Tearing Down the Walls (Ideas #114)

Though we have just celebrated the Jewish New Year, it is no secret that the Biblical year, which sees the exodus from Egypt as its point of departure, actually starts in the month of Nissan. According to this, Sukkot (including the semi-independent holiday of Shemini Atzeret) is actually the last of the year’s holidays.

I would venture to say that, even if we did not look at any calendar, we would still feel a certain sense of completion on Sukkot that we do not feel during any other holiday – it is a holiday that brings a unique inner peace. In fact, it feels somewhat more like the messianic era.

For the Jew, the quality that most epitomizes the messianic era is harmony between Jew and gentile - not a magical disappearance of anti-Semitism or a complete victory of tolerance-education, but rather a universal acceptance of G-d’s moral and spiritual order;  an order that is best advanced by helping the Jewish people serve G-d and further educate mankind. 

Until then, I can readily understand why it will be difficult for non-Jews to accept Jewish claims to spiritual leadership. It is natural for a person or a nation to resist help from others for it is natural that a man wishes to be independent. Thus, when someone comes to tell another person that he should depend on the former’s knowledge or experience, we can anticipate resistance.

What is less clear is why the Jew is also waiting to fully reach out to the nations of the world.[1] Granted, there are various halachic issues involved in teaching Torah to non-Jews and in proselytizing. Still, one senses that there is something more fundamental stopping us. 

Of course, if we take an honest look at ourselves (as hopefully we have done during the ten days from Rosh haShanah to Yom Kippur), we must admit that we have many shortcomings. One of our most central national shortcomings is ironically caused by our very greatness – without the required inner work, excellence can easily lead to being overly conscious of those qualities that make one different than others. In other words, the Jew’s reputation for focusing unduly on our selves is not totally unmerited.

In contrast to this, our ancestors have taught us that it is specifically the trait of selflessness that paves the road to prophecy – the more selfless one was, the greater a prophet and representative of G-d one was. For most of us, and for the Jewish people as a nation, this is something we are only able to realize at Sukkot. It is a state of mind that needs to be ushered in by the inspiration of Pesach, the study of Shavuot and the introspection and teshuva of the high holy days.

Duly prepared by the other holidays, Sukkot’s proximity to Yom Kippur, as well as its particular mitzvot and motifs, propel us further towards a more heightened consciousness. Our tangible departure from our physical trappings when we move into the sukkah, as well as the themes of Jewish unity and human solidarity specific to this holiday, allow us to transcend our limited selves.

At Sukkot, we meld into the larger reality of G-d and His creation, which gives us a taste of the messianic consciousness that will one day allow us to truly reach out. When we will fully see ourselves as a part of a greater whole, we will take on a persona that the rest of mankind will be able to hear, a persona that will no longer be resented. The messianic Jewish leadership will be accepted, because it will no longer come from the outside. The Jews will be accepted as a people that are an integral part of all the nations’ greater self.

Basing himself on the Midrash and on the Zohar, Rav Kook writes that the ultimate song of Israel is when “the song of the self, the song of the nation, the song of man (and) the song of the world all merge in (one) at all times, in every hour.”[2] It is this song that we taste at Sukkot, when we metaphorically join together in one dwelling, a dwelling that is open to the elements surrounding it. The holy sukkah is a part of the world in a way that our sealed homes are not designed to be. Indeed, when we really reach the festival of Sukkot, we do not want to protect ourselves under roofs and behind thick walls. Instead, we want to be at one with the rest of creation and feel its crisp winds, its warming heat and even its chill. At that point, we will feel what it will be like when all the nations will join together in holiness with each other and with all of creation.


[1] Of course, there have been very real efforts by Jews, by Jewish groups and by the modern state of Israel to reach out. No matter how selfless and praiseworthy such efforts have been, however, they have almost never been efforts to directly bring non-Jews closer to G-d.

[2] Orot haKodesh, vol II pp. 444-45, translation by Ben Zion Bokser in Abraham Isaac Kook, pp. 228-9.