Sukkot: Com­ing down to earth

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - JUDAISM - REU­VEN HAM­MER

This has been a very busy sea­son for ob­ser­vant Jews. One hol­i­day fol­lows an­other, Rosh Hashanah with its mix­ture of joy and trem­bling at the be­gin­ning of an­other year, Yom Kip­pur, a day of ab­sti­nence, of dis­tanc­ing one­self from worldly and bod­ily con­cerns to reach a time of spir­i­tual cleans­ing and re­newal fol­lowed by the com­plete op­po­site – Sukkot, which is very much con­cerned with nor­mal ac­tiv­i­ties of life. It in­volves build­ing a struc­ture, tem­po­rary though it may be, hold­ing sym­bols of all that grows from the ground, eat­ing and re­joic­ing – “and you shall be com­pletely happy.” If Yom Kip­pur takes you up to heaven, Sukkot brings you down to earth.

I have of­ten won­dered if there is an or­derly se­quence to these days or if each one is sim­ply a dif­fer­ent phase of hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence. As cel­e­brated to­day, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kip­pur are in­deed tied to­gether in the pack­age known as “Ten Days of Re­pen­tance.” Judg­ment be­gins on the one and ends on the other. But what about Sukkot? Is it a let-down from the spir­i­tual peak of Yom Kip­pur, or is this an­other in­stance of the prin­ci­ple that “we as­cend in ho­li­ness and do not de­scend”?

Orig­i­nally, in bib­li­cal times, Yom Kip­pur was the day set aside for pu­ri­fy­ing the sanc­tu­ary and our­selves so that we could cel­e­brate Sukkot there in a state of rit­ual pu­rity. There­fore five days be­fore Sukkot we have these rites of pu­rifi­ca­tion. But even to­day it seems to me that we do “as­cend in ho­li­ness” when we come to Sukkot fol­low­ing Yom Kip­pur. After all, it is not so dif­fi­cult to live a life of pu­rity and ho­li­ness when you are cut off from this world and all its con­cerns on Yom Kip­pur, but how can one at­tain ho­li­ness when liv­ing im­mersed in this phys­i­cal world of ev­ery­day life? Build­ing, eat­ing, drink­ing – are they not dis­trac­tions from the holy? Yes – but that is ex­actly the point. It is easy to be a tzadik in an ivory tower. Not so easy in ev­ery­day life when de­ci­sions have to be made con­stantly about what is right and wrong, how to deal with mak­ing a liv­ing, how to treat other peo­ple, what to say and what not to say. Yet main­stream Ju­daism, un­like some other re­li­gions, never en­cour­aged peo­ple to di­vorce them­selves from so­ci­ety and from the dif­fi­cul­ties of ev­ery­day life. The clos­est we ever came to that was with the Essenes and the Dead Sea sect, but they ceased to ex­ist. I think the very mes­sage of Sukkot is that one must learn to re­main con­nected to God and to the val­ues that Ju­daism teaches while do­ing or­di­nary things as well. In that sense Yom Kip­pur is a step on the way to Sukkot – lead­ing us to­ward the ul­ti­mate goal, which is ho­li­ness in down-to-earth liv­ing.

It must al­ways be re­mem­bered that ho­li­ness in Ju­daism is not merely a mat­ter of ob­serv­ing cer­tain rit­u­als, but of lov­ing one’s fel­low, lov­ing the stranger, liv­ing hon­estly, car­ing for oth­ers, not ly­ing, not hurt­ing oth­ers in speech or deed, fac­ing temp­ta­tion and not giv­ing in to it. We ob­serve one day of spir­i­tual iso­la­tion like Yom Kip­pur not for its own sake but for the pur­pose of strength­en­ing us to be able to live the life of ho­li­ness, of de­cency, all the rest of the time.

The com­mand­ments of the To­rah are very much con­cerned with deal­ing with the ev­ery­day chal­lenges of life. The To­rah is not an oth­er­worldly book but a code that deals with ev­ery­day prob­lems. The “ho­li­ness code” in Leviti­cus 19, for ex­am­ple, dis­cusses not only such rit­ual mat­ters as sac­ri­fices, but in­structs us not to steal, not to be de­ceit­ful, to pay wages on time, not to de­fraud, not to in­sult the deaf, not to hate or take vengeance, to rise be­fore the aged and not to wrong the stranger or have dis­hon­est weights. A sim­i­lar col­lec­tion of laws in Deuteron­omy 22-24 deals not only with rit­u­als such as tas­sels on our gar­ments but with help­ing a per­son whose an­i­mal has fallen – the equiv­a­lent to­day of stop­ping to help some­one who has a flat tire – with build­ing a para­pet on your roof so no one will fall and be in­jured, not re­turn­ing a fugi­tive slave, leav­ing parts of your crop for the poor, not tak­ing in pawn some­thing a per­son de­pends upon for his liveli­hood. We should never for­get that the pur­pose of God’s sin­gling out Abra­ham, ac­cord­ing to Gen­e­sis 18:19, was so “that he may in­struct his chil­dren and his pos­ter­ity to keep the ways of the Lord by do­ing what is just and right...” That is what Ju­daism is all about.

In view of the many in­stances we have had of busi­ness­men who were ac­cused of vi­o­lat­ing the law and eth­i­cal norms in or­der to ma­nip­u­late their prof­its and of gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials, in­clud­ing those in high of­fice, ac­cept­ing bribes and oth­er­wise break­ing their oaths of of­fice, it was heart­warm­ing re­cently to hear about the suc­cess of the CEO of So­daStream, Daniel Birn­baum. (Full dis­clo­sure – our fam­i­lies are close friends.) He was able to build a suc­cess­ful en­ter­prise while ad­her­ing to the eth­i­cal codes of Ju­daism, em­ploy­ing, for ex­am­ple, Jews, Pales­tinian Arabs and Be­douin work­ers paid on a fair and equal ba­sis, en­joy­ing full reli­gious ob­ser­vances ac­cord­ing to their needs. This was proof that hon­esty in ev­ery­day af­fairs need not be a hin­drance to suc­cess and that it is pos­si­ble to re­sist the temp­ta­tions that are con­stantly present to sac­ri­fice “what is just and right” in or­der to get ahead.

These hol­i­days then fol­low a pro­gres­sion. We be­gin by 10 days of rec­og­niz­ing our fail­ings and con­fess­ing our faults, mov­ing up from Rosh Hashanah to the pure spir­i­tu­al­ity of Yom Kip­pur and then pro­gress­ing to Sukkot, which brings us back to earth but in a higher de­gree of ho­li­ness, ready to live ac­cord­ing to eth­i­cal stan­dards, ev­ery day un­der or­di­nary cir­cum­stances, fol­low­ing “the ways of the Lord by do­ing what is just and right.” ■

It is easy to be a ‘tzadik’ in an ivory tower. Not so easy in ev­ery­day life when de­ci­sions have to be made con­stantly about what is right and wrong

The writer is a for­mer pres­i­dent of the Rab­bini­cal Assem­bly and a mem­ber of its Com­mit­tee on Jewish Law and Stan­dards. Two of his books re­ceived the Na­tional Jewish Book Award. His most re­cent book is Akiva: Life, Le­gend, Le­gacy, avail­able both in English (JPS) and He­brew (Yediyot Books). His most re­cent vol­ume, A Year With the Sages ( JPS), will ap­pear in the spring.

(Wiki­me­dia Com­mons)

‘SO­DASTREAM IS proof that hon­esty in ev­ery­day af­fairs need not be a hin­drance to suc­cess’: So­daStream la­bel, Ice­land, 2018.

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