Succot: Universal, familial, individual

‘And ye shall take you on the first day the fruit of goodly trees, branches of palm-trees, and boughs of thick trees, and willows of the brook, and ye shall rejoice before the LORD your God seven days.’ (Leviticus EMOR Chapter 23/40)

Jews celebrate succot 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Jews celebrate succot 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
This magnificent three-week festival period – Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Succot – may be viewed and experienced in two dimensions simultaneously; the universalist/nationalist dimension, and the particularist/ individual/family dimension.
Rosh Hashana is the day on which the world was born, when the sigh- sob trua sound of the shofar cries out against the tragedies and injustices of an imperfect world; and the sharp, joyous tekiya sound reminds us of our responsibility – and ability – to help perfect the world in the Kingship of God by conveying the moral message of ethical monotheism, a God who demands justice, compassion and peace.
On Yom Kippur the Almighty declares His readiness to forgive the nation Israel of its great sins – the idolatrous Golden Calf, the faithless cowardice of the scouts with the vision of our Holy Temple reaching out to all of humanity, “For My house is a House of Prayer for all nations.”
Succot is the climax of the season, taking us out of our egocentric, partisan lives and ordaining that we surround ourselves with fruits of the Land of Israel, living beneath a roof of vegetation through whose spaces we look up at the stars. Seventy bullocks were sacrificed in the Holy Temple during the Succot festival, symbolizing the 70 nations of the world. Finally, Shmini Atzeret announces the onset of the rainy season: Rain is, after all, a gift of God to the world.
Shmini Atzeret moves into the uninhibited joy of Simhat Torah, when all Torah scrolls are taken out of the Holy Ark and become the focus of joyous dancing not only in the synagogues but also outside, in the streets – the public domain – to imbue the world with its message of “Thou shalt not murder” and “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”
However, Judaism understands only too well that one dare not focus on humanity without concentrating on individuals. One cannot be a concerned universalist without hearing the cries of one’s next-door neighbor. Yes, it is the Jewish mission to convey the message of ethical monotheism to the world. The people of the covenant must perfect the world in the Kingship of our God of justice, compassion and peace. But first we must perfect ourselves: not only our nation, but our community, not only our community but our family, and not only our family but ourselves.
A disciple once approached Rabbi Yisrael Salanter (1800-1870), founder of the Ethicist (Mussar) Movement in Judaism, seeking permission to spread the ethical and moral message of the Master to Germany and Austria. The rabbi responded: “And is the city of Salant so imbued with my teachings that you can afford to leave Lithuania? And is the street on which you live so morally inspired that you can teach in another community? And is your own family so careful in its conduct that you can preach to other families? And what of you, my beloved disciple? Are you on such a high level of ethical integrity that no one could criticize you?” And so Rosh Hashana ushers in a 10-day period of repentance and introspection when we must be mindful of the need to perfect the world, but we must first attempt to perfect ourselves. Rosh Hashana is the day on which the world was born, but it is also the “day of judgment,” when everyone passes before the Almighty to be evaluated and judged, when each of us must evaluate and judge ourselves from the perspective of Divine standards.
Yom Kippur may be a historic and national day of forgiveness, a day on which we invoke our Holy Temple as a “House of Prayer for all nations,” but it is first and foremost a day in which the individual stands in isolation from the world in the presence of the Divine.
No food, no drink, no sexual relations – with almost the entire day to be spent in God’s house. Each of us rids ourselves of all materialistic encumbrances, separates ourselves from physical needs and blandishments, enters a no-man’s-land between heaven and earth, between life and death, dons the non-leather shoes worn by the mourner, and in effect feels what its like to mourn for oneself, asking “What legacy would I would leave, were I to be taken from the world today?” And then comes Succot. For one week leave your usual surroundings and go back to basics, spending seven days with your family in a simple hut. Remember that “when familial love is strong, a couple can sleep on the edge of a sword; but when familial love has gone sour, a bed of sixty miles does not provide sufficient room” (B.T. Sanhedrin 7a).
Forget television and movies; bring the special guests of the Bible into your simple but significant space, commune with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph and David, Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Leah, Miriam, Deborah and Ruth. Introduce them – rather than pop idols – to your children, and sing and speak and share together. Remember – and communicate – that values not venues are important, content not coverings, inner emotions and not external appearances.
And let the succa lead you to Simhat Torah to the love and joy of Torah, which will help form the kind of individuals and families who can build communities and ultimately change the world. ■
Shabbat shalom and hag sameah The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone colleges and graduate programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.