Sukkot: The Jewish Holiday that Makes Us Reflect on the Nations


Would it be different if Non-Jews adopted the mitzvot too?

As we continue to progress through this sweet holiday season we find ourselves in the midst of the bounty of the fall harvest season of Sukkot (Booths), just directly opposite in the yearly cycle from the spring harvest festival of Pesach (Passover). These two holidays are very alike, they are both Shelosh Regalim – one the Three Pilgrimage Festivals that people were required to make the journey to Jerusalem for. (see Exodus 34:18-23; and Deut. 16:1-17) They are both week encompassing, and both prescribe special sacrificial worship. So when you look up to that big harvest moon, just think we are only six months away from having a Passover Seder!

The holy days and the sacredness of the New Moon was always normally accompanied by special sacrifices that elevated the sanctity of the day; sacrifices of bulls, rams and lambs. Though Sukkot and Pesach are considered one wide holiday from beginning to end, and there is a commemoration that is related to moon-sign, they are not at all the same. First for Pesach and Sukkot these lunar occurrence coincides with a full-moon, not the waxing new moon, making them similar but not the same to ordinary moon related festivities. Also they both prescribe a very different approach to sacrifice.  If we were to account for all the holiday and special seasonal occurrences of sacrifice, Sukkot prescribes an almost overwhelming amount of sacrifice in comparison.

The seeming excessiveness of it becomes evident in the reading of these commands in the holiday Maftir readings (the final reading from the Torah Scrolls).

Pesach tells us how many animals to offer everyday, “After this manner you shall offer daily, for seven days;” (Numbers 28:24) it tells us how many animals, and that number is the same each day, thus the reading is relatively short.

In contrast the sacrifices of Sukkot are heavy, and their reading is correspondingly long. It gives us a huge number of animals, and a different amount each and every day. We are not talking about just a few small animals. When we read the text found in Parshat Pinchas we see it demand a staggering amount of 13 bulls being required on the first day alone (see Numbers 29:12-14). No other holy day requires more than two bulls, ever; even then a bull offering is rare, most sacrifices are goats, lambs and rams. This seeming excessiveness is tempered over time, but even this is a mystery to us; why does it decrease in the number of bulls offered everyday, until the final and 7th day there are only 7 bulls being offered? The Talmud, our Oral Torah, suggests to us why this is:

“Rabbi [Eliazar] stated:

‘To what do those seventy bulls

correspond?

To the seventy nations.’”

אר [אלעזר] |

הני שבעים פרים |

כנגד מי? |

כנגד שבעים אומות. |

Talmud Bavli Sukkah 55b

If we add up the total number of bulls being offered up each day; 13 the first day of Sukkot, 12 the second day, 11 the third, etc. we come to the total of 70 bulls being offered. Our Jewish tradition regards that entire classical world being comprised of seventy nations; derived from the genealogies of Genesis chapters 10-11 we count seventy descendants of Noah, from whom came the foundations of seventy peoples and nation-states. The rabbis suggest to us the bulls are offered to draw close the nations to Hashem, to atone for them as well in a grand way. It’s not enough that we be concerned with Hashem drawing close to us, atones for us and provide for us through this fall bounty that will sustain us through the harsh winter to come; we also need to have a heavy level of concern for the nations as well.

For us Jews, it’s not enough that we be happy in this time of celebration, but we also need to be concerned with the welfare of the nations. And most certainly this is a time of celebration for us. In fact it tells us twice, not just in our current holiday reading, but also separately when discussing these holidays, “v’hayita af sameach / and you shall only be happy!” (Deut. 16:15; and also see Lev. 23:40) We are happy because G-d has provided us with all this abundance, this is our time of thanksgiving. We also begin to become thankful for the start of the raining season, that will essentially be the lifeblood of our spring harvest so many months away.

When our tradition looks to a better world, even in the face of post-apocalyptic challenges, we see a place where this spirit of joy will be enjoyed by all the peoples of the world:

“And it shall come to pass,

that every one that is left of all the nations

that came against Jerusalem

shall go up from year to year

to worship the King, the L-RD of Hosts,

and to keep the Festival of Sukkot.”

וְהָיָה, |

כָּלהַנּוֹתָר מִכָּלהַגּוֹיִם, |

הַבָּאִים, עַליְרוּשָׁלִָם; |

וְעָלוּ מִדֵּי שָׁנָה בְשָׁנָה, |

לְהִשְׁתַּחֲו‍ֹת לְמֶלֶךְ יְהוָה צְבָאוֹת, |

וְלָחֹג, אֶתחַג הַסֻּכּוֹת. |

Zachariah 14:16

In the age to come it does not just extend this celebration to the nations of the world, in fact its becomes a mandate for them. In face of the age of world peace and universal knowledge of G-d the prophet ends his book with the reality that the nations will have to come to acknowledge G-d on their own if they expect blessings of rain and physical security. All of humanity will all celebrate together, and receive blessings for our needs equally.

Looking forward towards this Messianic age in recent years many people of various backgrounds have begun to enthusiastically embrace the celebration of Sukkot – the Feast of the Tabernacles, or simply Booths; named after the huts in which we dwell for seven days. This year we are actually seeing thousands of Noachides, Christians and people of all religious backgrounds coming to Israel to join in the celebration; Christian-Zionists alone account for over 6,000 attendees by their counts. Aside from the overt “Messianic” Hebrew-Christian missionaries, whose goal is obvious, if you were to ask these people why they are doing this almost without exception they will frankly tell you that they are getting in touch with the Hebrew roots of their faith in order to embrace the whole Torah like Jews do.

For many years I have worked very hard to open the Torah and make it accessible to Jews, and our many non-Jewish friends that cherish Torah. Though I must admit, by and large the people who benefit from my work are Jews or people who are embracing the Jewish faith. Almost everyday I get an excited email from someone who is overjoyed with the richness of Torah-true wisdom and experiences. With all this excitement and hunger for deeper truth out there, some have pointedly asked why us Jews do not just throw the doors wide open to our faith, in fact many cannot understand why we do not just go the next step and proselytize. The reason is because seeking out something out of mere enthusiasm does not always lead to the most glowing end results.

In our tradition there are two examples I would like us to explore today, one well know and the other not so widely discussed. These facing Talmudic examples give us some very good reasons for curbing our enthusiasm when it comes to any type of notions of Judiazing or zealously imposing our way of life on others. But before I get started I must point out that these two examples are not initiated by Jews at all, these are examples of non-Jews embracing Jewish tradition on ones own out of their own impulse and desire.

Prophetically the Rabbis present us with two scenarios related to the nations embracing Judaism before the future Messianic age; neither of them end so nicely. One of these curious examples directly concerns Sukkot. For this story I would like us to look at the text of Talmud Avodah Zara, we will start with page 3a:

“The nations will then plead.

‘Offer us the Torah anew

and we shall obey it.’

But the Holy One, blessed be He,

will say to them,

‘You foolish of the world,

he who took trouble [to prepare]

on the eve of Shabbat

can eat on Shabbat,

but he who has not troubled

on the eve of Shabbat,

what shall he eat on Shabbat?

Nevertheless, I do have an easy command

which is called Sukkah;

go and carry it out….’

|

“And why does He term it

an easy command?

Because it does not affect one’s purse.

Straightaway will every one of them

betake himself and go

and make a booth on the top of his roof;

but the Holy One, blessed be He,

will cause the sun to blaze forth over them

as at the Summer Solstice.

And every one of them

will kick down his booth

and go away,

as it is said:

‘Let us break their bands asunder,

and cast away their cords from us.’

(Psalms 2:3).”

אמרו לפניו רבשע |

תנה לנו מראש |

ונעשנה |

אמר להן |

הקבה |

שוטים שבעולם |

מי שטרח |

בערב שבת |

יאכל בשבת |

מי שלא טרח |

בערב שבת |

מהיכן יאכל בשבת |

אלא אף על פי כן מצוה קלה יש לי |

וסוכה שמה |

לכו ועשו אותה… |

|

קרי ליה |

מצוה קלה |

משום דלית ביה חסרון כיס |

מיד כל אחד [ואחד] |

נוטל והולך ועושה סוכה |

בראש גגו |

והקדוש ברוך הוא |

מקדיר עליהם חמה בתקופת |

תמוז |

וכל אחד ואחד |

מבעט בסוכתו |

ויוצא |

שנאמר: |

ננתקה את מוסרותימו |

ונשליכה ממנו עבותימו. |

(תהילים ב:ג) |

Talmud Bavli, Avodah Zara 3a

As we will learn in the current reading of Parshat Vzot haBracha, before G-d offered the Torah to the small nation of Israel He also offered it to the other nations as well; but they rejected it; including the Edomites and Ishmaelites that the Israelites had long contended with as usurpers (see Rashi for Deut. 33:2). But here we see that gentile people in eagerness turn to Hashem and ask him to once again offer the Torah to them, and they will obey it.

Using the example par excellence of Jewish acceptance of the yoke of Torah, which is sabbath (see Exodus 32:16-17), G-d turns to them and in a chiding tone and warns them that they have not thought out what this means. The sabbaths rest is only possible if one put forth the effort ahead of time to make that island of time and space possible. It is something that is intentional, not just incidental. Shabbat is the reward of those who labor in Torah to observe and safeguard that sabbath. They are given a perfect example, if they don’t make the effort to prepare meals for the sabbath then how are they going to eat? How can they manage to keep the sabbath, let alone celebrate it with the joy that is required of that day without planning and forethought?

Instead G-d does not make them jump to the highest level of observance, He instead gives them a simple command; the mitzvah of Sukkah, clearly meaning to celebrate Sukkot.

It may seem strange to some that G-d would start with this command. And it seems even stranger to others that He would call it a simple command. The first reason we are mystified is this really is an obscure holiday to most of the non-Jewish peoples. When people think of religious festivals they tend to automatically think of Pesach. This is for several reasons; aside from the misconception that Pesach is the day of atonement (which is obviously present in Christian mentality, for example), this holiday is mentioned with great passion and detail in the Torah. It is the first of our major holidays in the religious calendar, and infamous festival associated with the liberation of the Israelites from Egypt to make us a nation. Pesach is the first festival ever for the nation of Israel. Most of us think it would make sense to start there, but instead G-d starts here with the simpler command.

The reason given to us, by the rabbis, is that it does not heavily impact the wallet; Sukkot is not an expensive holiday. All one needs to do is make a hut out of natural materials easily found, set up a booth and dwell in it temporarily. If your going to eat a meal, eat it joyfully in it. If its possible to sleep in it, then one can celebrate by doing so. Unlike Pesach, special foods are not required and their aren’t the overwhelming requirements of cleaning necessary. For us Jews who celebrate Pesach we can clearly see the truth of this, as almost all of our belongings need to be examined and cleaned. Nearly all of ones food possessions and manufactured products need to be considered and the inappropriate done away with for Pesach. Doing this and replacing chametz with appropriate items is not only labor intensive but also very expensive. Passover heavily impacts both home and business for the Jew in a costly and demanding way. Instead G-d gives them a simple command to people who live off the land and are already out harvesting for fall in the open fields, observe the mitzvah of Sukkah.

As the Talmud continues on we see that the people do enthusiastically run out to make their sukkah huts and dwell in them. They are so excited that they not only make huts, but they run back and make the huts on the roofs of their own houses.

Now one must ask themselves, why would people want to make a sukkah on the roof of their house? It seems odd. To be misakech means to be shaded. Look at Psalm 18:12, “Yashet chosech sitro, s’vivotayv sukato / He makes darkness His hiding place, His canopy around Him”. The sukkah is supposed to provide shade for the people, once shaded they can celebrate and rest. It is completely counterintuitive for people to make a sukkah on their hot roof. Why would they do so then? The only reason there could be is obvious if we consider it. Why else does someone do something wild on their roof; to be seen! They go back to their homes and do this in obvious sight so that their act can be witnessed. They want to be seen as being faithful by all. This is so obvious that even non-Jewish commentators agree in their scathing rants against rabbinics that this is the reason and meaning.

Sadly enthusiasm is not enough to get one through the pains of reality. Not giving proper consideration they didn’t plan for the possibility that this act might come with some level of difficulty and discomfort. Not that they are required to inflict their souls with this mitzvah, quite to the contrary; we are only to observe the holiday to the point that we enjoy it, never in harshness or discomfort. That would take away from the sacredness of the day. Especially during this holiday we are not allowed to be discomforted, for this reason this holiday is specifically called “z’man simchateinu / the season of your joy.”

The problem of their discomfort arises when something very typical happens for this time of the year, in a hemispheric zone that only has three real seasons (Spring, Summer and Winter; see Sefer Yitzerah) the time of Sukkot usually has transient heat and rain spells. For those who live in Los Angeles, which is almost the same in weather as Israel, we know this very well. It’s still hotter than blazes, like the height of summer; then it decides to rain on us. Fall doesn’t really exist necessarily.

I often had problems with this section of the Talmud because it can seem to the simple that G-d was giving these people a bad wrap. But this is not the case at all, this is a reality of the season. The issue of the gentiles discomfort is not that G-d was not fair with them, but that they put themselves in that situation needlessly. Had they performed the mitzvah properly then they would have carried it out correctly and for the right reason; to dwell in the happiness of G-d’s shade. Furthermore G-d did not require them to fulfill this mitzvah in pain, if they felt uncomfortable they were to leave it at any time like Jews do. But instead they were more interested in looking faithful and dedicated to other men, so they stayed in a shadeless sukkah during the heat until they couldn’t take it anymore.

Eventually in this example we see that when they had enough they did leave their sukkot behind. But they also do the most tragic thing, as they leave them they kick (מבעט) them over. Why do we suppose that these people would show such animosity towards the mitzvah to abandon and even desecrate it so? Because they could not follow through, and especially not for the reasons they had in mind of gaining glory; instead they now find themselves publicly shamed by their inconsideration and over-zealousness. They therefore decry mitzvot as a form of bondage and even oppression. They leave not just discouraged, but bitter over it. In the end they abandon this path of Torah living right away not with love for mitzvot, instead they learn to despise the commands of G-d.

As much as I would like to discount this Talmudic example as an outrageous story, that no one could be this shallow or thoughtless, my life experience tells me different. When I was a teenager I had several friends in the shelter I was staying at, a program for homeless youth. Most of us came from extreme backgrounds. But the most mind-boggling situation I heard of while I was growing in my understanding of Torah-true living was that of these three friends of mine that had escaped from a fundamentalist, holiness, sabbath keeping Christian upbringing. They hated religion because in their home the parents wanted to keep all the commands that they could, especially the sabbath. So their mother would not allow them to do any activity, nor would she even feed them at all because she wouldn’t cook for the sabbath; even digestion was considered work to her. They saw the commandments as oppression and restriction instead of as a symbol of joy. They were shocked to see me celebrate each week so much joy. Their parent’s attitude is very typical of people who aren’t used to the commandments, they do them with extremity and without mindfulness; only wanting to act super-religious so they appear to be “chosen” too. The result is warped and discouraging.

One of the reasons us Jews do not try to impose our way of life on other people is that not everyone has the wear-with-all to be able to take on our way of life. Furthermore, the less familiar one is in doing mitzvot the more they tend to jump to the wrong conclusions and get messed up, it’s just a matter of lack of experience to the point people can’t even consider the mechanics of the things they have never tried. That is the odd thing about us Jews, that we learn from doing; that is our way. When we accepted Torah as a people what did Israel say? “Naaseh v’nishma / We will do and we will understand.” (Exodus 24:7) Only by our doing do we gain the understanding, each time we do we ask more questions we wouldn’t have thought of until we put out our hand to do a mitzvah. Notice the new Jews-by-choice in our communities, many of them often freak out over the littlest thing because they don’t have enough experience to know what to do, nor what is really appropriate or not; most of the time the issues isn’t that big and they just don’t know yet. For this reason many people fall away from observance, because they got discouraged by being overwhelmed. As soon as the enthusiasm wore off it only became a burden to them. (Look at the infamous Dr. Laura Schlessinger who abandoned Judaism for being too demanding.)

We do not want to do this to people, we as Jews do not want to force our Torah responsibilities upon other people who are still children of G-d and when it is well enough in His eyes that they, “Do justly and love mercy and walk humbly with your G-d.” (Micah 6:8) This yoke of Torah-living is not a burden, we see it as more of a directing bridle that we as Jews need to help steer us the right way. This yoke is not easy, but it is what we take much joy in. We do not assume it to be so for others. Of course we accept those who wish to accept Judaism as their faith, we accept converts fully and rightfully so. But we don’t believe anyone is incomplete if they aren’t Jewish, and proselytize accordingly.

Accepting Judaism is a serious matter. Conversion is strenuous thing that I have helped many through. But for as many people as I have taught basic Judaism to, I would say only 1 in 10 actually make it through to conversion. More revealing is that I would only say of those people who do, less than that remain observant over the long haul. It’s not necessarily their fault, they just didn’t think it was going to cost so much. They only considered the moral and theological rightness, not if they could pay the price Jews do.

In conclusion I would like to discuss the second example, the lesser known one. For the sake of time I would ask you to refer to the text of Talmud Bavli Avodah Zarah 3b yourself, the next page over from the text we reviewed above, as I can only touch on it briefly. Rabbi Yosi makes the point that in the world to come there will be no idolaters. He comes to the conclusion that people will come and present themselves as proselytes. However, when rebuffed by the rabbis that there will be no conversions in the coming and Messianic age, as there will be no need for one to do so (because the Temple will presumably stand again, and atone for them as well, as in days of old), he says they will be self-made converts.

Now this second example is a bit more complicated than the first, because these people accept many of the mitzvot upon themselves. They go so far as to even accept the traditions that are only understandable through rabbinic law and Talmudic teaching. They will put tefillin on their head and arms, they will put tzitzit on the corners of their garments and mezuzot on their door posts. They will accept all the noticeable symbols of observant Judaism; even the most intimate and complex to perform. Ones that take some forethought and real knowhow, this time the people being discussed aren’t just mere empty-heads.

The tragedy of this example is for all the seeming dedication and knowledge this group of people has, when it comes time that the nations go against Israel in the battle of Gog and Magog, the assumed apocalyptic war, the nations will ask them why they have come up to Israel; what are their intentions? In the face of extermination they cannot pay the price of a Jew, they are not convinced enough that they should be martyred for their beliefs, so they declare that they too were there to go up against the Israel and the Messiah in battle. The end is the same as the first example, they then declare, “Let us break off their chains, let us throw off their fetters.” (Psalm 2:3) They too reject the Torah mitzvot in the end as bondage. They didn’t think it would cost so much, it’s more than they are willing to pay. The problem with this latter example, unlike the first, is that in this example they get put in the precarious situation of rejecting godliness with a disgusting amount of premeditation. Like I said, not everyone has the wear-with-all for Jewish living.

In the end we as Jews will always accept people who take on the Torah, who like Ruth cast their lot with the Jewish people, that our fate be the their fate, our G-d be their G-d. (Ruth 1:6) I will always work with helping to teach those who want to learn more and do more good deeds. But this story I present as a warning to those who Willy-nillie accept or try to force mitzvot on others. One should only take up tradition with mindfulness and with joy.

During these high holidays we continue to offer prayers for ourselves and the nations, that all the nations should accept the yoke of Torah, all of them, and that Hashem should reign over us all forever. This is part of our concluding prayers three times a day. It’s just that time hasn’t come yet, but it will. All nations will keep even Sukkot with us in the age to come, in that Messianic age; we just aren’t there yet. Some people would do well, for their own sake, to slow their row.

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