Chol Hamo’ed is the name for the days during Succot that fall in between the yomtovim at the beginning and end of the festival. Chol means secular or profane – the opposite of kedushah – holiness. We use the word chol in the Havdalah ceremony at the end of Shabbat when we distinguish between Shabbat and the working week. And mo’ed is associated with ohel mo’ed – the part of the Sanctuary which was protected by a tent – the Holy of Holies and in the Talmud known as the Camp of the Shechinah. ‘Can’t get much holier than that but yet we can work, travel and shop on chol ha’moed. So Is there a contradiction here between the secular and the sanctified?
Using the sukkah as the motif of the festival, I certainly don’t think so. The everyday material aspects of life become imbued with spirituality. The chairs and tables, knives and forks that we use in the house are used in the sukkah. They remain the same items, except that we now see them differently. They are- objects with little protection against the wind and the rain but under the protection of God. Just like us mere mortals.And there is a similar idea when it comes to inviting people to eat in the sukkah. The custom of ushpizin, ‘spiritual guests’ brings Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron and David to the sukkah table to complement our flesh and blood visitors. Jerusalem-based writer Mordechai Beck suggests Abraham’s gracious hosting of the three nameless men (Bereshith:18:1-16) typifies the ushpizin’s acts of kindness. The Rabbis magnify the event by saying that Abraham’s tent was open on all four sides in order to welcome guests coming from whatever direction. The Rabbis further emphasise the quality of Abraham’s act by noting that it took place three days after he had circumcised himself. and that when God Himself visited him, to find out how he was feeling, Abraham’s response was to force God to send him more guests in order to satisfy his unquenchable desire to demonstrate his care for others. Such was Abraham’s love for people that it even preceded his love for God. And God agreed with him.
The Zohar says that when the ushpizin come to a sukkah and see a family only caring for its own festival needs. they are angry and refuse the invitation. But if they come to a sukkah filled with human guests then they are proud to accept the invitation and they enter with their holy presence. Surely a great example of mixing the secular with the holy!