Thursday, December 07, 2017

The Celebration of Hanukkah: "Rededicating" the Original Winter Festival

The Rabbis of the Talmud (Avodah Zarah 8A) tell an incredible story about the experiences of Adam, the first man, immediately following his expulsion from the Garden of Eden. The sin and exile of Adam and Eve took place in late Autumn, just around the time of year when the days start to become progressively shorter, the sun rising later and setting earlier on a daily basis. Adam took note of this gradual, worrisome change and assumed that it was a further sign of Divine punishment, the death that had been decreed upon him for violating God’s command. Eventually, he reasoned, there would be no more daylight at all, and plants, animals, and human beings would perish forever. 

Fearing for his life, Adam spent eight days in prayer and repentance, beseeching the Almighty for a second chance. Then the winter solstice arrived, and the days began to lengthen again, little by little. When Adam observed this, he realized that the systematic variation in the amount of daylight was nothing to be scared of. It was simply part of the incredible, breathtaking, self-renewing natural order that Hashem had designed in His infinite wisdom. Thrilled and comforted by this new insight, Adam celebrated his discovery for eight days. 

The following year, Adam established a sixteen day holiday - eight days prior to the solstice and eight days afterwards - to commemorate what he now understood to be the predictable pattern of the seasons. Although his intent was to honor Hashem with this festival, it was later corrupted into two pagan holidays (Saturnalia and Kalenda) that were observed by the Romans consecutively from December 17th through January 1st. These dates sound familiar to us because they coincide with what we now know as the “holiday season”, an institution derived from pagan Rome that was adopted by later religious traditions and is perpetuated until today.

It is noteworthy that our Torah includes no winter holidays whatsoever. The Yamim Tovim of the Torah are all observed in the Spring, Summer and Fall. One might argue that this is due to the fact that the holidays of the Torah are all linked to the annual process of harvesting and gathering produce from the fields, a process that concludes before the advent of the colder months. However, it seems that there is a deeper and more fundamental reason why the Torah carefully avoided establishing any festivals in the wintertime.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that the Torah’s rejection of winter holidays is directly related, in some way, to the fact that idolatrous religion embraces them. After all, one of the essential objectives of the Torah is the uprooting of idolatry and the elimination of any vestige of pagan ideology from civilization. But what is it about the worship of idols and its attendant rituals that the Torah regards as especially abhorrent? Why is the Torah so passionately opposed to the religious fervor of well-meaning, sincere idolaters? And what does the pagan mind find so compelling in the idea of a winter festival?

The primary motivation behind idolatrous religion is the emotion of fear - fear of hunger, fear of sickness, and, most importantly, fear of death. Ancient mankind was driven to invent a pantheon of gods that they imagined would provide them with security against the existential threats posed to them by the unpredictable forces of nature and by their own frailty and mortality. Typically, the mythology of these pagan religious traditions included rich, vivid descriptions of the afterlife and elaborate rituals designed to ensure that one would eventually obtain eternal life. 

The approach of winter was undoubtedly a frightening experience for humans in antiquity. Days shortened, temperatures dropped, trees lost their leaves and fruits, animals hibernated, food was scarce, and illness was rampant. Even the wise Adam found a reason to be anxious as Autumn came to a close, but his discovery of the consistency and beauty in the Divinely ordained patterns of nature led him away from raw terror to a greater, more satisfying recognition of God and His handiwork.

The fear that gripped ignorant pagans during this time, by contrast, inspired them to turn even further away from the realities of nature and to seek superficial reassurance from their superstitions, believing that the “magic” of their rituals would ward off the danger posed by the cold indifference of winter. The rituals centered around chasing away the darkness, cold and death of winter, and therefore entailed kindling lights and bringing evergreen trees into the home (as if to say that, just as evergreen trees survive the winter fully intact, so should we.) 

This explains why the most prominent and emotionally intense celebrations on the pagan calendar took place in the wintertime. The more frightened the idolaters were, the more fervent they became in their religious engagement.

The Torah promotes religion based not on fear and anxiety, but on love of wisdom, justice and truth. Therefore, despite the fact that Adam established a holiday at the end of December to honor God and His magnificent creation, the Torah did not incorporate it into the Jewish calendar, for fear that it would feed into the idolatrous and superstitious impulses of people who were scared of winter temperatures and winter darkness.

Similarly, because the pagan mind was deeply preoccupied with its fear of death and desire for immortality, idolatrous religion and ritual was obsessively focused on preventing death and, where that failed, guaranteeing eternity. By contrast, although Judaism fully subscribes to a belief in the afterlife for those who pass away, it does not write one word about the World to Come, forbids kohanim (“priests”) from any involvement with the dead, and prohibits a person who has contact with a corpse from entering the Temple or offering sacrifices, assigning him the severest form of ritual impurity. 

Without a doubt, the goal of the Torah here was to differentiate itself from the fear-driven superstitions of idol worship. The Torah does not want us to run away from our fears and into the embrace of religion. It wants us to serve God, seek knowledge and pursue mitzvah observance out of love, for their own sake. 

If the Torah was so careful to avoid the establishment of any winter celebrations, why did the Rabbis advocate the institution of Hanukkah, which practically coincides with the “holiday season” of the gentiles? Moreover, how could they allow it to become a “festival of lights”, seemingly an endorsement of the pagan overtones of this time of year?

It seems that our Sages understood that the very nature of the miracles of Hanukkah provided them a golden opportunity to reclaim the original “winter festival”, initiated by Adam and Eve, that had been hijacked and corrupted by the vile forces of paganism. This is because the events commemorated on Hanukkah embodied the ultimate triumph of genuine faith, wisdom and truth against paganism, moral bankruptcy and primitive superstition.

The Syrian Greeks sought to impose their materialist, idolatrous worldview upon all of their subjects and to rid the earth of the contrary influence of monotheism, justice, and Torah that was championed by the Jews. The victory of a small, untrained group of kohanim over the mighty army of the Syrian Greeks, followed by the rededication of the Temple and the reestablishment of Jewish religious life in the land of Israel against all odds, was really a victory for Divine Wisdom and truth over primitive paganism, ignorance and superstition. The lights of the menorah, rather than magically “warding off” demonic forces of death and destruction, reflected the eternally enlightening power of Torah and wisdom that no human regime, however evil, determined or unscrupulous, will ever manage to extinguish or eliminate. 

Because the Hanukkah celebration was in its essence a celebration of the defeat of idolatry and the primacy of Torah truth, the Sages had no fear that this “winter festival” would ever be corrupted or distorted by the insidious influence of paganism. On the contrary, Hanukkah became the ideal occasion for us to acknowledge the real light that illuminates and warms us even amidst the cold darkness of the winter months - the light of Hashem’s wisdom, Hashem’s Torah and Hashem’s commandments. 

Sunday, March 05, 2017

Letter to My Daughter - Thoughts on Jewish Feminism

Dearest Zehara,

When you were born we made a huge catered party because we wanted to be sure that it was clear that our celebration of the birth of a girl was no less joyous and exciting than the celebration we held for the birth of your brother just a few years previously. We were honestly thrilled to be blessed with you, even though, judging by your fussiness, you weren’t as thrilled to be joining us.

Zehara, we never intended to educate you any differently than we educated your brothers. Our hope was that you would grow up exactly as you are today - a young woman who is naturally a feminist, confident but not self conscious or pretentious in her feminism. You are proud of being a Jewish woman, you were in awe of becoming a Bat Mitzvah, you love studying Torah and keeping the mitzvot, but you don’t feel the need to “protest” against the voices in the Orthodox community who think that your religious life is less important than that of a boy.

When you became a Bat Mitzvah, you insisted that accommodations be made so that you would be able to eat breakfast after davening, not before. Your insistence was a gentle one but you did not compromise your principles one iota. The school was wrong for offering breakfast after davening only in the seventh grade, when the boys become Bar Mitzvah, and not in sixth grade, when the girls become Benot Mitzvah.

The administration of the school made a weak attempt to talk you out of your position, mentioning that some rabbis hold that women are allowed to eat before Shaharit, or that, according to some, women don’t really have to pray Shemoneh Esreh at all. But you correctly responded that this made no sense, because men and women have exactly the same prayer obligations. You were having none of it, and you won. That is my ZZ.

When the idea of you reading the Megillah was suggested, you did not worry about the social or political implications of having a woman perform this mitzvah publicly. You didn’t think of it as controversial - of course a girl can read the Megillah according to halakha, she is equally included in the mitzvah, so what need was there for any further discussion? Neither did you try to show off or ruffle the feathers of those who may be uncomfortable with it. You just accepted the challenge and started studying.

Your identity as a Jew and your identity as a woman are not in conflict with one another. They are beautifully integrated within you, like the many strands of a havdala candle combine together to produce a single, sacred flame that cuts the darkness effortlessly. You have always had the ability to continue forward with confidence, trusting Hashem implicitly, and He has always been there for you, illuminating the path ahead.

In our society, we often hear talk of the “glass ceiling”. The glass ceiling refers to the idea that there is an invisible barrier that prevents women from rising too high or achieving too much in their chosen fields. We can’t see this barrier because it is not a physical ceiling. It is a cultural barrier, a concept, a limit on how much our society believes it is “OK” for a woman to succeed before the men feel threatened. When a woman reaches great heights, our society, without even thinking, naturally places obstacles in her path and attempts to stop her from advancing any further.

Zehara, if ever a glass ceiling was above your head, you’ve shattered it and you haven’t even noticed. You’ve followed your dreams with positivity and determination and have never ceased soaring heavenward. Nothing has stopped you yet, and I don’t believe anything will in the future, because Hashem is with you. And the reason he is with you is because, in your heart and mind, you’ve always been with Him.

We will never forget the time you submitted artwork for the Montgomery County Water Authority contest. The prize was one hundred dollars and the honor of having your drawing featured on one of the pages of that year’s calendar. Thousands of students from dozens of schools participated in the contest, but this did not matter to you - you were already planning what you would do with the money.

I did not want to discourage you or detract from your boundless optimism, but I felt obligated to remind you that there were thousands of participants, and that you might not actually win. You ignored this inconvenient detail and proceeded on the assumption that you would win. And, as we all know, you turned out to be right. Win you did. Again.

Then there was the time that I was earnestly seeking an alternative to the rabbinate. I wanted to stop working as a shul rabbi and seek some other form of employment, some other career. You were not happy about this; for some unknown reason, you wanted me to remain a shul rabbi. You insisted on it. Well, once again, your prayer was answered, and I wound up the rabbi not of one, but of two shuls at the same time! Thanks a lot, ZZ.

Zehara, now that you are a woman, I would like to share with you just a small part of the story of how I became a so-called Jewish feminist. After all, in most ways, I am very traditional, religiously and otherwise. I’m even a bit old fashioned. How did I wind up a vocal advocate for women’s learning, committed to equal educational opportunities for boys and girls?

The truth is that I did not always think this way. There was a time that I accepted the more traditional view about women, a view that suggests that their Torah learning should be more limited than the boys’ and is not as important. I imagine that if you had grown up with a father that believed those things, if you had been raised in a household with the previous version of me, you would have had a very different experience!

Obviously, today, I am very, very far from that traditional view. In fact, I reject that view. I’m not going to provide you with a detailed map of the path I have traveled or a catalogue of the choices I have made and the consequences I have endured as a result. And I’m not going to use this as an opportunity to offer you a full, comprehensive picture of all that I feel and think about how the role of women in Judaism should be understood. But I would like to tell you about how and why I began the process of changing my perspective and moving away from the old fashioned one. 

Zehara, in life, we can’t always pinpoint the very moment that the direction of our thinking about a subject began to shift. But I will never forget the day that my mind was opened and my perspective on feminism changed forever. A professor of mine in graduate school was teaching us about the history of education of deaf and mute children.

Did you know that for most of history, it was assumed that people who could not hear or speak were also unable to think or learn? Did you know that children who were deaf and mute were considered mentally retarded and were not given any education at all? Nowadays, we know that even though these children have special challenges, they can still be just as brilliant, thoughtful, and curious as anyone else. They can learn just as well as anyone else. We just have to use different methods of teaching them, methods that don’t involve the listening and talking we usually depend on.

This may not seem earth shattering to you, but to me, at that time, it was. After all, the Mishnah and Gemara, the Halakha, declares that deaf-mutes are not responsible for keeping the mitzvot because they lack intelligence. Our own great Rabbis believed that deaf-mutes were mentally retarded and could not be educated. 

They didn’t think this way because they disliked people with disabilities or wanted to discriminate against them. They thought this way because this was the way that everyone thought back then. This was the “science” of their times, science that continued to be believed, and taught, and followed until just about a hundred years ago.

Our Rabbis knew that people who were mentally retarded could not be expected to keep the mitzvot. They also “knew”, based on the best information available to them, that people who were deaf-mutes were mentally retarded. Through no fault of their own, they made a mistake.

It slowly dawned on me that the Rabbis’ thoughts about women and girls must also have been based on the science of their times. They saw that women were not as intellectually inclined, as academically sophisticated or as curious about the world as men were. They saw that girls behaved more emotionally, more sensitively, more playfully and less seriously and studiously than boys.

They assumed what everyone else at that point in history assumed - that girls naturally had less intelligence than boys, that women were better suited to housework than homework, that the highest goal of a woman should be motherhood rather than Torah knowledge, and that females should be educated differently than males, or not at all.

Our Rabbis cannot be blamed for this error any more than they can be blamed for believing the world was flat or that the sun revolved around the Earth. The holy Sages were not, G-D forbid, misogynists - they did not hate women or disrespect women. On the contrary, they passed many, many laws - laws that became part of the Halakha - in order to protect the rights and dignity of women, to prevent them from being abused or mistreated by the men in their lives or in their communities, to ensure that they would be shielded from any harm.

Women were always treated with respect and reverence in the Jewish world. The Book of Melakhim tells us about how Shelomo Hamelekh, King Solomon, reacted when his mother came to visit him in his palace, “And when Batsheva came to Shelomo to speak with him…the King stood up to greet her, bowed to her, sat down on his throne, and had a throne placed for her. She sat at his right hand.” King Solomon showed the ultimate respect to his mother. He did not accord any less honor to his mother than he would to his father, and neither should we.

The Rabbis knew that women are precious to Hashem and created in His image. However, they believed that women were granted less intellectual ability than men and that they were not capable of achieving the heights in Torah and spirituality that men could. They based their view on what they believed to be scientific observation - the same scientific observation that led Aristotle, the greatest of the Greek philosophers, to believe that women were not equal to men.

But there was another great Greek philosopher with a different opinion: Aristotle’s teacher, the illustrious Plato. Plato taught that men and women were absolutely equal in every way, intellectually, spiritually and emotionally. He was ahead of his time, because he realized that appearances can be deceiving. He said that sometimes we need to ignore appearances completely and look beyond the surface in order to discover what is, as you used to say, “for really real.”

It was true that women behaved differently from men. It was true that girls had less serious interests than boys. It was true that the females focused more on food and clothing and relationships than the males did. But this didn’t stem from their inner nature as women or girls. It did not have to be that way. It happened because the girls were raised differently than the boys.

Girls weren’t encouraged by their parents or by their communities to study seriously, to develop their minds, or to think deeply. So they didn’t. Girls were taught how to cook, sew, keep house, and raise children. So they did. But if they had been given the same opportunities as the boys, and had been educated the same way as the boys, then they would have equalled or surpassed the boys in knowledge, sophistication and wisdom.

People mistakenly believed there were real differences of mind and soul between men and women. Great people, including Aristotle and even our Sages, were convinced that women were less intellectually and spiritually capable than men, that educating women would be a waste of time.  But what these thinkers were actually observing were differences in the way men and women were taught, trained, and raised, not differences in how men and women were created.

Plato understood this, and in understanding this he was over 2,000 years ahead of the rest of the human race. Even his own student, Aristotle, couldn’t see what his wise teacher saw. Plato lived in the fifth century BCE, about 2500 years ago. That was about 2300 years before John Stuart Mill, who lived in the 19th century, would begin writing and speaking out about these ideas and insisting that women be given more and better educational opportunities. Today, we know that Plato and John Stuart Mill had it right when almost everyone else had it wrong.

If the Rabbis of the Talmud had known all that we know today about deaf-mutes and their ability to learn, there is no doubt in my mind that they would have taught  and applied the Halakha differently than they did. Had they possessed more accurate scientific knowledge, they would not have treated deaf-mutes as mentally retarded and would not have excluded them from the community of Torah learners and mitzvah-performers.

Similarly, had our Sages understood what we do today about the innate equality of males and females - if they had had the privilege of seeing brilliant female brain surgeons, lawyers, mathematicians, scientists, engineers, and Torah scholars - there is no question that they would have had a totally different view of the proper role of women in Jewish life.

Many of the statements about women in the Talmud and Midrash, and some of the halakhot applicable to women, reflect the Rabbis’ own beliefs about women, beliefs that they mistakenly thought were “scientific facts.” Today we realize that many of these ideas were totally incorrect. But just because we know more than the Rabbis did about women doesn’t automatically mean that we can change the rules of Jewish law on our own.

On the contrary, we must continue to observe the Halakha as it was formulated by our Rabbis thousands of years ago. That is the way the system of Torah that Hashem gave us is supposed to work - its laws remain fixed and can only be changed by an official Rabbinic Supreme Court called a Sanhedrin. 

Of course, we eagerly await the arrival of Mashiach and the establishment of a new Sanhedrin that will review and update any laws that are incompatible with current scientific knowledge, including knowledge about the equality of the sexes. In the meantime, though, within the limits of the halakha as it exists now, we must live out our Judaism in light of our awareness that there is no intellectual or spiritual difference between women and men.

Zehara, to me, you are the ultimate proof of this eternal truth. You embrace your uniquely female qualities. You love being a young woman and enjoy the blessings of femininity. Yet you also engage in Torah study with the fullness of your mind and soul; not as a girl or woman, but as a Jew who seeks knowledge. You pray with intensity and sincerity, not as a girl or woman, but as a human being who yearns for closeness to Hashem.

Zehara Yehudit Maroof, your name means “Famous Jewish Light”. You are a source of “Jewish” light and inspiration to us with your amazing Megillah reading, in your study of Torah and performance of mitzvot, and in the beauty of your kind, generous and compassionate personality.   

ZZ Joon [dear ZZ], you have never been one to seek attention. But you are loved and admired by all who know you and have come to recognize your remarkable intelligence, your warmth, your concern for others, and your deep commitment to Hashem and to Torah. You really are a “Famous Jewish Light” that we pray will continue to shine brightly for many years to come.

Like the farmer who won that big award, you are outstanding in your field!

Love Always, 


Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Not So Fast

One of the most famous chapters in the Hebrew Bible is Isaiah Chapter 58. General familiarity with it is due, no doubt, to the fact that it was selected by our Sages as the Haftara reading for Yom Kippur. However, its harsh and unrelenting critique of religious hypocrisy and the shallowness of mechanical ritual observance is most definitely the source of its immense and enduring power. 

Contemporaries of the Prophet Isaiah complained that despite their fasting and self-flagellation their prayers elicited no response from the Almighty. They cast doubt upon the omniscience of God and insinuated that He did not see their holy deeds or turned a deaf ear to their plaintive cries. The Jews simply could not fathom why their acts of piety had no results.

For day after day they seek me out; they seem eager to know My ways, as if they were a nation that does what is right and has not forsaken the commands of its God. They ask me for just decisions and seem eager for God to come near them. ‘Why have we fasted,’ they say, ‘and you have not seen it? Why have we afflicted ourselves, and you have not noticed?’

The prophet’s rejoinder to the people is clear and straightforward -  

“Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your debtors.
Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists.
You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high.Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to afflict themselves?Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to Hashem?

Fasting had become a ritualistic activity, a kind of magic strategy for winning God’s goodwill. But the fast day was mere pageantry; there was no self-reflection, no introspection, no genuine change. Indeed, the same unjust, violent and selfish objectives pursued on ordinary days continued on the “sacred” days of fasting.

Isaiah does not stop at offering a critique of the fasting, however. He provides recommendations for a better approach to replace it:

Is not this the fast that I have chosen - to loose the fetters of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free, and that you break every yoke? Is it not to deal your bread to the hungry, and that you bring the poor that are cast out into your house? When you see the naked, cover him, and that you hide not yourself from your own flesh? Then shall your light break forth as the morning, and your healing shall spring forth speedily; and your righteousness shall go before you, the glory of Hashem shall be your rear guard. Then shall you call, and Hashem will answer; you shall cry, and He will say: 'Here I am.' If you take away from the midst of you the yoke, finger-pointing, and speaking wickedness; And if you pour out your soul to the hungry, and satisfy the afflicted soul; then shall your light rise in darkness, and your gloom be as the noon-day."

A true fast, the prophet insists, has nothing to do with abstaining from food and drink or with dressing in sackcloth; rather, it is a day of freeing the imprisoned and taking care of the poor, needy and homeless. It is a day of uprooting injustice and wickedness from our midst and of eradicating the forces of oppression. Were this to transpire on a fast day, the prophet tells us, God would unquestionably respond to the prayers of the Jewish people and alleviate their suffering.

We must ask one basic question about the lesson of Isaiah in this chapter. We can fully understand and sympathize with his condemnation of the hypocrisy of those who afflict themselves through avoidance of nourishment, expecting God to favor them, while continuing to pursue evil. We can also appreciate his emphasis on the importance of facing the REAL problems that plague Jewish society – indifference to the poor, exploitation of the needy, obsession with material goods and power and endless conflict over them. Addressing these issues would mean seeking to implement real, lasting change in our communities.

Why, though, does Isaiah claim that “this” – the struggle against injustice – “is the fast that God has chosen”? After all, a fast has a specific definition – it is a day of no physical indulgences, or at the very least, no eating and drinking. Isaiah should have said “forget about fasting – it’s not necessary – just do these things, care for the needy and the oppressed, battle the wicked and arrogant, and then you will be redeemed”. But he does not say that. He says that the fight for justice IS the fast. How can this be?

I believe that Isaiah offers a profound insight here that is relevant to every single one of us. Before revealing that, though, let’s consider a more general question, a perennial mystery that is deeply vexing and is worth exploring.

Religious people seem to have little difficulty observing rituals. Indeed, not only will they go to great lengths to keep the commandments, they even embrace additional stringencies that can invite further hardships and complications upon them. They may adopt stricter practices in the laws of kashrut, Shabbat, or the wearing of Tefillin, and this is part and parcel of what it means to be a religious Jew.

At the same time, for some inexplicable reason, religious people have tremendous difficulty keeping even the most BASIC laws that govern conduct between themselves and other human beings. They struggle mightily to refrain from gossip, slander, insulting or embarrassing others, cheating in business, and other such violations of the Torah.

Prophets and rabbis, from time immemorial, have commented upon and bemoaned this inconsistency and hypocrisy. How can we take our relationship with God so seriously while neglecting our relationships with our fellow men and women – especially when these relationships are also meant to be governed by the wisdom and laws of the Torah we revere? Why aren’t we just as careful, just as strict, just as amenable to self-sacrifice in the area of interpersonal mitzvoth as we are when it comes to the mitzvoth between us and our Creator? After all, these commandments are all written in the same Torah!

I would like to suggest that there is a very basic reason for this double standard. Religious ritual, because it is between the individual and his God, is thought to elevate the person, bringing him even closer to his Creator. In fact, when someone is more stringent in his observance, he may believe that this makes him superior to others who are less meticulous in their practice. In other words, at least in our imaginations, rituals can set us apart from and above our fellows and have the power to situate us “closer to God”, as it were. 

It is inherently appealing and relatively easy to embrace a lifestyle that reinforces our pre-existent sense that we are especially important to and adored by the Almighty, not to mention much more valuable in His eyes than most of the other inhabitants of this planet.

Laws that govern our interactions with other people, by contrast, have just the opposite effect. They emphasize that, in reality, we are NOT more precious, special or worthy than others simply by virtue of some minor religious, practical or material advantage we may possess. The homeless person who sleeps on the street is no less deserving of dignity than I am, no less entitled to a warm bed or a hot meal than I am, and no less of a beloved creature to God than I am. 

The person toward whom I harbor negative feelings or who owes me money or who works for me is just as significant a member of the human race as I am. I have no right to mistreat him, slander him or oppress him. I have to think about his feelings, his concerns, his welfare and his struggles. To observe these laws requires me to humble myself, to recognize that I stand in this world on an even playing field with those around me and that I have no inherent right or prerogative to place my needs and desires above those of my fellow human beings.

Let us return to the issue at hand – fasting. The purpose of fasting is to humble oneself, to break down one’s ego, drop one’s defenses, and honestly evaluate one’s character and conduct. However, fasting can also be transformed into a ritual action, a ceremony that makes me feel holier, purer, and closer to God. It can reinforce my innate sense of superiority, encouraging me to think even more highly of myself than I did previously and to feel even more entitled than I did before. This is precisely what was happening in the era of Isaiah (and what continues to happen today!). 

The fasting, rather than fostering humility and repentance, merely served to inflate the egos of the participants, causing them to expect even more from the Almighty and to be even less sensitive to the needs of those whom they believed were not as important as themselves.

This is why Isaiah explains that we have the concept of fasting all wrong. The essence of fasting is not pumping up your ego with an extra dose of piety through self-affliction but is focusing on your unworthiness, your flaws, and your defects. It is not about looking heavenward and saying “look how great I am, how much better I am than these less religious dullards, I must be so precious to you, Oh God, so please answer me.” 

Instead, it is about looking at the human beings around you who are created in the image of God just like you are and who have problems just like you do and who have families and emotions just like you do and who are suffering from poverty and oppression, and saying “I am NOT better than you are, I am not more entitled to blessing than you are, I have no right to exploit or mistreat you, and I have no right to sit idly by while you suffer the indignity and pain of being oppressed or persecuted.”

This, Isaiah says, is the essence of fasting – internalizing an attitude of humility and a consciousness of our shared humanity which will put an end to callous indifference and selfishness and will inspire the sincere pursuit of justice world over. Abstaining from food and drink is one way of opening our hearts to these insights but when we fail to “fast” properly we reduce the whole exercise to an empty, and even counterproductive, ritual. Not eating and drinking merely scratches the surface of what a genuine fast is all about.   

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Sukkot - Bringing Heaven Down to Earth (Revised 5775)

This article on Sukkot is dedicated to the memory of my paternal grandfather, Azizollah ben Michael Maroof, who passed away on the fourth day of Sukkot 5767. May his soul find its rest in the bond of eternal life. Amen.

A Busy Month

The month of Tishre is filled to the brim with holidays. Rosh Hashana initiates a spiritual momentum that reaches its zenith ten days later on Yom Kippur. Only four days are then given to us to recuperate from the intensity of the Day of Atonement before the joyous holiday of Sukkot begins. Although Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur share a common theme - repentance - it is more difficult to account for the observance of Sukkot at a time of year that is already overscheduled. Indeed, in view of the fact that Sukkot is a commemoration of our dwelling in the wilderness of Sinai after our departure from Egypt, it could just as easily (and, we might argue, even more logically) have been established in the springtime after Passover. Apparently, for a deeper reason, the Torah intended for Sukkot to be closely linked to Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. What is the conceptual relationship between the High Holidays and Sukkot that the Torah wishes to teach us?

The Enigma of the Four Species

Before attempting to answer this fundamental question, let us examine another aspect of the Sukkot festival. On Sukkot, The Torah commands us to "take for ourselves" four species - a palm branch (lulav), myrtle branches (hadasim), willow branches (aravot) and a citron (etrog) and to rejoice with them during the holiday. In the Holy Temple, this mitsvah was performed all seven days of Sukkot. Outside of Jerusalem, it was observed only on the first day. After the destruction of the Temple, however, the Rabbis decreed that the waving of the Four Species be enacted across the globe on all seven days so as to commemorate the Temple service.

The commandment of waving the species stands out from among all other holiday-related mitsvot in one respect: The Torah offers no reason for it! The Torah provides a rationale for eating matsah on Passover, fasting on Yom Kippur and even for dwelling in booths on Sukkot. However, it presents us with no explanation at all for the mitsvah of taking the Four Species.

In fact, the way in which the Torah presents the obligation to celebrate with the Lulav and Etrog in Parashat Emor is itself quite unusual:

And Hashem spoke to Moshe, saying: "Speak to the Children of Israel, saying, 'On the fifteenth day of this seventh month is a festival of booths - seven days dedicated to Hashem. On the first day will be a holy convocation, you shall do no laborious work. For seven days, you shall offer fire-offerings to Hashem; on the eighth day, it shall be for you a holy convocation, you shall do no laborious work. These are the holidays of Hashem, holy convocations, that you shall declare in their proper times - to offer fire-offerings to Hashem, burnt offerings, meal offerings, peace offerings and libations, each day according to its requirements...'"

At this point, it would be reasonable for the reader to conclude that the discussion of the festivals has been concluded. But not so fast! The Torah suddenly reverses course and reopens the subject of the holidays:

'...However, on the fifteen day of the seventh month, when you are gathering the produce of the land, celebrate the holiday of Hashem for seven days - the first day shall be a rest day, and the eighth day shall be a rest day. And you shall take for yourselves on the first day the fruit of a beautiful tree [etrog], palm branches, the branch of a myrtle tree and willow branches, and you shall rejoice before Hashem your God seven days... In booth shall you dwell for seven days....' And Moshe told the holidays of Hashem to the Children of Israel.

On the surface, it seems as if the mitsvot of Sukkot are appended to the discussion of the holidays as an "afterthought". Why did the Torah first summarize its entire treatment of the festivals and only then revisit Sukkot in more detail? Couldn't the Torah have provided us with a complete account of the holiday the first time around? Furthermore, we must wonder why the final section of the Parasha begins with the word "however". "However" usually introduces a new statement that will contradict expectations generated by a previous statement (ex. "it was hot outside; however, Jim did not turn on the air conditioning"). Here though, not only does the presentation of Sukkot not contradict the preceding material, it actually elaborates on and clarifies it! There is no doubt that the striking manner in which the Torah teaches us about the laws of Sukkot is meant to give us insight into their underlying significance.

Adam, Eve and Mother Earth

In order to solve the mystery of the Four Species and develop a better appreciation of Sukkot in general, let us consider the teachings of our Rabbis on the subject. Nachmanides in particular offers us several hints that we may be able to utilize in our quest for an explanation of the Species. In his commentary to Parashat Emor, he mentions that the purpose of the commandment is to rectify the sin of Adam, the first man, who consumed the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. According to one Midrashic opinion, the fruit that Adam erred with was the Etrog. Apparently, through utilizing the Etrog for a mitsvah, we obtain atonement for the mistake of our ancestor. Nachmanides also cites a Midrash that, at first blush, sounds quite surprising:

"Fruit of a beautiful (hadar) tree" - this is the Holy One, Blessed is He, as it states, "Glory and splendor (hadar) are before Him".
"Palm branches (temarim)" - this is the Holy One, Blessed is He, as it states, "The Righteous One sprouts like a palm."
"Myrtle branches" - this is the Holy One, Blessed is He, as it states, "And He stands among the myrtles".
"Willow branches (aravot)" - this is the Holy One, Blessed is He, as it states, "Praise He Who rides above the heavens (aravot)."

How can the Midrash suggest that the Four Species represent Hashem Himself? Taken literally, this notion is not only blasphemous, it would be idolatrous. What did the Rabbis intend to teach us with this homiletic interpretation?

Let us consider one further Midrash of our Sages concerning the Lulav and Etrog. We know that in addition to holding the Four Species in our hands, we wave them in every direction during the Hallel prayer. This is said to be done in imitation of the trees of the field that tremble with joy when they witness the judgment of God. The Rabbis base this concept upon a verse in the Book of Psalms:

"The field will exult and all that is in it."

"The field will exult" - this refers to the world.

"And all that is in it" - this refers to the creatures.

"Then all the trees of the forest will rejoice - before Hashem, for He has come to judge the Earth."

Why do the trees rejoice? Because Hashem has come on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. And what has He come to do? "He will judge the Earth in righteousness and the peoples in fairness."

Here the Rabbis emphasize a thematic connection between Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Sukkot that manifests itself specifically in the waving of the Four Species. Through performing the mitsvah of Lulav and Etrog, we participate with nature, as it were, in its celebration of the Divine judgment that was finalized on Yom Kippur. To some extent, we understand that the description of trees rejoicing is meant in a metaphoric or poetic vein. But what do the Psalmist, and the Rabbis who elucidated his words, intend to teach us by utilizing this imagery? After all, what significance could Hashem's evaluation of human beings possibly have for the vegetation of the Earth?

Yom Kippur and Sukkot

I believe we are now in a position to develop a more comprehensive and meaningful approach to understanding the Tishre holidays in general and Sukkot in particular. Let us begin by considering the thematic objectives of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur in greater depth.

The overarching purpose of the High Holidays is for the Jewish people to repent before God. However, repentance is not a simple mitsvah. It is interesting to note that, no matter how much we repent, there always seems to be more to do. The process never reaches any definite conclusion. What accounts for this unusual state of affairs?

An analogy will lead us to the answer. Consider the removal of weeds from a garden. No matter how many times one hacks away weeds, they regrow quickly if the roots are not dug out. Cutting the vegetation above the surface of the ground is not sufficient because it is really just a manifestation of the root beneath. In the same sense, it is clear that the problems addressed in repentance - i.e., the particular sins we commit and promise to discontinue - are merely symptoms of an underlying spiritual "disorder" that cannot be resolved in a superficial way. If we are to develop as Jews, we must proceed to the "root" and attempt to dislodge it. Fortunately, the Torah helps us by identifying the character of the ailment we've diagnosed as well as providing us with a remedy for it.

The Torah teaches that from time immemorial, we human beings have found ourselves grappling with a fundamental moral dilemma that makes itself felt in every area of our individual and collective activity. On one hand, we recognize that we are small, frail beings with limited lifespans who stand in the presence of an Eternal and Inscrutable Creator. Every element of the material Universe, whether grand or minute, is governed by the principles of God's infinite knowledge. Intuitively, we realize that, as part of the created order, we too should admire and adhere to the dictates of His wisdom. Human life, if it is to have any lasting significance, must be organized around and shaped by a study of God's truth. Human beings must seek a connection with the ultimate reality if they have any hope of "being real" themselves.

At the same time, though, we naturally seek to dominate our environments and yearn to establish our own independent criteria of truth and morality. We strive to create personal, financial or political empires that will testify to the fact that we are "gods, knowing good and evil." In order to fully devote ourselves to these goals, we must ignore or deny the fact that we are nothing more than tiny parts of a Divinely governed Universe. We must orient ourselves to our environments in a utilitarian, pleasure-seeking manner that focuses us on the sensual aspects of world and blinds us from perceiving the intrinsic beauty and wisdom that they manifest. Only then can we manage to nurture our fantasies of grandeur and style ourselves creators rather than creations.

Before they sinned, Adam and Eve oriented themselves to the world as seekers of truth whose primary desire was to understand the Universe and their place in it. However, once they began manipulating their environment for purposes of pleasure, they became conscious of their own moral freedom and their ability to generate a manmade value system that would revolve around their own personal agendas rather than God's plan. This immediately hurled them into the throes of a painful internal conflict, i.e., they were attracted to the pursuit of wisdom but could not release themselves from the grip of their newfound egotistical and hedonistic fantasies. We, as the descendants of Adam and Eve, continue to contend with the intellectual and moral dilemma they bequeathed to us. The vast majority of our sins result from setbacks in our constant struggle with this problem.

The power of the High Holidays lies in the fact that they throw this fundamental conflict into clear relief. The sound of the Shofar on Rosh Hashana awakens us from our self-imposed dogmatic slumbers and refocuses our minds on the reality of God's Kingship and its implications. On Yom Kippur, we go even further, demonstrating our recognition of Hashem's holiness through a complete renunciation of the materialistic worldview that enticed Adam and Eve. Separating from all bodily pleasures and selfish pursuits, devoting every moment of our time to reflection on Hashem's greatness, we immerse ourselves in the ultimate truth. On this day we reach the pinnacle of awareness of God, such that the Torah says "before Hashem, shall you be purified." The very process of tearing away our illusions and focusing on God's transcendence can purify and transform us. Yom Kippur, then, is the intellectual antidote to the tradition of sin that has its roots in the Garden of Eden.

It should be immediately obvious that Yom Kippur, though necessary for our growth, is by no means sufficient. Prayers and fasting certainly offer us a powerful experience of clarification and intensive focus. However, we know full well that, as soon as we return to our conventional daily routines, whatever effects Yom Kippur has had will wear off quickly. Involvement in the day-to-day pursuit of a livelihood as well as exposure to temptations of pleasure and prestige will overtake us and cause us to lose a handle on the ideas that seemed so clear at Neilah time. Simply stated, real change cannot be effected in the abstract. It requires a shift in how we actually perceive, understand and respond to the concrete realia of everyday life. How can a more effective bridge be made from the spiritual heights of Yom Kippur to the mundane world of the physical and temporal?

Sukkot is the Torah's answer to this problem. On Sukkot, it is precisely the physical dimension of our existence that is addressed. We eat, drink, and sleep in the Sukkah. Every act of dwelling, no matter how apparently insignificant, is transformed into a mitsvah. Through fulfilling the commandment of Sukkah, we remain "before Hashem" - cognizant of His transcendence - while engaging in the very activities that usually distract us from Him. This is why, in describing Sukkot, the Torah states "And you shall celebrate before Hashem for seven days." The institution of Sukkot does not allow us to leave our experience of God's presence behind after Yom Kippur. On the contrary, we must extend it and carry it along with us into the Sukkah. Only then can our new level of abstract understanding begin to exert a substantial influence on the way we live our lives.

Giving a New Meaning to the Term "Fieldwork"

What is it about the Sukkah that makes it the ideal vehicle for 'extending' the Yom Kippur experience? Further reflection on the primary cause of human sin will help us appreciate the Torah's wisdom in its selection of Sukkot for this purpose.

As mentioned above, human beings fall into error when they disconnect themselves from nature and its lawfulness. Rather than seeing themselves as part of the Creation that should be living in harmony with it, they separate from it and attempt to lord over it. The Sukkah reverses this trend by placing us back "into the field", as it were, like Adam and Eve before their sin. Unlike a house whose artificial character reinforces our illusion of isolation from the Universe, the Sukkah reintegrates us with the natural world and its Source.

Thus, the Sukkah allows us to keep God at the forefront of our minds, even as we eat, drink and rejoice. In this sense, it gives us a taste of the ideal state of human perfection, as formulated by Maimonides in his laws of Character Traits:

A person must direct all of his actions toward achieving knowledge of God alone. So that his sitting, standing, and speech are all instrumental to this goal...Thus, a person who walks in this way all of his days is serving Hashem constantly - even at the times that he is engaged in business dealings and even when he is involved in marital relations - because his purpose in doing these activities is to satisfy his bodily needs so he can serve Hashem. And even at the time he is sleeping, if he sleeps so that his mind can rest and his body doesn't become sick - for it is impossible to serve Hashem when one is sick - then it turns out that his sleeping is service of God, blessed be He. And it is regarding this topic that our Rabbis commanded and said, "All of your actions should be for the sake of Heaven." And so did King Solomon say in his wisdom, "In all your ways you should know Him."

Demystifying the Midrashim

With this foundation in place, we can begin to understand the Midrashim introduced earlier. We wondered about the meaning of the "personification" of the trees of the field that we find in the poetry of the Psalms and in the discourses of our Rabbis. Now, the thrust of these texts becomes much clearer. The natural world, the "field" mentioned in Psalms, is already praising its Creator through conforming to His laws and statutes. On Sukkot, we literally enter the "field", and we grasp the produce of the "field" in our hands as we give thanks to God in Hallel. Through this, we demonstrate our sense of unity and solidarity with Creation. No longer are we struggling to distinguish ourselves from the rest of the Universe. On the contrary, we now seek to study, extol, and live in accordance with the magnificent design of the Almighty.

The Rabbis imply that, metaphorically speaking, the trees of the field "await" our arrival after the High Holidays. The entire physical Universe reflects the infinite wisdom of its Creator without resistance or reservation. Only mankind diverges from this pattern and attempts to establish an artificial, alternative world order that suits human ambitions and aspirations. As long as human beings remain out of step with the rest of the Universe, the natural world is somewhat deficient in its praise of God.

When the Jewish people returns to Hashem on Yom Kippur, we lay the groundwork for a spiritual renaissance - for reassuming our position as servants of Hashem rather than slaves of human agenda. This itself is reason enough for the rest of creation to rejoice. However, these feelings of optimism will be short-lived unless the sense of God's presence that we achieved on Yom Kippur is allowed to permeate our worldview in its totality and effect permanent change in our outlook. Our observance of Sukkot is meant to encourage us to translate the momentary epiphany of Neilah into a completely new orientation toward the material world. When we enter the Sukkah and grasp the Four Species, identifying with the vegetation of the Earth, we begin to view our own role in the world from a much more realistic standpoint - a standpoint that will we will hopefully internalize for good.

This also sheds light on the surprising Midrash that seemed to equate each of the Four Species with Hashem. Understood properly, the Rabbis did not, God forbid, intend to imply that physical objects could serve as representations of the Almighty. Instead, they meant to point out that the transformation we undergo on the High Holidays revolutionizes the way in which we view our environment. The instinctually or egotistically driven person who sees an Etrog will immediately consider it in terms of his own agenda - what does it taste like? Would it make a nice stew? Could I go into the Etrog farming business and be successful? Approaching the world through this framework is a tremendous liability, because it feeds into a human-centered view of the Universe. The more a person with this attitude is exposed to the resources of the material world, the further he will become steeped in the pursuit of instinctual gratification.

The person of Torah, by contrast, sees in the diverse qualities of the Species the providential design of the Creator that is revealed through them. Holding the Species together underscores the fact that, despite the differences they exhibit on a superficial, sensory level, all four of them derive from the same harmonious system of natural law. When he gazes upon the Lulav, Etrog, Hadassim and Aravot, he sees Hashem - in other words, he moves beyond their physical characteristics and perceives the Divine wisdom they embody. The framework through which he processes his experiences is fundamentally different than that of the materialist, and this impacts the way he understands his environment and behaves within it. Because his whole perspective on the material world is rooted in his knowledge of God, exposure to its beauty can only propel him toward further dedication to Divine service.

Uniqueness of Sukkot

At this juncture we can make sense out of the unusual structure of Parashat Emor. Why does the Torah introduce Sukkot, seem to conclude the treatment of the holidays, and then introduce and explain Sukkot in greater detail? And why is the revisiting of Sukkot begun with the term "however"?

A closer examination of the Parasha's words will reveal the answer. In the first "conclusion" of Emor, we read:

These are the holidays of Hashem, holy convocations, that you shall declare in their proper times - to offer fire-offerings to Hashem, burnt offerings, meal offerings, peace offerings and libations, each day according to its requirements. This is in addition to the Sabbaths of Hashem, and in addition to all of the gifts, pledges and donations that you give to Hashem. However, on the fifteenth day of the seventh month....

The Torah did not intend to close its discussion of the holidays at this point. Rather, the Torah meant to emphasize a crucial distinction between Sukkot and the remainder of Biblical holidays. On all other holidays, the ultimate experience of being "before Hashem" is restricted to the Holy Temple where offerings are brought. Average Israelites would visit the Temple on the Festivals and would draw profound inspiration from it, but their role would never be crossed with that of the Kohanim.

On Sukkot, though, the concept of being "before Hashem" becomes common property. It is firmly implanted in our minds on Yom Kippur and integrated into our experience of daily living through the Sukkah and Four Species. On Sukkot, we achieve the ideal of becoming a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, of incorporating awareness of God into the most mundane aspects of our existence. The clearest indication of this new status is the mitsvah of waving the Four Species, which - although it is considered part of the seven-day Temple service for Sukkot, and should logically be restricted to Kohanim in Jerusalem - is performed by all Jews world over on the first day of Sukkot (and, since the destruction of the Temple, for all seven days of the holiday.) Because Sukkot transforms the very manner in which we relate to our environment, and ourselves it has the capacity of extending the holiness of the Mikdash beyond its physical borders. On this Festival, the Jewish people create their own personal sanctuaries in the form of Sukkot and are slightly less dependent upon the Holy Temple to represent God's presence for them.

This idea helps us to appreciate a fascinating pattern in Jewish history the first indication of which we may observe in the account of the dedication of the First Temple in Jerusalem. King Solomon selected what would seem to be a peculiar time to schedule the epic celebration that would accompany the “grand opening” event:

“And King Solomon gathered all of the people of Israel in the Month of Etanim, at the time of the Festival (Sukkot) which was in the seventh month…And at that time Solomon observed the holiday amidst a great assembly that stretched from the approach to Hamath until the river of Egypt, before Hashem our God, seven days and seven days for a total of fourteen days. And on the eighth day (Shemini Atseret) he sent the people home…”

For some reason, the wisest of kings chose to plan the seven day dedication of the Temple such that it seamlessly flowed into the holiday of Sukkot, another seven day period of rejoicing. On the surface, this would appear to be a poor decision – overwhelming the nation with an excess of festivity rather than allowing them a few weeks or months to recover before the holiday. Interestingly, however, we find that Ezra, upon consecrating the Second Temple, opted for similar timing:

“And all of Israel gathered like one person in the street before the Water Gate and asked Ezra the Scribe to bring the Torah Scroll of Moshe that Hashem had commanded the people of Israel. And Ezra the Kohen brought the Torah before the people – men, women and anyone with understanding to listen – on the first day of the seventh month (Rosh Hashana)…And they found written in the Torah what Hashem commanded by the hand of Moshe, that the Children of Israel should dwell in booths during the festival of the seventh month…and the entire assembly of returnees from captivity constructed booths and dwelled in them – for the Children of Israel had not done so from the time of Joshua the son of Nun until that day – and it was a very great joy.”

In light of what we now understand, the explanation of this trend is clear. Sukkot is inextricably linked to the holiness of the Mikdash and its expansion outward to include the entire Jewish people who are dwelling in their own personal Sukkot. What greater opportunity to highlight this concept than to proceed directly from the dedication of the Holy Temple to the holiday that provides us with the most direct and intimate experience of its sanctity? Both King Solomon and Ezra intended to accentuate this element of the Sukkot festival so as to strengthen and deepen the relationship between the people of Israel and their newly consecrated House of God.

Commemoration of the Exodus

We can now understand how Sukkot can function both as a commemoration of our dwelling in the Wilderness of Sinai as well as an addendum to the High Holidays. Yom Kippur leaves us in the lurch, bringing us to a spiritual high that is difficult to sustain once we've gone back to our usual routines. Sukkot enables us to extend the heightened awareness of God that we've attained - our state of being "before Hashem" - and to bring it back "down to earth" in the form of Sukkah and Lulav. This is precisely the purpose that the sojourn in the wilderness had for the Jewish people. Experiences of Divine revelation in Egypt and at Sinai were powerful and transformational, but their impact could have easily become diminished if the Jews had not been given the opportunity to fully absorb their implications. During their time in the desert, the Jewish people proceeded under the direct, intimate and watchful eye of Divine Providence. This offered them the chance to internalize God's message by living it before they would have to meet the challenge of conventional existence in the Land of Israel.

The Time of Our Joy

Our study of Sukkot has revealed to us the reason why the Torah established it as the culmination of the annual cycle of holidays. Whereas Passover, Shavuot and the Days of Awe teach us the fundamental ideas and principles of Judaism, Sukkot focuses on integrating the ideals of Torah with realities of mundane existence in this world. Through Sukkot, we become connected with nature on a different level, and this enables us to relate our daily activities to our intellectual and spiritual mission.

This understanding of Sukkot can explain another aspect of its identity. The Torah describes Sukkot as an especially festive holiday:

Seven days shall you celebrate this holiday of Hashem, in the place which Hashem will choose - for Hashem, your God, has blessed you with your produce and all the work of your hands, and you shall be purely joyous.

The Rabbis of the Talmud elaborate on this further:

The Rabbis stated that one who never had the opportunity to see the celebration of Sukkot (Simhat Bet Hashoeva) never saw real joy in his entire life.

Indeed, even in our prayers on Sukkot, we refer to it as "the time of our Joy", a phrase we don't apply to any other holiday, no matter how joyous. What is it about Sukkot that introduces an additional element of happiness into its observance?

I believe that the answer to this question is provided by Maimonides at the end of his Laws of Shofar, Sukkah and Lulav. He writes:

Even though it is a mitsvah to celebrate on all of the holidays, on the holiday of Sukkot there was a higher level of celebration in the Temple, as it is written, "you shall rejoice before Hashem for seven days"....The happiness a person experiences in the performance of the commandments and in the love of God who commanded them is a great form of service. And anyone who holds himself back from this joy deserves to be punished, as the Torah states, "because you did not serve Hashem your God with joy and a good heart." And anyone who behaves arrogantly and assigns honor to himself and overestimates his importance in these areas is a sinner and a fool....

Maimonides echoes the statement of our Rabbis that Sukkot is the epitome of joyous holidays. He then proceeds to expound upon the importance of joy in the context of Divine service in general. On the surface, the Rambam's description here seems strange. How can being happy be a form of service? Isn't it simply a state of mind that either does or does not affect us?

In reality, the Rambam is offering us a profound insight. An illustration drawn from common experience will clarify his point. We have all found ourselves in circumstances where, because of preoccupation or distraction, we are unable to enjoy a happy occasion. We may be in attendance at a wedding but our concerns weigh upon us so heavily that we are not able to "throw ourselves" into the unrestrained joy that surrounds us. The presence of inhibition or inner conflict stops us from immersing ourselves in the pleasure of dancing, singing, etc. We may go through the motions, but our heart is not fully invested in the process. For this reason, our experience of the celebration remains incomplete.

The same circumstance obtains on all holidays of the Jewish year, except for Sukkot. On Passover, Shavuot, etc., although we are happy, we still experience an element of inner strain, an inability to fully engage in celebration. A dissonance exists between the abstract ideas we are studying and our own spiritual state. We are not yet "at one" with the theme of the holiday, its message still needs to be internalized. Even from a practical perspective, the harvest - which is another element of our holiday observances - has not yet been concluded, so we have concrete reasons to be preoccupied as well.

By contrast, on Sukkot, we have become fully integrated personalities. We find ourselves in harmony with our environment, with our value system and with Hashem. Inner turmoil is absent. Furthermore, Sukkot comes at a time when the produce has been collected from the fields, so that our agricultural concerns can safely be put to rest. Because we feel free of inhibition, preoccupation or reservation, we are capable of being fully engaged in the holiday experience. We can invest the entirety of our being - intellectual, emotional and physical - into the mitsvot of Sukkot, thus taking unmitigated pleasure in serving God.

It is now clear why the internal sense of joy we feel on the holidays is vitally important for our growth. The more completely we immerse ourselves in Torah and mitsvot, the more we develop our appreciation of Hashem's wisdom and cleave to His commandments. At the same time, we can now see why it is a state we are commanded to enter - it is a form of service - and not a simple emotional response. As the Rambam teaches us, true happiness can only occur within the soul of an individual who is willing to set aside other concerns and allow himself to feel it. We can always find things to worry about that can sap our energy and dilute the intensity of our intellectual and spiritual focus. It is our obligation to rise above these distracting elements and fully partake in the holiday spirit.

Sukkot, the time of our joy, provides us with optimal conditions for true happiness. The Torah directs us to take advantage of this special opportunity and to use it as a vehicle for drawing closer to our Creator.

Sukkot and the Final Redemption

There is one more fascinating aspect of Sukkot that bears mention – the fact that, according to the Hebrew Bible, all the nations of the world will participate in it in the Messianic era. The prophet Zecharya writes:  

“And it will be that whoever remains of all of the nations that mobilize against Jerusalem shall come up each year to bow before the King, Hashem, Master of Legions, and to celebrate the festival of Sukkot. And it shall be that anyone from amongst the families of the Earth who does not go up to Jerusalem to bow before the King, Hashem, Master of Legions, no rain will fall upon them. And if the family of Egypt does not arise and does not come, then not upon them [will be rain], and upon them will be the plague with which Hashem will strike the nations that do not go up to celebrate the festival of Sukkot. This will be the crime of Egypt and of all the nations who do not go up to celebrate the festival of Sukkot…”

It is very difficult to understand the basis of this prediction. After all, our tradition teaches that all human beings are bound by a code of moral and ethical conduct known as the “Seven Noachide Laws”; only Jews are bound by 613 commandments and expected to observe Sukkot and its various mitsvot. Why should the gentiles be held responsible for failing to live by legislation that was never intended for them and is not really applicable to them?

Moreover, it is noteworthy that the prophecy refers to Hashem specifically as “the King, Hashem, Master of Legions.” The Kingship of Hashem, highlighted emphatically on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, is not generally considered one of the signature themes of Sukkot. Why does Zecharya stress the notion of Divine Kingship in a message about the observance of  Sukkot, a festival associated more with wholehearted rejoicing than with  Kingship?

Based on our analysis above, we may be able to suggest an answer. Sukkot is indeed a holiday that brings our recognition of Hashem’s majesty “down to Earth” in the form of the concrete commandments of the festival. On Sukkot, we take the intellectual awareness of Hashem that the High Holidays inspired us to cultivate and develop within our minds and translate it into perceivable actions we perform with our bodies. The mitsvot of the festival are living testimony to the Kingship of Hashem as realized not only in our thoughts and feelings but in our lifestyle and environment.

For this very reason, it is critical that the nations of the world visit Jerusalem annually to celebrate the Holiday of Sukkot. Although they certainly have no legal or halakhic obligation to observe the festival – they are not Jewish, their ancestors didn’t sojourn in the wilderness for forty years, and they have not completed a process of repentance and purification that reached its culmination on Yom Kippur – they do have a moral obligation to observe the Jewish people in celebration of the holiday. Witnessing the Chosen People of Hashem at their finest hour, living in harmony with His wisdom and with the rest of His creation, constitutes a golden opportunity for the nations of the world to learn about the One God of Israel, gain an appreciation of the beauty of His Torah and commandments, and wholeheartedly embrace His Kingship.

The inner changes that occur in the minds and hearts of the Jewish people on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are invisible and provide no spectacle for others to gaze upon or admire. Sukkot, however, offers all of humanity the chance to see firsthand the greatness of Hashem, the glory of His Torah, the holiness of His nation, and the unmitigated joy experienced in serving Him. They will then declare, in the words of the non-Jewish prophet Bilaam, “How goodly are your tents, oh Jacob, and your dwelling places, oh Israel!” And we, as the Children of Israel, may thereby fulfill our sacred mandate to sanctify the name of the Almighty in this world, as Isaiah stated, “And He said: You are My servant; Israel, through whom I shall be glorified.”