The Universal Sukkah

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Sukkos inevitably gives way to Shmini Atzeres. The parei ha-Chag brought on behalf of the nations of the world give way to a day of intimacy between Hashem and His people alone.

The shift between the universal to the particular, between broad concern to Jewish exceptionalism, is a less than remarkable observation. Its treatment by R. Chanoch Kerelenstein zt”l (siman 5 in his sefer on Sukkos), however, is decidedly remarkable. Readers will debate what the mechaber meant, but the implications are enormous.

Why should we celebrate Sukkos in a month already laden with holidays? Answers abound; the most well known might be that of the Tur. Were we to leave our homes for the Sukkah in Nissan, for example, it would not be apparent that we were responding to a mitzvah. During the warmer months, many people leave their homes to dwell out of doors. Placing Sukkos in Tishrei, at a time that the out-of-doors dwellers move back inside, calls attention to our behavior as motivated only by our listening to Hashem’s decree.

R. Chanoch asks: Who cares? We know why we forego the comfort of our homes for the simplicity of the sukkah. What else matters?

R. Chanoch concludes that one of the themes of Sukkos is sharing our emunah with the rest of the world. It is not enough for us to relate to our children how Hashem miraculously preserved and sustained us in the wilderness. We must make it known to the rest of the world as well! He points to the Ramban (end of Bo) who writes that the Jewish mission is not only to be firm in our belief, but to spread it universally. In this regard, Sukkos is fundamentally different from Pesach, when we look no further than keeping emunah strong in our own children. Regarding Sukkos, the Torah commands, “So that your generations will know that I made Bnei Yisrael dwell in sukkos when I took them out of Egypt.” Note that the Torah says “took them” – not “took you.” The words are spoken to a distant audience. (For comparison, regarding Pesach, the Torah writes, “…that I took you out of Egypt.”)

R. Chanoch’s treatment of any subject is always comprehensive and breathtaking, and there is no exception here. He invokes many ancillary ideas in support of his main thesis. I will mention just a few, to encourage readers to go back to the original:

Besides the reason given by the Tur, we can now detect another reason why Sukkos must be in Tishrei. Chazal teach us keshot atzmecha v’acher kach keshot acheirim – adorn yourself, and only afterwards attempt to adorn others. We are in no position to preach to the nations of the world until we free ourselves of our own faults and missteps. Therefore, we can broadcast our message only after a season of powerful teshuvah.

Why should a theme of universality join up with Sukkos, rather than any other holiday? R. Chanoch invokes R. Dessler, who writes that joy (the very essence of Sukkos) leads a person to move beyond himself, moves him to want to share with others. Only on Sukkos can we be effective in presenting our mission statement to the rest of the world.
R. Chanoch is initially troubled by a comment of the Ramchal, that Sukkos teaches us that we are to remain separate and apart from the rest of the world, just as Hashem preserved us in the wilderness apart from all the other nations. So which will it be, asks R. Chanoch. Do we find in Sukkos a call to be responsive to the rest of humanity, or to withdraw in splendid isolation?

He answers that the two concepts do not act in opposition to each other, but in magnificent harmony. Jews will be successful in spreading the notion of undiluted monotheism only when they maintain their separation and distinctiveness.

While he does not make the point himself, it is fair to think of Shemini Atzeres as highlighting the role of a separate and distinct Klal Yisrael, a nation that Hashem begs to delay its return home for one last day of private connection, in an audience that is not open to any others.
I see two problems with all that I have written to this point. Just how do we discharge this obligation to share Sukkos-emunah with a world that is scarcely aware of the existence of committed Jews, except for the all-too-frequent lurid headline? Well-read non-Jews may know of the really important Jewish holidays like Chanukah and Yom Ha-Atzma’ut, but who has heard of Tabernacles, besides a relatively small number of Christians? Are we supposed to do something to make our voices heard, or just go about our business (and influence those who happen to be taking note, or through some mystical mechanism) as most frum Jews assume? If the latter is true, then how is Sukkos different from any other holiday or mitzvah? Moreover, even if anyone had this all figured out, my cynical impression is that most frum Jews quickly forget about any universal theme of Sukkos in favor of the more comfortable theme of Jewish specialness that is resident in Shemini Atzeres.

I have my own ideas about how we should be sharing much, much more of what we stand for with the rest of the world. This is not the occasion to air them. I will instead present an idea about what not to do.

After fleeing the house of Lavan and spending two years on the road, Yaakov finally made it back to Israel, setting up camp on the outskirts of Shechem. Chazal (Shabbos 33B) find an allusion in the word for encamping – veyichen – to the idea of a freely gifted contribution. They tell us that Yaakov enhanced the lives of the citizens of Shechem – not exactly paragons of virtue, we will recall – by setting up a monetary system, or markets, or bathhouses. R. Moshe Eisemann, shlit”a (to whom I am indebted for pointing out this idea, as well as many more) explains that Chazal’s approach is most likely related to the Torah’s appending the word shalem – whole, complete – in describing Yaakov upon his return. The ish shalem will want to enhance the lives of his neighbors, including those from whom he must distance himself behaviorally and ideologically. He wishes and endeavors to take a role in shaping a better society and a better world, even in entirely non-spiritual applications. Jews have always done this, whenever given a chance. Yerushalmi Shevi’is 9:1 explicitly instructs us to follow Yaakov’s example.

Unfortunately, this idea is completely foreign to too many observant Jews – Gemara or not. Too many of us never consider that we have an obligation to toil alongside our neighbors in making our communities safer, more esthetically pleasing, more equitably available to more people. We live lives completely apart, basking in a year-round afterglow of Shemini Atzeres, without a thought about the universality of Sukkos.

Following some of the worst headline-grabbing chilul Hashem in modern history, our community acted quickly with strong preventive medicine. Spearheaded by Agudah, effective programs brought awareness of accountability in business practices to the masses, accompanied by strong exhortations to avoid chilul Hashem at all costs.

This was an important and significant first step. It cannot succeed, I believe, as long as some of us continue to believe that we can live lives completely isolated from the world around. We can no longer fly under the radar. There are minimum expectations that our neighbors have for us in this medinah shel chesed. Keeping on the right side of the law is simply insufficient, if those neighbors sense that we care not a whit for them and what happens to them. We cannot take advantage of the privileges of the world’s most successful democracy while maintaining the attitudes of Czarist Russia. To be part of this great society which allows us the freedom to live and act apart, we are expected to care, to contribute, to pay attention to norms of conduct practiced by others, including the way we shovel our snow, tend to our lawns, and greet people on our block.

Failing to do so is not only suicidal, it is an abrogation of the responsibility that Sukkos imposes upon us. Whatever it is that we are supposed to share with the rest of the world, it won’t happen by our maintaining an attitude of us versus them. Such an attitude does not make Hashem and His Torah any dearer to the world. It is bound to produce more crimes, and more chilul Hashem, as it is all too easy to find ways to take advantage of those for whom you do not have very much regard.

Shemini Atzeres is important, but it should never erase Sukkos, and its message of responsibility to the rest of mankind.

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12 Responses

  1. Steve Brizel says:

    Slight Correction-R Chanoch ZL has one sefer which is a Kuntres Etzos on various aspects of the Yamim Noraim and other volumes, in the same style on the Shalosh Regalim, Channukah and Purim.

  2. Steve Brizel says:

    The seforim of R Chanoch ZL are a wonderful fusion of Halacha, Agaddah, Musar and Chasidus. I first saw these seforim in our children’s apartment in Yerushalayim, started going through the volume on Channukah and tnen purchased the entire set , each of which is entitled a Kuntres Etzos with respect to particular aspects of the Yamim Noraim, Shalosh Regalim , Channukah and Purim.

  3. Raymond says:

    I very, very seriously doubt that Benjamin Disraeli thought that his fellow Jews lost any of their spiritual superiority as time passed by. When he made that comment, it is obvious that his Jewishness was breaking through whatever Christianity he had been raised with.

    Furthermore, Disraeli’s comment applies not only in the times of King Solomon’s Temple; think, for example, of the so-called Dark Ages. It may have been the Dark Ages of Europe, but it certainly was not the case for religious Jews, who were producing some of the greatest Torah scholars the world has ever known, precisely during that so-called Dark period in human history. And even in the 20th century, while Europe and the Soviet Union busied themselves with murdering millions of Jews, the Jews who managed to escape all that made all kinds of scientific discoveries, won a disproportionate number of Nobel prizes, produced so many great Torah giants, and managed to carve out a little, civilized, Jewish democracy called Israel, right in the heart of the most brutally savage area on the face of the Earth. Not too shabby for a people who are constantly forced to spend so much of their time running away from too many of their gentile neighbors who want them all dead.

  4. Ori says:

    Bob Miller: I’ve always wondered why Disraeli, knowing this, refrained from living as a Jew.

    Ori: For the same reason that a contemporary German, knowing that Rome used to rule the world, wouldn’t be interested in living as an Italian. Or a contemporary Frenchman, knowing civilization started in Mesopotamia and Egypt, wouldn’t be interested in becoming an Arab.

    Having been great at a certain period in history does not make the descendants great centuries later. Disraeli may or may not have believed that Jews in Solomon’s time were divinely guided. If so, he may or may not have believed they lost this divine guidance by rejecting Jesus (he was born as a Jew, but raised IIRC Christian). His Judaism was a matter of history and ancestry.

  5. Bob Miller says:

    I’ve always wondered why Disraeli, knowing this, refrained from living as a Jew. So what if the ex-savages offered him some material advantages?

  6. Raymond says:

    Miriam, as ultra-Orthodox as you apparently think I sounded above, I happen to be secular. I said what I said based on extensive personal experience interacting with the gentile world. If what I said happened to coincide with the position taken by the ultra-Orthodox world, all I can say is, that I am glad that something taught to me during my years attending Orthodox Jewish schools, have had at least some positive impact on me.

    Benjamin Disraeli, the great Jewish-born, 19th century Prime Minister of Great Britain, when heckled in the British Parliament because of his Jewish background, famously responded, “Yes, I am a Jew, and when the ancestors of the honorable gentleman were brutal savages in an unknown island, mine were Priests in the Temple of Solomon.”

  7. chardal says:

    I think that this idea was most beautifully presented by Rav Kook Zt”l in his speech during the inauguration of Hebrew University:

    “Two tendencies characterize Jewish spirituality. One tendency is internal and entirely sacred; it serves to deepen the spirit and to strengthen the light of Torah within. Such has been the purpose of all Torah institutions from earliest times, especially the fortresses of Israel’s soul – the yeshivot. This includes all the yeshivot that ever existed, presently exist, and will exist in order to glorify Torah in its fullest sense. This spiritual tendency is fully confident and assured. ‘Those who love Your Torah enjoy well-being; they encounter no adversity’ (Psalm 119:165). Despite such confidence, Rabbi Nehunya ben Haqanah, upon entering the house of study, used to pray that nothing go awry with his presentation and that is not lead to error.

    The second tendency characterizing Jewish spirituality served not only to deepen the sacredness of Torah within, but also as a means for the propagation and absorption of ideas. It served to propagate Jewish ideas and values from the private domain of Judaism into the public arena of the universe at large. For this purpose we have been established as a light unto the nations. It also served to absorb the general knowledge derived by the collective effort of all of humanity, by adapting the good and useful aspects of general knowledge to our storehouse of a purified way of living. Ultimately, this absorption too serves as a means of a moderated propagation to the world at large. Toward the attainment of this end, the Hebrew University can serve as a great and worthy instrument.

    Here, dear friends, there is room for fear. From earliest times, we have experienced the transfer of the most sublime and holy concepts from the Jewish domain to the general arena. An example of propagation was the translation of the Torah into Greek. Two very different Jewish responses to this event emerged. In the land of Israel, Jews were frightened – their world darkened. In contrast, Greek Jewry rejoiced. There were also instances of absorption. Various cultural influences, such as Greek culture and other foreign cultures that Jews confronted throughout their history, penetrated into our inner being. Here too, many Jewish circles responded to absorption with fear, while other Jews rejoiced.

    When we look back on the previous generations, and reckon with hindsight, we realize that neither the fear nor the rejoicing was in vain. We gained in some areas and lost in others in our confrontation with foreign cultures. This much is clear: Regarding those circles that welcomed absorption and propagation joyously, with unmitigated optimism and with no trepidation, very few of their descendants remain with us today, participating in our difficult and holy task of rebuilding our land and resuscitating our people. For the vast majority of them have assimilated among the nations; they found themselves caught up in the waves of the ‘wealth of the sea’ and the ‘riches of the nations’ that have come to us.

    Only from those who resided securely in our innermost fortresses, in the tents of Torah, enmeshed in the sanctity of the law, did emerge the truly creative Jews – that great portion of our nation who are loyal to its flag – who work tirelessly to build our great edifice. Among these were many who propagated and absorbed. They exported and imported ideas and values on the spiritual highway that mediates between Israel and the nations. Their attitude, however, toward this undertaking was never one of rejoicing only. Fear accompanied their joy as they confronted the vision of the ‘wealth of the sea’ belonging to the ‘riches of the nations.'”

  8. Miriam says:

    “To be part of this great society which allows us the freedom to live and act apart, we are expected to care, to contribute, to pay attention to norms of conduct practiced by others, including the way we shovel our snow, tend to our lawns, and greet people on our block.”

    Raymond writes: We Jews reaching out to the gentile world should only be done with the utmost caution…

    That’s the extreme justification that takes us down the wrong path in the first place. Those within the fold who fear that just saying hello to a non-Jew makes us a prime target for leaving Torah ch”v are doing us all a disservice. First they insult the majority of us who know the difference between cordiality and fraternization, and worse they push an educational approach that preaches that any contact is “bad,” without providing any tools for those who later do go into a mixed environment for work or other purposes.

    Rather, we should teach the traditional sources which draw a clear distinction between Jews and non-Jews (and religious vs. non-religious attitudes) that form the basis for those tools, not dumb the whole thing down to black and white. The bad-vs.-good approach only plays into the political correctness that makes everyone reluctant to admit any differences between people lest it be perceived as insulting.

  9. Raymond says:

    We Jews reaching out to the gentile world should only be done with the utmost caution, and only by those who are so solidly grounded in their Jewish belief and practice, that active interaction with the larger world will not swallow them up and thus compromise their Jewish values. Since most Jews are not of that sufficient inner spiritual strength, however, I think it is best to be a light unto the nations through personal example, by living the kind of Jewish life that is worthy of admiration. One can also answer questions about Judaism posed by sincerely inquiring gentiles, but there is little to be gained by engaging in any kind of debate that pits Judaism against any other system of belief.

  10. Miriam says:

    “Derech eretz kadma l’Torah” – first the physical needs, then we can build Torah.

    And in every way – Hashem only “decides” to stay with us for Shmini Atzeret after we have fulfilled the 70 korbonos of Sukkos.

  11. Bob Miller says:

    “…some of us continue to believe that we can live lives completely isolated from the world around.”

    Are such people really certain that this is possible, or are they somewhat uncertain, but terrified that no other remedy seems to exist to block or nullify bad inputs from their surroundings?

    We need to understand that on some level, at least, our mission is to overcome and transform, not to be sealed off for our 120 years.

  12. Menachem Lipkin says:

    Whatever it is that we are supposed to share with the rest of the world, it won’t happen by our maintaining an attitude of us versus them. Such an attitude does not make Hashem and His Torah any dearer to the world.

    How much more so here in Israel where the “world” are also our fellow Jews.

    Thanks so much for this wonderful message.

    Moadim L’Simcha