His mercy – between His power and might, and His meekness and humbleness.
In most translations, we find the same phrasing in both verses 3 and 14: I Myself will go; I Myself will not go. But in the original Hebrew Scripture, verse 14 is slightly different from verse 3. It says: My face will go with you. If we remember that prior to this the Lord promised to send His Angel , then we understand that it is the Angel of His Face – Malakh Panav – who will go with Israel and lead them to the Promised Land.
Who is this Malakh Panav? The name occurs in full in only one place – in the book of Isaiah: In all their affliction he was afflicted, and the angel of his presence (Angel of His Face – Malakh Panav – וּמַלְאַ֤ךְ פָּנָיו֙ ) saved them: in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; and he bare them, and carried them all the days of old (Isa. 63:9-10). However, we actually encounter this special Angel many times in the Tanach – one who speaks in the name of God from the first person, as if he were God, and stands before people in the form of a man. Moreover, scripture is very clear about the fact that, after meetings with this Angel, people realize that they have seen God, yet their lives have been spared. We see Him in Genesis 18 appearing to Abraham; we see Him wrestling with Jacob in the place he named Peniel (Face of God); Manoah meets “the angel of the LORD”, and declares that he has seen God. This “messenger” or “angel” accepts blood sacrifice worship from Manoah (Judges 13:9-22). And if we go back to Exodus 33, undoubtedly, we find Him here as well: The face of God is going with Israel; the Angel of his Face, Malach Panav, is leading Israel to the Promised Land: My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest!
That is why Sukkot is a season of joy! Have you ever thought of yourself as not deserving God’s fellowship? Have you ever wondered how God could still be patient with you and merciful to you, when you would have given up on yourself long ago? Just think of it – each one of us knows millions of reasons why the Lord could, and should, tell us: for I will not go up in your midst, lest I consume you on the way, for you are … stiff-necked. This thought is very strong in Jewish tradition: Each one of us fully deserves these words; each one of us fully deserves God refusing to go with him – and each one of us has to be fully aware of that. Yet, more than anything in the world, each of us is longing to hear something completely different from Him: My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest – and the amazing thing is, that this is indeed what He is saying to us! This is His astounding promise to each one of us, the incomprehensible mystery of His mercy: we are stiff-necked, we do not deserve His love and His mercy, and yet, He goes with us and gives us rest.
This is the mystery of Sukkot – the mystery of His mercy and His renewed fellowship. In Jewish tradition, it is a well-known fact that Moses came back with the second set of tablets on Yom Kippur. Sukkot starts almost immediately after the days of Awe, the days of trembling and repentance! We finish Yom Kippur and the same night, we are starting to build the sukkah: zman simchateinu, the season of our joy, has come – because God, in His mercy, came to tabernacle with His people!