Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Friday, October 2, 2009


Rabbi David Walk

          Last week I discussed the duality of Yom Kippur.  This week it's the schizophrenia of Sukkot on the analyst's couch.  There's a lot of it to go around.  Sukkot is the most universal of our holidays.  Let's be honest.  Pesach is about Jews leaving Egypt and Shavuot is about us getting the Torah.  Sukkot is about the harvest which benefits the whole world, and in Temple days there were 70 bulls sacrificed during Sukkot for the benefit of the 70 nations of the world.  This universal aspect of Sukkot is expressed in the haftorah read on the first day of Sukkot:  And it will come to pass that everyone left of the nations who came up against Jerusalem will go up from year to year to prostrate himself to the King, the Lord of Hosts, and to celebrate the festival of Tabernacles (Zechariah 14:16).  So, all the non-Jews will celebrate Sukkot with us.  This concept actually gets fulfilled every year in Jerusalem when tens of thousands of Christians march down Jaffa Street during the intermediate days  of Sukkot. Seventy thousand Christian pilgrims came to Israel last Sukkot. I can remember going to see this event when my kids were young and these pilgrims' expressions of love and support always brought me to tears.
          Now here's the fly in the ointment.  There is a famous story in the Talmud at the beginning of tractate Avoda Zara which deals with pagans:  The Gentiles will then exclaim: "Lord of the Universe, give the Torah to us now, and we will observe it and receive the reward of the World to Come." To which they will be answered: "He who has prepared food on the Eve of Sabbath will have what to eat on Shabbat.  However, I have one easy mitzvah, it is the Sukka, go and perform it. Everyone of them will then prepare a Sukka on his roof, but as soon as the sun heats it, they abandon it, kick it down and go away. But did not Raba say that one who is afflicted by performing the command of Sukka, is free from this obligation? Yes, but not to reject it (Avada Zara 3a).  The criticism of the pagan is not based upon his departure from the sukkah, but his demolition of it.  One may refrain from observing a precept without denigrating the practice.  I think there's a lesson for Jews in that as well. 
          The Sages could have chosen from 613 mitzvah options, but they specifically chose Sukkah as the test case.  Why?  Because the purpose of this parable is to demonstrate that non-Jews of the world aren't really interested in the message of the Torah.  The Gentiles' expressions of wanting to be included in the Torah system lacked sincerity.  How?  The pagan mentality of religion is inconsistent with the Torah's philosophy.  Most people think that the difference between us and them is the number of deities.  I don't believe that for a minute.  The distinction is much more profound. 
          The theology of idolatry is based upon a system of bribery.  We donate to the god for divine largesse, quid pro quo.  Nothing could be further from the truth as seen by Judaism.  When God informs us why we keep mitzvoth, it is made perfectly clear:  And now, O Israel, what does the Lord, your God, demand of you? Only to fear the Lord, your God, to walk in all His ways and to love Him...because it is for your good (Deuteronomy 10:12 & 13).  We are the beneficiaries of all our mitzvah performance.  God neither needs nor wants anything that we can provide.  Idolaters, on the other hand, are happy to have a multitude of gods, because they are looking for divine favor.  Why not have as many providers as possible?
So, we're still faced with the dilemma of why the Sages in the Talmud seem to disagree with the prophet Zachariah about gentiles observing Sukkot.  I believe that there's a well known (but little understood) prayer which may enlighten the issue.  Before leaving synagogue and facing the outside world we always recite Aleinu.  This prayer is very ancient and originally was part of the Rosh Hashanah service.  It became part of the regular synagogue liturgy only about 500 years ago.  The first paragraph explains that we Jews have a special relationship with God which requires us to serve and worship God.  It's impossible to have a close connection to God without acknowledging God's greatness, and this is unique to us.  The next paragraph explains that we have a second obligation to connect the world to the Kingship of the Almighty (l'takein olam b'malchut Shadai).  This assignment will culminate in the entire world accepting the Kingship of God.  This final verse which are all accustomed to singing comes from the Haftorah from the first day of Sukkot (Zechariah 14:9).  This verse expresses our deepest eschatological hope, namely the coming of the day when all will proclaim that God is One, not just the Jews.
Well, that paragraph answers my question.  Yes, we do fervently believe in the brotherhood of man and the eventual spiritual unity of the world, but not yet.  The glorious verses from Zechariah describe that future vision.  The dreary story from the Talmud in Avoda Zara depicts the present reality. 
So, we continue to sit in our Sukkot in splendid isolation, insulated from the vicissitudes of the world's spiritual confusion, focused on our devotion to God  We welcome our people's founders and spiritual heroes, Avraham, Yitzchak, Ya'akov, Yosef, Moshe, Aharon and David (and many also invite their female counter parts; Sarah, Rivkah, Leah , Rachel, Miriam, Ruth and Esther), and bask in their venerable glow. 
But  Sukkot, more than any other Jewish commemoration, is about the future.  Therefore we also contemplate in joyous solitude the forthcoming Sukkot in Jerusalem surrounded by all the world's peoples bound together by our mutual love for God.  Have a wonderful Sukkot celebration, but continue to anticipate a marvelous Sukkot Version 2.0.     

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Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Avenue | Stamford | CT | 06902