In America, it seems as though the entire country becomes caught up in the Christmas and New Year season—even those who do not know who Jesus is and are not celebrating His birth. In a way, Israel experiences a similar phenomenon with the Festival of Sukkot.
Frankly, the majority of the people in Israel are secular. And yet, Tabernacles is a time when the nation pauses for a period of joy, celebration and thanksgiving. The public schools are closed, as are many business and government offices.
While religious men and women are a minority in Israel, they are a sizable and very visible minority—particularly during this time of year. The Orthodox population still observes the Biblical commandment to build the temporary shelters, or booths, for which the holiday is named. Throughout Israel, you can see thousands of these small and shaky huts built on front yards, parks, roof tops and porches. The main requirement is that the walls be temporary and the roof should be open enough so that you can see at least a star through it. The booths’ interiors are decorated according to the energy and imagination of the children. The booths remind us of our 40 year wanderings, and how God provided for us as we lived a transient life in the wilderness.
Observant Jews also bring lulavs and etrogs to the synagogue, and when possible, to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. The lulav is a combination of palm, willow and leafy” (usually myrtle) branches bound together to fulfill the command given in Leviticus 23:40, “And you shall take for yourselves on the first day the fruit of beautiful trees, branches of palm trees, the boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook; and you shall rejoice before the LORD your God for seven days.” The etrog, a lemon-like fruit, represents “the fruit of beautiful trees.” I once saw a caravan of long distance bicyclists during Sukkot. I knew they were observant by the long spiny branches of the lulav sticking out of several riders’ backpacks!
Even among the secular population, many people work half schedules during the seven days of Sukkot, or if possible, take their vacations during the holiday. People in Israel just love to travel and this results in a mass exodus to the beautiful beaches of Sinai. Thousands of secular Israelis flock to Egypt for the holiday. This is an interesting irony, since we read in Zechariah 14:16-18 of a future time when Egyptians will come up to Jerusalem to observe this festival!
As a witness for the Messiah, I try to make the most of people’s awareness of Sukkot, whether they are secular or religious. One of my favorite passages to share with as many people as I can is from the Gospel of John, chapter 7, verses 37-39.
The passage clearly designates the setting as the last day of the “great festival” (Sukkot), called Hoshanah Rabba. The central part of the worship service on that day was the ceremony of the outpouring of water, enacted with great pageantry by the Jewish priests. After this ritual, the priests would chant the thanksgiving psalms (Psalms 113-118) as they prayed for rain. It was on that day that Yeshua stood up and boldly proclaimed: “If any man is thirsty let him come and drink.”
I have read this passage with many Israelis. They can easily understand the water ceremony and how, under the dry Jerusalem sun, thirst can be a real concern. Here stood Yeshua using the symbols of the service and the situation of the day to reveal important truths about Himself in light of the people’s needs.
It is my burden that more people in Israel might desire to take Jesus at His word. Many Israelis do have a sense of spiritual thirst, even in the midst of this joyous holiday season. Whether they are building booths and attending synagogue services or migrating to the beach to enjoy the sun and the surf, the events and celebrations of Sukkot cannot satisfy them. Please be praying for us as we reach out to them. Pray that God will use the Feast of Tabernacles to remind our people in Israel of the transient nature of this life and the need to depend on the everlasting God and His provision of the Living Water.