The Mitzvah of the Pilgrimage Festivals: Strengthening our Faith and Confidence in the Creator of the Universe
It is written, “Three times a year, all your males shall appear before Hashem your G-d in the place which He shall choose…. None shall appear before Hashem empty-handed” (Devarim 16:16).
This verse obligates all Jewish men to travel to the Temple in Jerusalem three times a year. What is the exact meaning of this mitzvah? Why does it apply precisely for the three festivals of Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot?
Simply speaking, anyone who takes a closer look at this mitzvah will conclude that it rests upon the principle of faith in G-d. It requires a person to control his emotions and to leave his home, his field, and his vineyard behind without any supervision. He must place his trust solely in G-d, and in His promise to us: “No man will covet your land when you go up to appear before Hashem your G-d” (Shemot 34:24).
Can there be any greater faith than this? For a person to abandon everything that he has worked on for the past year, to leave everything behind and to travel to Jerusalem with joy and enthusiasm, bringing with him all kinds of offerings to the Temple?
All throughout the year, man fights his evil inclination as it seeks to prevent him from serving G-d, and especially from placing his faith in Him. The evil inclination entices him with its ruses, availing itself of every possible trick, be it through desire (“eat and drink, for life is short”), or through waves of denial that weaken his faith in G-d. Each day, the evil inclination adopts new arguments and pretexts in this fight, primarily attacking a person’s faith, the pillar of all mitzvot, as we read: “It is Habakkuk who came and based all of them [the 613 mitzvot] on one [principle], as it is said: ‘But the righteous shall live by his faith’ [Habakkuk 2:4]” (Makkot 24a).
Hence during the three pilgrimage festivals, every Jew had to intensify his faith in G-d by traveling to the Temple in Jerusalem. There he would see the kohanim, G-d’s servants, performing their functions and the Levites singing, which prompted a spiritual awakening in him.
The Gemara recounts that when the festival pilgrims arrived at the Temple, they were shown the Showbread: “They used to lift it [the Shulchan] and show the festival pilgrims the Showbread…and they would say to them: ‘Behold the love in which you are held by the Omnipresent, it [the Showbread] being taken away as [fresh as] when it was set down.’ As Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said, ‘A great miracle was performed in regards to the Showbread: Just as it was set down [fresh], so was it taken away’ ” (Chagigah 26b). Indeed, they were truly loved. In fact this miracle – the Showbread being taken away as hot and fresh as on the day it was placed on the Shulchan – was not necessary for the fulfillment of the mitzvah, only for its beautification. Hence this miracle revealed G-d’s special love for them.
When the festival pilgrims realized just how much G-d loved His children, they were immediately infused with more faith and an extraordinary level of confidence in the fact that G-d does not let forsake His people or abandon His heritage.
It is also explained in our holy books that the miracle of the Showbread alludes to the sustenance of the Jewish people. That is, just as G-d ensured that the Showbread remained hot, growing neither old nor moldy, likewise He does not forget to generously provide everyone with all that they need. The more confidence that we have in Him, the greater our reward.
These were not the only inspirational signs lavished upon the festival pilgrims, for they were also shown the jar containing the manna, which had been preserved and remained in perfect condition as a perpetual reminder. Its goal was to teach people that just as Hashem fed the Children of Israel in the desert for 40 years, likewise He feeds all of us each day.
All of these signs, which infused faith into the hearts of the Children of Israel, had to take place during Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot. These are times whose very essence strengthens our faith in G-d.
Pesach is when G-d demonstrated that He had accepted a nation and a people, “for the Children of Israel are My servants” (Vayikra 25:55), a time when we received the commandment: “I am Hashem your G-d, Who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” Sukkot is when G-d protected us with the Cloud of Glory, so that nothing could harm us. Then there is Shavuot, the time when we received the holy Torah, which has ensured our existence and that of the universe to this very day, as it is written: “If not for My covenant [the Torah], I would not have appointed days and nights, the decrees of heaven and earth” (Jeremiah 33:25). In fact it is well-known that at each of these times, the same supernal influence affects us, just as it did at those particular times: On Pesach, as it did during the exodus from Egypt; on Sukkot, as it did during the journeys of the Children of Israel in the desert “with a perfect faith”; and on Shavuot, as it did when they received the Torah on Mount Sinai. When G-d’s majesty was revealed on the mountain and He made them hear His holy words amid the flames, the heights and the depths crumbled, and all the people could perceive the oneness of G-d, as it is written: “You have been shown in order to know that Hashem, He is G-d! There is none beside Him!” (Devarim 4:35).
This is why the Torah declares that precisely for these three festivals, “all your males shall appear before Hashem your G-d.” Thus everyone will attain faith on Passover, called the festival of faith. Everyone will attain joy and the Divine spirit on Sukkot, when water would be drawn, which is why the festival that took place at the Temple during this time was called the Simchat Beit HaShoeva. Finally, everyone will attain the Torah on Shavuot. Nevertheless, in order to be influenced by all these things, a person must take the first step, meaning that he must travel to Jerusalem. In fact it is only when he creates the proper vessel for receiving this abundance – when he establishes the pillars of faith that allow him to abandon all his possessions and travel to Jerusalem – that he will be able to receive everything lavished on him from above. As the Sages say in the Midrash, “Present to Me an opening of teshuvah no larger than the eye of a needle, and I will widen it into openings through which wagons and carriages may pass” (Shir HaShirim Rabba 5:3). This not only pertains to teshuvah per se, but includes everything that deals with spirituality and the strengthening of one’s faith.
Thus whoever undertook this pilgrimage opened this door and merited great abundance in the spiritual and material realms. In spirituality, as we have said, and also in materiality he lacked nothing, as the verse promises: “No man will covet your land when you go up to appear before Hashem your G-d.” In fact the Sages recount extraordinary stories in Yerushalmi Peah 3:7 and in the Midrash to this effect: “A man once forgot to lock his house when he went up to celebrate the festival, and when he returned he found a serpent entwined in the rings of his door. On another occasion, a man forgot to bring his chickens into the house when he went up to celebrate the festival, and when he returned he found some cats torn to pieces before them. On another occasion a man forgot to bring a stack of wheat into the house when he went up to the festival, and upon his return he found it guarded by lions” (Shir HaShirim Rabba 7:3).
The Midrash also relates the story of two brothers living near some wicked, non-Jewish neighbors who sought to harm them. When these brothers went to celebrate the festival, G-d sent angels in their likeness, dissuading their neighbors from stealing from them, for they thought that the brothers had remained home (Shir HaShirim Rabba ibid.). These are just some of the miracles that our Sages attest to.
We therefore see that the objective behind the mitzvah of the pilgrimage festival is to strengthen our faith and confidence in G-d. May we strengthen our loyalty to the Creator, and may He send us Mashiach, for then we will travel to the pilgrimage festivals and eat the peace-offerings and Passover-offerings.