The Mishna in Masekhet Sukka (51b) describes the festivities of the special Simchat Beit Ha-sho’eiva celebration held in the Beit Ha-mikdash each night of Sukkot, and tells that the people at one point would recall the idolatry practiced by their ancestors, during the First Temple area. They would cite the verse in Yechezkel (8:16) in which the prophet tells that he was shown twenty-five men in the Temple courtyard bowing eastward to the rising sun while their backs were turned to the Temple. The celebrants in the Simchat Beit Ha-sho’eiva in the Second Temple period would specifically turn to face the Mikdash and proclaim, “Our forefathers who were in this site had their backs to the Sanctuary and their faces to the east, bowing eastward to the sun, but we – our eyes are to the Lord!”
Why would the idolatry practiced in the First Temple be worthy of mention in the Second Temple, and how is this relevant to the Simchat Beit Ha-sho’eiva celebration on Sukkot?
The answer might be found in Sefer Yirmiyahu, where we read of an exchange that took place after the First Temple’s destruction between Yirmiyahu and the Jews who relocated in Egypt after the Babylonian conquest of Eretz Yisrael. Yirmiyahu delivered to the people God’s stern condemnation of their continuing the pagan practices which they had observed in the Eretz Yisrael, on account of which God had the land conquered by a foreign empire. The people outright rejected the prophet’s message, stating, “We shall assuredly do everything that we spoke about – to bring offerings to the kingdom of heaven and pour libations to it, just as we and our forefathers, our kings and noblemen, did in the cities of Judea and in the squares of Jerusalem, and we were satiated with bread and enjoyed prosperity, and experienced no evil. But once we stopped bringing offerings to the kingdom of the heaven…we lacked everything…” (Yirmiyahu 44:17-18). The worship of the “kingdom of the heaven” – the sun, moon and stars – was practiced with the belief that this brought material prosperity. The people attributed their economic success to their pagan worship of the sky, and so they stubbornly insisted on continuing these practices – even after watching their country fall into the hands of a foreign nation.
With this background, we can perhaps understand the relevance of this unfortunate chapter in Jewish history to the celebration of Sukkot. One of the themes of Sukkot, which is observed at the conclusion of the harvest season, after the crops have been harvested and brought into storage in preparation for the winter, is the recognition of God as the source of our sustenance. Just when the warehouses are filled with the crops that the people toiled for months to produce and harvest, they are told to move into sukkot and relive Benei Yisrael’s experience in the wilderness, when they lived a miraculous existence, sustained supernaturally by God. On Sukkot we are reminded that our success and prosperity is granted to us from God, and cannot be credited to our own efforts or any other force. This might also be the significance of the nisukh ha-mayim ritual on Sukkot, when copious amounts of precious water were poured on the altar each day of the holiday, as the nation’s water reserves were dwindling at the end of the long, dry summer, expressing their faith in God’s provision of water during the coming winter months. And thus as part of the festivities, the people would loudly reject their ancestors’ belief in pagan forces as the source of their sustenance. As they celebrated God’s beneficence, they noted that unlike their pagan ancestors, they relied solely on the Almighty for their economic wellbeing, trusting that it is He who provides them with their needs and there is no other force and no other being on whom to depend in our quest for a respectable and comfortable livelihood.