Thursday, 28 Sep 2023

Written by Hava Mirviss-Carvajal

At Yom Kippur, wrapped in white like the dead and without the world like the angels, we became purified. Completely torn open and emptied out, G?d forbid that we rest! Our tradition teaches that we should not delay in building the temporary shelter (Orach Ḥayim 624:5), for, forgiven and sealed in the Book of Life as we are, now is the perfect time to turn to the world and invite it in. Why?

The history of the Jew is overlaid with the seasonal rhythm of the world. Sukkot is a harvest festival, one of the shalosh regalim [the three pilgrimages] in which the population of eretz yisrael came to the Temple laden with goods of the land. When the beit hamikdash was torn apart, as an empire enacted a genocide upon the culture of the colonized, our Sages of blessed memory responded with revolution and created what we now call Judaism. In place of the Temple service and sacrifice, Jews spoke blessings and did t’fila together. In place of Temple pilgrimages, we took pilgrimages through our memory. For Pesach, as the spring came lambing and the barley was harvested, we remembered the leave-taking from Egypt. For Shavuot, as the pomegranates ripened and the wheat was laid out in the fields, we remembered the giving of the Torah. For Sukkot, as all the goods of the harvests were gathered in the final days of summer, we remembered the long years in the homeless wilderness. For the Rabbis understood that remembrance is active, ‘filled by the presence of the now.’ (Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History, trans. Zohn)

What was done in the Temple during Sukkot? On the fifteenth day of the seventh month, there was a sacred gathering there and a seven-day festival. Over these seven days, seventy bulls were sacrificed as an offering alongside lambs, rams, and goats (Numbers 29:12-39). Why seventy bulls? For the seventy generations of Noaḥ (Genesis 10:32), which is the beginning of the entirety of the world’s people (Chizkuni, Gen. 10:32), for seventy is the number of completeness. Why the sacrifice? Rabbi Elazar teaches us that the bulls correspond to the seventy nations (b.Sukkah 55b), sacrificed to atone for every nations’ mismarks. Yet now there is no Temple, and so there is no atonement for the nations: ‘Rabbi Yoḥanan said: “oh, for them, for the nations, that they have lost and do not know what they have lost! In the time that the Temple was standing, the altar [and so the seventy bulls sacrificed on it during Sukkot] atoned for them. And now, who atones for them?”’ (b.Sukkah 55b).

Rabbi Yoḥanan need not despair, for not all is lost. RaMBaM finds our Judaism more suitable to worshipping the Divine Oneness than the Temple ever was: ‘the sacrificial service is not the primary object, whilst supplications, prayers, and similar kinds of worship are nearer to the primary object…the chief object of the Law, as has been shown by us, is the teaching of truths…[and] the removal of injustice from mankind. We have thus proved that the first laws do not refer to burnt-offering and sacrifice, which are of secondary importance.’ (Guide 3:32:2-8, trans. Friedlander). We need not return to sacrifice, for in its hatred of injustice our Judaism is on the right path. Yet how to atone for the nations, if we even should? In the rubble of Jerusalem, in the ashes of their temple-cult, our Sages seemed to have forgotten to decree a straightening-out.

We should not be so bold to assume that we are able to purify anyone other than ourselves. This is pure chutzpah. People should not care one bit what a Jew wants to do for them. Yet we should care what we do for the nations, because we follow Moshe ben Maimon’s understanding that the primary object of the Torah is the removal of injustice from mankind. We, the Jews, have ritually purified ourselves, it’s true. We are blessed to be allowed to do so. It is now time for the Ingathering. In our moment of complete contentment, when the harvest proved G?d’s largesse, when we have purified ourselves in the Shabbat of Shabbatot, with the family of Israel around us, we sleep in tents and remember having nothing. ‘As Israel is enjoined to remember, so it is adjured not to forget’ (Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, Zakhor). We do not forget the time of wandering, of homelessness, of relying on the kindness of strangers. In the model of our chakhamim, we replace sacrifices with remembrance.

We rush to build our tents, fast barely broken, to feel the full effects of this merism: that of completeness and that of loss. Between the poles of both these things it should be possible to remember everything as they currently are, for remembrance is active and not passive and ‘every second of time [is] the strait gate through which the Messiah might enter’ (Benjamin). The ancient Israelites were commanded to leave the gleanings of the field for the ani and the ger, the needful one and the migrant (Leviticus 23:22). We are commanded to live in sukkot (Leviticus 23:43) to remember that we were once ani and ger. We are not so arrogant to think that we understand what homelessness and what true need feels like, if we are privileged enough to have never felt them, but we know that we can remember. In our active remembrance we replace the seventy bulls sacrificed in the House of Separateness through the bringing of the nations into our sukkot with us. Our remembrance in our temporary homes brings us into deep and real solidarity with those who suffer. This solidarity calls us to action, action through which the conditions that make suffering must be made to completely change. This solidarity is the primary object of our tradition. If Yom Kippur is for the Jew, Sukkot is for the nations.


Hava Mirviss-Carvajal LBC Student Rabbi


The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.