Improve the lives of all as part of the ethical legacy of Sukkot


Alex Weissman | Special to JT


In the fall of 2011, the Occupy movement was in full force, and with it, a strong Jewish presence that led rituals and services like Occupy Rosh Hashanah and Occupy Yom Kippur. Jews recited Kol Nidrei in New York City’s financial center—the symbolic center of economic inequality, and the same spot where a slave market had been established 300 years earlier. It was a place ripe for atonement. This moment of political uprising also happened to be my first semester of rabbinical school.

As someone who had been a Jewish community organizer prior to rabbinical school, this was the sort of Jewish ritual I was accustomed to, linking contemporary politics to ancient practices, if not quite on this large a scale. At the same time, in my new context of being a rabbinical student, there was a part of me that wanted to be exploring more classical ways to observe the holidays. I was wrestling with how to balance the value of tzedek/justice with the value of kedushah/holiness. Both are central to Jewish life and practice, and I worried about the possibility of one eclipsing the other. I wondered: How do we hold tzedek and kedushah in balance? How do we elevate both without losing either in ways rooted in the holidays?

While I still grapple with these questions a decade later, I found an initial answer in an ancient, rabbinic discussion about the holiday of Sukkot. While today, we associate the celebration of Sukkot with sitting in an actual sukkah, and shaking a lulav and etrog, the rabbis of the ancient world recalled the many Temple sacrifices that were also part of the holiday, including the sacrifice of 70 bulls. According to Rabbi Elazar, these 70 bulls correspond to the 70 nations of the world; when the Jewish people offered the bulls as sacrifices, we did so as a means to atone for the sins of the rest of the world. In the minds of the rabbis, they saw the Temple as providing a unique channel to God. With that point of access, the Jewish people had a responsibility to use our spiritual power to aid the entire world, including those we saw as our enemies.

This discussion in the Talmud ends with a chilling question from Rabbi Yochanan: “In the time that the Temple is standing, the sacrificial altar atones for [the rest of the world], but now [that we don’t have a sacrificial altar], who atones for them?” (Sukkah 55b). In other words, Rabbi Yochanan is concerned that there is no atonement for the rest of the world due to the absence of the Temple. The text provides no answer to Rabbi Yochanan’s questions and moves on to a new topic. Part of what is so powerful about his question is that Rabbi Yochanan’s concern is exclusively for the foreign nations. In the understanding of the rabbis, the Jewish people have practices like teshuvah and Yom Kippur that atone for us. Rabbi Yochanan recognizes that the rest of the world does not have these practices. In his post-Temple moment, Rabbi Yochanan feels the obligation to continue to play the role of atoning for the other nations while lacking the previous avenue for action: the Temple.

As inheritors of this Sukkot conundrum, we are faced with Rabbi Yochanan’s unanswered question. The redactors of the Talmud chose to leave his question in the text, but did not provide any answer. How do we respond to this textual silence 1,500 years later? How could grappling with this be at the core of what it means to honor Sukkot’s ethical legacy?
The forgotten legacy of the 70 bulls obligates us to bring our particular Jewish practices, coupled with our access and collective power, to service the entire world. This means choosing not only to improve the lives of some people, but all people. This is what the rabbis meant when they spoke of the “70 nations of the world.”

This concept comes from Genesis 10, which includes a long list of the descendants of Noah after the flood—the lineage of the peoples who repopulated the earth after mass destruction. Invoking this moment in Torah just after the flood and before the Tower of Babel, the idea of the 70 nations calls to mind two challenges we currently face. The first, the flood, represents climate crisis and the danger of ecological destruction.

The Tower of Babel, with the accompanying curse of people being unable to speak to each other, invokes challenges with our polarization and speaking across differences. What holds both of these contemporary issues together is that they are issues that implicate all of us. They expand the idea of “we” beyond any attempt at narrowing, and obligate us to each and every person on this planet. This, our tradition teaches, is what it means to celebrate Sukkot.

I look back on Occupy now as holding the right balance of tzedek and kedushah in the way that Sukkot teaches. While Occupy may be in the past, we can look to its integration of these Jewish values as a model of how to address issues like climate crisis and polarization. We can model our approach to Jewish life and practice on this integrative model offered by Sukkot that holds tzedek and kedushah in balance without favoring either essential value.

This is how we answer Rabbi Yochanan—by living the ethical legacy of the 70 bulls of Sukkot. We can celebrate this Jewish holiday not only by sitting in a sukkah and shaking the lulav, but by recognizing our obligation to use our power and access to improve the lives of all who dwell on this earth.

Rabbi Alex Weissman is the director of Mekhinah and Cultural and Spiritual Life at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. He can be reached at: [email protected].

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