Rabbi Barry Kornblau is the rabbi of Young Israel of Hillis Hills-Windsor Park
Taken as a whole, the three pilgrimage festivals of Pesach/Chag Hamatzot, Shavuot, and Sukkot share much in common – the mitzvah of aliyah le’regel, ascending to the Temple in Jerusalem to encounter God with special offerings; the laws of Yom Tov; the duty to rejoice, and much more.
Taken in sequence, the three festivals also reflect two primary stories. The first is an agricultural progression, where each holiday reflects a successive stage of the growing and harvesting season in Eretz Yisrael. The second is an historical sequence, moving from the physical redemption of our nation from Egyptian slavery, to the spiritual covenant struck at Sinai on Shavuot, and concluding with the nation’s ongoing dependence upon Hashem for its sustenance in the desert that we commemorate on Sukkot.
The progression of the three pilgrimage festivals also appears in another way: Pesach focuses on the family; Shavuot, on the specific region of Eretz Yisrael where in Bibical times, a Jewish farmer lived; Sukkot, on the totality of the Jewish nation. This thematic movement from family to local community to nation is reflected in laws characteristic of each holiday.
Regarding Pesach, the Torah consistently instructs us to recount the story of the Exodus to our children (ve’higadetah le’vincha), the youngest members of our family. It commands us to destroy chametz in our houses (mi’bateichem). The Torah specifies that the korban Pesach must be offered seh le’bayit, for each individual household, perhaps with its nearby neighbors (shecheino hakarov el beito) included as well. These individuals form a group that partakes of its own designated young lamb or kid, the small size of which greatly limits the size of the group. The korban must be eaten inside a house. If more than one group is eating in a single house, then each group must be physically partitioned off from its neighbors; if this partition falls down, the korban may not be consumed until the partition is restored. Removal of the sacrificial meat from this house or partitioned area is prohibited. (All of this reflects the narrative of the slaying of the Egyptian first born: during that night, each family was confined, at the pain of instant death, with its korban inside the blood-smeared doorway of its house.) The mishnah (Pesachim 89a) depicts even travel to Jerusalem for Pesach as a family affair, with parents encouraging their slow-poke children to race up the hills to Jerusalem’s walls.
In contrast to Pesach’s exclusive focus on family, Shavuot is the context in which the Torah repeatedly teaches our duty to give (agricultural) gifts from our fields to our neighbors requiring material sustenance. Shavuot’s characteristic mitzvah of bikkurim (presenting the first fruits of one’s crops to the priests in the Temple) also emphasizes local community. Of all the mitzvot in the Torah, for example, only for bikkurim is there a joyful parade. (The details are described in chapter three of masechet Bikkurim.) Instead of traveling to Jerusalem as individual families or small groups, all residents of entire regions of Eretz Yisrael would gather to spend the night together in its most prominent city. They would not sleep in private homes but instead all together, outside in the city’s common area. A local leader would wake the group in the morning, and as a community they would ascend to Jerusalem. A decorated ox, to be offered and then consumed in a “holy shelamim barbeque” by the group, led the parade. As they traversed Eretz Yisrael, the musicians among them would play instruments, accompanying everyone as they sang verses reflecting the increasing sanctity of their successive locations. Upon arrival, Jerusalemites would greet them – “Welcome, residents of location so-and-so!”
After Pesach’s family focus and Shavuot’s stress on community, Sukkot emphasizes the nation as a whole. Consider, for example, the halachah that there is no maximum size for a sukkah. If it were phsyically possible, we could build and use a sukkah enormous enough to house the entirety of the Jewish people! (This is precisely opposite the restrictions, noted above, regarding the consumption of the korban Pesach.) Similarly, the great rejoicing of Simchat Beit Ha’shoevah is national: all the people – young and old, male and female, simple and scholarly, etc. – gather to rejoice neither as families nor as communal groupings but rather as an entire nation in the national center, the Temple. And every seven years, chol hamoed Sukkot features the mitzvah of hakhel, when every man, woman, and child in Israel assembles in the national Temple to hear the nation’s leader recite Torah passages and to recommit themselves to their national covenant and collective destiny.
More details could be adduced to highlight the progression from family on Pesach to regional community on Shavuot to the entire nation on Sukkot. In our extraordinarily individualistic age, it is notable that none of the three pilgrimage festivals focuses on the individual Jew in isolation. Particularly at times of celebrations, an individual Jew’s life has primary significance only to the extent that it is connected to family, community, and nation. May our rejoicing on Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot always remind us to strengthen, purify, and sancify our families, our local communities, and our nation as we celebrate together with Hashem!