Rabbi Shlomo Riskin
Chancellor and Rosh HaYeshiva, Ohr Torah Stone
The magnificent three-week Festival period beginning with Rosh Hashanah, including Yom Kippur and ending with Sukkot may be viewed and experienced in two dimensions at the same time: the Universalist, Nationalist dimension, and the particularist, individual – family dimension.
Rosh Hashanah is the day in which the world was born, hayom harat olam; it is when the sigh-sob 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 G-d by conveying the moral message of ethical monotheism, a G-d 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 ten scouts and, on a contemporary note, the hubris and unpreparedness of the Yom Kippur War – with the vision of our Holy Temple reaching out to all of humanity, “for My house is a House of Prayer for all nations.”
Sukkot is truly the climax of the season, taking us out of our egocentric, partisan homes and ordaining that we surround ourselves with fruits of the Land of Israel and live beneath a roof of universal vegetation through whose spaces we look up at the stars. The total number of bullocks sacrificed in the Holy Temple during the Sukkot Festival was 70, symbolizing the seventy nations of the world.
Finally comes Shemini Atzeret, which announces the onset of the rainy season: rain, which ensures good crops and sufficient nutrition, is after all the gift of G-d to the world. Shemini Atzeret quickly moves into the uninhibited joy of Simhat Torah, the festival of our Rejoicing in 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.
Thus, the period ends by our literally and publicly activating what we introspectively prayed for at the outset of this most meaningful and demanding holiday season: the Torah must be taken out into the public domain, into the universal marketplace, 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. One ought not rally in the streets on behalf of injustice while taking advantage of one’s spouse; there is no macro without the micro, every “whole” is comprised of individuals, unique and inviolate “parts” (‘ein bikhlal ela mah sheyeish bifrat’, teaches one of the Talmudic rules of hermeneutics).
Yes, it is the Jewish mission to convey the message of ethical monotheism to a world which threatens to destroy itself with nuclear explosives; the people of the covenant must perfect the world in the Kingship of our G-d 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 our very individual selves. Indeed, we must start with our selves!
An older disciple once approached the renowned Rav Yisrael Salanter, (1800-1870) founder of the Ethicist (Mussar) Movement in Judaism, and sought permission to spread the ethicist and moralist message of the Master to the far recesses of Germany and Austria.
Rav Yisrael searchingly 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 of you, yourself, my beloved disciple? Are you on such a high level of ethical integrity that no one would dare respond in derision to your teaching, that no one could say to you, ‘Before you ask me to remove the flint from between my teeth, you had better remove the beam from between your eyes!'”
And so, Rosh Hashanah ushers in a ten-day period of Repentance and introspection. Yes, it is the time when we must be mindful of the need to perfect the world, but we must first attempt to perfect ourselves. Yes, it is necessary to re-create the world, but the greatest test of our creativity lies in our ability to re-create ourselves.
Rosh Hashanah may be the day in which the world was born, but it is also the “Day of Judgment,” when every individual passes before the Almighty to be personally evaluated and judged, when each of us must evaluate and judge him/herself from the perspective of the standards of the Divine.
Yom Kippur may be a historic and national day of Forgiveness, a day in which we invoke our Holy Temple as a “House of Prayer for all nations,” but it is first and foremost a day in which the individual stands in isolation from the world in the presence of the Divine. No food, no drink, no sexual relations – with almost the entire day to be spent in G-d’s house. Each of us rids ourselves of all materialistic encumbrances, separates ourselves from physical needs and blandishments, enters a no-man’s land between heaven and earth, between life and death, dons the non-leather shoes worn by the mourner, and in effect feels what its like to mourn for oneself! What will my epitaph say? What kind of a life have I led? What is the nature of the legacy that I would leave behind, were I to be taken from the world tomorrow, today? “Repent one day before you die” – and reevaluate your life from the perspective of human mortality. This is your chance, perhaps your last one, to stand purified before the Divine.
And then we are ready for Sukkot. For one week, leave your fancy and possibly expensive surroundings, go back to basics, spend seven days with your spouse and children in a simple nature-oriented hut. Remember that “when familial love is strong, a couple can sleep on the edge of a sword; but when familial love has gone sour, a bed of sixty miles does not provide sufficient room” (B.T. Sanhedrin 7a). Forget the televisions and videos; 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, sing and speak and share together.
Remember – and communicate – that what is important are values, not venues; content, not coverings; inner emotions, and not external appearances. And let the sukkah lead you to Simhat Torah – to the love and joy of Torah, which will help form the kind of individuals and families who can build communities – and ultimately change the world.
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