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Light from the Sidra

Sukkot 1 (‘Tabernacles’). 28th September 2015. 15th Tishrei 5776.

Torah: Leviticus 22:26–23:34; Numbers 29:12–16. Haftarah: Zechariah 14:1-21

This year in Jerusalem above!

Every year, for more than thirty years, tens of thousands of Christians from all nations have converged on Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles as an expression of love to the Jewish people, to show solidarity with the Jewish state and to fulfil the prophecy of Zechariah 14. But some Israelis regard such expressions of support with suspicion. The Jewish people have a long collective memory and after centuries of suffering at the hands of an ecclesiastical structure that claims to be the sole, authoritative representative of Christ and his apostles, it’s not hard to see why some Jews might be suspicious to see vast numbers of Christians marching through the streets of their capital city proclaiming that they love Israel. What’s the catch?

These Christians believe that by travelling to Jerusalem at Sukkot (and some of them go there every year) they are fulfilling the prophecy of Zechariah, one of Israel’s final prophets: It shall be that all who are left over from all the nations who had invaded Jerusalem will come up every year to worship the King HASHEM, Master of Legions, and to celebrate the festival of Succos.’

I believe the prophecy of Zechariah but I believe my fellow Christians have misunderstood Zechariah’s prophecy. For example, since the temple was destroyed more than 1,900 years ago the Jewish people have never been able to observe Sukkot properly. And to not observe the festival according to the instructions of HASHEM is to not observe it at all. According to the word of HASHEM in Leviticus 23, HASHEM’s ‘appointed times’ were to be observed in HASHEM’s appointed place, the temple. The appointed times were to be observed in an appointed place and had a significance beyond the remembrance of the past acts of HASHEM for Israel.

Sukkot is the third and final of the great pilgrim festivals of Israel – the other two being Pesach and Shavuot –when all the males of Israel have to appear before HASHEM at the temple. The Sages saw in the festival a significance not only for Israel but also for the nations, and Zechariah foresaw a time when the Gentiles would celebrate the festival with the Jews.

Because Sukkot celebrates the gathering of the final harvest of the year, it is ‘the Festival of Ingathering’. It is also the ‘Season of our Rejoicing’ because it is the only festival at which the Jewish people are commanded to rejoice for seven days. Tabernacles is such a great festival that some religious Jews refer to it simply as ha Hag, ‘the Festival’.
Harvest in the Bible is full of symbolism about God’s purposes for Israel and the nations. Jeremiah 2:3 tells us that when God chose Israel, she was ‘holy to HASHEM, the first of his crop.’ If Israel is the first of HASHEM’s crop, the rest of his crop must come from the nations.

That hope is reflected in the instructions given to Israel in in Numbers 29. Over the seven days of the festival, 70 bulls were offered, starting with thirteen on the first day, twelve on the second and so on until, on the final day of the festival, seven bulls were offered. Some of the Sages taught that the seventy bulls were offered for the protection of the seventy Gentile nations. Rashi, however, in his commentary on Numbers 29:18, expresses the opinion that just as the number of bulls diminished with every passing day, the nations themselves would eventually be extinguished. Did Rashi literally believe there would come a time when Israel alone of all the nations would exist? Or did Rashi anticipate a day when the nations would become one with Israel?

Zechariah has a message of hope not only for Israel but also for all nations. The nations will not only continue to exist but they will also keep Sukkot with the Jews. But without the temple it is impossible for Zechariah’s prophecy to be fulfilled. In which case, will the prophecy ever come to pass? To put it bluntly, was Zechariah a false prophet?

The solution to this dilemma is to be found in the New Testament, a collection of books and letters written during the Second Temple period by devout Jews who believed Jesus was the promised Messiah. The last book in the New Testament, ‘The Revelation’, was written by author, Johanan, who had been Jesus’ closest friend. In chapter 7, Johanan sees a vision of 144,000 Jews from the twelve tribes of Israel. Chapter 14 presents a similar vision but with additional details. The first seven verses of chapter 14 reveal that the 144,000 Jews had been ‘redeemed from among mankind as firstfruits – the first of the crop – for God and the Lamb’ and in chapter 7 the vision of the 144,000 ‘firstfruits’ is followed by a vision of a vast crowd of people from all the nations, so great that no one can count them. The 144,000 are the first believers in Jesus – the first of God’s crop – and after them comes HASHEM’s full harvest from all nations.

Contrary to what many Jewish people believe, the New Testament is a pro-Jewish book written by Jews and, in a number of cases, for Jews. The letter of James (Yaakov, to give him is Jewish name) is believed to be one of the brothers of Jesus and his letter is most likely the earliest New Testament document, written when almost every believer in Jesus was a Jew. James addresses his readers as ‘the twelve tribes in the Diaspora’ and in 1:18 he calls them ‘a kind of firstfruits (first crop) of God’s creatures’. Many Jews in the first century believed in Jesus and James was writing to some of them. The first Jewish believers in Jesus were the first of God’s crop and for the last 2,000 years HASHEM has been harvesting a crop from the rest of the nations. He hasn’t finished with Israel. Israel remains the apple of his eye but the fact remains that for almost 2,000 years, most followers of Jesus have been non-Jews.

In Revelation 7:15-17, Johanan tells us of believers from the nations keeping Sukkot! On the last day of the Festival of Tabernacles, on Mount Zion in Jerusalem thousands of Jewish men dressed in white robes with palm branches sing the Hoshana Raba, the ‘Great Hosanna’ but in John’s vision, the people in white robes with palm branches singing the ‘Great Hosanna’ are from the nations, not Israel! In this way Zechariah’s great prophecy is fulfilled. The nations are keeping the Sukkot in the heavenly Jerusalem!
If you are Jewish, no matter how beautiful your Sukkah, no matter how devout your prayers, without a temple, a priesthood and sacrifices it is impossible for you to keep Sukkot according to the instructions in Leviticus in Numbers. The good news is that you don’t have to. Through faith in God’s Messiah you can keep it in the heavenly Mount Zion with brothers and sister from all nations, redeemed by the blood of Jesus the Messiah. Why settle for keeping an incomplete festival on earth? Come and join Jews and Gentiles from all nations to worship HASHEM in a new, greater and more glorious Jerusalem. Jerusalem above. The New Jerusalem!

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