By Shlomo Riskin
This three-week festival period – Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot – may be viewed and experienced in two dimensions simultaneously; the universalist, nationalist dimension, and the particularistic, individual – family dimension. Rosh Hashanah is the day on which the world was born, when the truah sound of the shofar cries out against the tragedies and injustices of an imperfect world and the sharp, joyous tekiyah 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.” (Isaiah 56: 7)
Sukkot 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 Sukkot Festival symbolizing the seventy nations of the world. Finally, Shemini Atzeret announces the onset of the rainy season: rain is after all a gift of God to the world.
Shemini Atzeret moves into the uninhibited joy of Simchat Torah – the Rejoicing of the Law – when all Torah scrolls are taken out of the Holy Ark and become the focus of frenzied 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 their conduct that you can preach to other families? And what about you, my beloved disciple? Are you on such a high level of ethical integrity that no one could criticize you?”
And so Rosh Hashanah ushers in a ten-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 Hashanah 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 on which the individual stands in isolation from the world in the presence of the Divine. No food, no drink, no sexual relationship – 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 it’s like to mourn for oneself asking what legacy would I leave, were I to be taken from the world today?
And then comes Sukkot. For one week, go back to basics. Spend 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). Bring the special guests of the Bible into your simple but significant space; commune with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph and David, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Lea, Miriam, Deborah and Ruth. Introduce them to your children, and sing and speak and share together. Remember – and communicate – that important are values, not venues, content not coverings, inner emotions and not external appearances.
Let the sukkah lead you to Simchat 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.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.