By Rabbi James Michaels
The Torah reading for Shabbat (the fifth intermediate day of Sukkot) is Exodus 33:12-34:26.
Coming five days after Yom Kippur, the holiday of Sukkot can seem to be too much of a good thing. The spiritual high which comes at the conclusion of the Day of Atonement can make the observance of another holiday — lasting a week, plus two days for Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah — almost tedious and anticlimactic. And yet, if we look carefully at the Torah readings for Sukkot, we can perceive that it was extremely important when the Temple was standing; Sukkot may have commanded even more attention than the so-called High Holidays which precede it.
Many of the holiday practices — dwelling in a sukkah, waving the lulav and etrog, celebrating on Simchat Torah — are accessible in our own day. But because we no longer offer sacrifices, the offerings described in Numbers 29 are no longer accessible, although they are mentioned in the Torah readings for the festival’s successive days, as well as each day’s Musaf service.
Each day, the priests sacrificed bulls; a total of 70 bulls were offered throughout the holiday. The rabbis of the Talmud deduced that the number of bulls corresponded to the “70 nations of the world,” that is, all of humanity. In other words, one of the primary orders of business in the Temple on Sukkot was to offer prayers for everyone, not just for the Jewish people.
The fall holidays are packed with concepts which apply to Jews’ relationships with each other. Rabbis’ sermons tend to focus on issues concerning Israel, Jewish survival and the promotion of Jewish values. It’s nice to think that in the midst of all this ethnocentricity, the ancient rabbis saw fit to include prayers for their non-Jewish neighbors and for people throughout the world.
This is also a concept that each individual can put into practice. In the weekday Amidah, there is a prayer on behalf of all the righteous people in the world. While this might originally have been meant to apply to righteous Jews, I see no reason why we can’t extend this to include those whom the rabbis call “The Righteous of the Nations of the World.” In our efforts to perfect the world, we need to work together with such people, so they should be included in our prayers.
When Sukkot ends, we immediately observe Shemini Atzeret, which includes Simchat Torah. Looking at the Torah’s description of the holiday, we see that only one bull was offered as a sacrifice on that day. The rabbis of the Talmud bring a homiletic understanding of this. They say that it’s like a king who has a seven-day celebration for his family, courtiers and numerous other people. Then, on the last day, he says to his family, “Please don’t rush off. After all this celebration, I would like to spend one more day enjoying your company.” Implicit in this is the concept that God wants to keep us close, and we shouldn’t want to leave God’s presence.
As we celebrate this year, let’s keep both these ideas in mind: Praying for our non-Jewish neighbors and friends, and also reaffirming our close relationship with our Creator.
1. Is it possible to emphasize Jews’ special relationship with God, yet still work for unity and cooperation with non-Jews?
2. Dialogue between Jews and non-Jews has a long history in this country. What benefits have come from it?
Rabbi James Michaels is rabbi emeritus of the Charles E Smith Life Communities.