Each year on Sukkot, we read these famous words of Ecclesiastes (Kohelet):
“A season is set for everything, a time for every experience under heaven. …a time for tearing down and a time for building up.” (Kohelet 3:1,3)
To speak of building during a holiday dedicated to erecting a temporary structure seems fitting. And yet, the order the ideas in this verse is at odds with our Sukkot experience. Surely, “a time for building up and a time for tearing down” would align more closely with sequence of the holiday. So why this order? And what exactly are “we tearing down and building up”?
The Torah portion for Shabbat Chol HaMo-ed Sukkot — Exodus 33:12-34:26 — can help us answer these questions. In this Torah portion, we are presented with a slice of a story — a short vignette of a significant moment in the history of the people of Israel that covers several key events. The portion begins with Moses’ request to “behold Your [God’s] Presence,” (Exodus 33:18), continues with the carving of the second set of tablets (Exodus 34:1), and concludes with a short summary of the three Pilgrimage Festivals (Exodus 34:18). At first glance, this somewhat disjointed section seems a strange fit for the Shabbat of Sukkot and appears to offer no answer to our questions about tearing down and building up. As we examine the narrative more closely, however, we realize that the story enacted in this text is indeed one of rebuilding — not of structures but of relationship.
In their original context, Exodus 33 and 34 occur in the aftermath of the sin of the Golden Calf. God is furious, Moses is distraught, and the people are in peril. Our small section is the coda to the entire episode — the events that transpire after Moses intercedes, God forgives, and the people are spared complete destruction. Here, God, Moses, and the people all try to move forward — to rebuild their relationship and their eternal covenant.
In just a few short verses, the Torah portion reveals a path to repair:
Reassurance of God’s Presence: Moses asks God to lead the people and reveal God’s Presence (Exodus 33:12-18)
Granting a Second Chance: God commands Moses to write the second set of tablets (Exodus 34:1)
Restating the Terms of Relationship: God restates the conditions of the three Festivals (Exodus 34:18-26)
The incident of the Golden Calf creates a tear in the fabric of the relationship between God and the people of Israel. The postscript to this episode illuminates a process that leads to healing and restoration — a building up. May we all strive to rebuild the relationships in our lives that have fallen into disrepair.
Rabbi David Grossman
Rabbi Joshua Grossman