According to statistics from the Ministry of Tourism, in 2016 there were an estimated 47,000 Christian tourists in Israel over Sukkot, and that number is expected to be even higher this year. The presence of these Christian pilgrims should be appreciated not just for the economic boost they provide, but because their participation in the “Feast of Tabernacles” plays a significant role in bringing us Jews closer to celebrating Sukkot the way it is described in the books of the prophets.
Sukkot is unique in that the Torah describes both how the holiday was celebrated in the past, as well as a prophetic vision for how it will be observed in the future. The Book of Kings discusses the most magnificent Sukkot in the days of old while the prophet Zechariah describes the future holiday in the end of days. Describing Sukkot festivities separated by millennia, these two passages contain a common theme: the central role of the non-Jew on the Feast of Tabernacles.
A young King Solomon began to fulfill his father David’s desire to build a home for God in the fourth year of his reign, as described in the Book of Kings. Construction of Solomon’s Temple lasted for seven years and concluded in the autumn month of Cheshvan in the 11th year of Solomon’s kingdom. Nevertheless, the king let nearly an entire year pass before dedicating the Temple on Sukkot of the 12th year. Apparently, King Solomon delayed 11 months to wait for the perfect moment and the right holiday.
One explanation behind Solomon’s timing can be culled from the prayer he recited at the dedication ceremony: “Or if a foreigner who is not of Your people Israel comes from a distant land for the sake of Your name… when he comes to pray toward this House, hear in Your heavenly abode and grant all that the foreigner asks You for” (I Kings 8:41-43). From its very inauguration, King Solomon established that the Temple would forever be a “house of prayer for all nations.”
Indeed, there was no more frenetic a holiday in the Temple than Sukkot, when numerous animals were sacrificed, including 70 offerings on behalf of the 70 nations of the world. The central prayers of Sukkot focused on rainfall, a universal need. Water libations were brought in the Temple with great festivity on Sukkot to beseech the Heavens to provide all nations with sustenance and life. Solomon apparently waited to dedicate the Temple on Sukkot, the universal holiday.
The other Biblical passage details a vision for the future Sukkot and again highlights the role of the gentile. The Hebrew prophet Zechariah describes how non-Jews will flock to Jerusalem in the messianic age: “All who survive of all those nations that came up against Jerusalem shall make a pilgrimage year by year to bow to the King Lord of Hosts and to observe Sukkot” (Zechariah 14:16).
This verse became the inspiration for the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem to organize a major conference, known as the “Feast of Tabernacles,” which has grown substantially in recent years.
“We are expecting one of our biggest crowds ever at this year’s Feast,” said ICEJ president Dr. Jürgen Bühler.
“Thousands of Christians are once again being drawn here from all over the world by the dynamic worship experience that surrounds this unique biblical festival. But there also is the added attraction of celebrating the 50-year Jubilee of a reunited Jerusalem and this means we are truly in for a banner Feast.”
Unfortunately, some of the Christian visitors will hope to use their time in the Jewish State to engage in harmful missionary activity. The ICEJ does its best to prevent this, warning their guests to refrain from such offensive behavior.
As a sign of the times we are in – the golden age of Jewish-Christian relations – one Christian leader took a strong position in the days leading up to Sukkot, calling for an end to Christian proselytizing aimed at Jews. Tommy Waller, the founder of the Christian group HaYovel, which organizes volunteers to tend Israeli vineyards in the harvest season leading up to Sukkot, released a sharply worded video just a few days ago.
“I would like to appeal to my Christian brothers and sisters: Please stop any missionary attempt to take away Jewish identity from those people whom God chose to carry his name.”
For Waller, this move away from missionary activity and toward greater respect for the Jewish people represents a personal shift in his own thinking. When asked by Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, Chief Rabbi of Har Bracha, “If a Jew were to come to you and ask, what’s better: to be a Jew or a Christian, what would you say to him?” Waller replied, “I would tell him to be a Jew. Although, I didn’t always think that way. At first, all Christians want everyone to be Christian, but this position stems from ignorance.”
Waller represents a new generation of Christian Zionist leaders who reject missionary activity aimed at proselytizing Jews and look to be faithful supporters of the people of Israel in the land of Israel.
We are living in a new age of Jewish-Christian relations. Today, thousands of non-Jews flock to Jerusalem as described in the Bible. Today, Christian leaders publicly renounce the centuries-old doctrine of Christian antisemitism. As such, the Jewish community should recognize these positive developments, which would have been unimaginable at any point in our history.
King Solomon and the prophet Zechariah would surely rejoice if they could see us in Jerusalem this week, as we celebrate in its 50th year of reunification with so many friends. The presence of thousands of non-Jews who have come to Jerusalem for the holiday enables us to come closer to the true fulfillment of Sukkot.
Reprinted with author’s permission from The Jerusalem Post