A piece about Chanukah that I wrote for the New York Times was published online today. It can be read here.
I’m always struck by the contrast this time of year between, on the one hand, the garish multicolored and blinking lights that scream for attention from so many American homes and, on the other, the quiet, tiny ones that softly grace the windows of Jewish ones. I think there may be cosmic meaning in Chanukah’s tendency to roughly coincide with a major non-Jewish holiday season.
For, while Chanukah is often portrayed by some Jewish clergy on radio programs and in newspapers as nothing but a celebration of religious freedom (or even, bizarrely, as some sort of salute to religious pluralism), the true meaning of the neiros Chanukah is clear from the many classical Jewish sources about the holiday – from the Gemara to the sifrei Kabbalah to the works of Chassidus. The celebration is entirely about the struggle to maintain Jewish integrity and observance within a non-Jewish milieu, to resist assimilation into a dominant non-Jewish culture.
The real enemy at the time of the Maccabim was less the Seleucid empire as a military power than what Seleucid society represented: a cultural colonialism that sought to erode the beliefs and observances of our mesorah, and to replace them with the glorification of the physical and the embrace of much that the Torah considers unacceptable. The Seleucids sought to acculturate the Jewish people, to force them to adopt a “superior,” “sophisticated,” overbearing secular philosophy. And so, the Jewish victory, when it came, was a triumph not over an army but over assimilation. The Maccabim succeeded in preserving the mesorah, and protecting it from dilution.
The overwhelming gloss and glitter of the non-Jewish celebration of the season are thus a fitting contrast to the still, small, defiant lights of the Chanukah menorah.
And in times like our own, when the larger Jewish world, l’daavoneinu, is so assimilated, and intermarriage so rampant, nothing could be more important for American Jews than Chanukah’s message.
Some try to make lemonade out of the bitter fruit of contemporary Jewish demographics, choosing to celebrate the incorporation of the larger society’s perspectives and mores into “new forms of Judaism,” and to view intermarriage as a wonderful opportunity for creating “converts” – or, at least, willing accomplices to the raising of Jewish, or Jewish-style, children. But they are dancing on the deck of a Jewish Titanic.
Lowering the bar for what constitutes Jewish belief and practice does not make stronger Jews, only weaker “Judaism.” And intermarriage is a bane, not a boon, to the Jewish future.
Over so very much of history, our ancestors were threatened with social sanctions and violence by people who wanted them to adopt foreign cultures or beliefs. Today, ironically, what threats and violence and murder couldn’t accomplish – the decimation of Jewish identity – seems to be happening on its own. Where tyranny failed, freedom is threatening to succeed.
Poignant meaning shines forth from the Bais Hamikdash’s menorah’s supernatural eight-day burning on a one-day supply of oil. For light, of course, is Torah, the preserver of Klal Yisrael.
Even the custom of playing dreidel is a reminder of that symbol of Jewish continuity. The Seleucids, it is related, had forbidden not only various fundamental mitzvos and hanhagos, they also outlawed the study of Torah, which they understood, consciously or otherwise, is the engine of Jewish identity and continuity. The spinning toy was a subterfuge adopted by Jews when they were studying Torah; if they sensed enemy inspectors nearby, they would suddenly take out their dreidels and spin them, masking their study session with an innocuous game of chance.
The candles we light each night of Chanukah recalling that menorah miracle reflect a greater miracle still: the survival of Klal Yisrael over the millennia. All the alien winds of powerful empires and mighty cultures were unable to extinguish the flames of Jewish commitment. “Chanukah” means “dedication.” It doesn’t just recall the Bais Hamikdash that was rededicated bayamim hahem, but calls on us to rededicate ourselves baz’man hazeh.
We do that by keeping ourselves from melting into our surroundings, and resisting the blandishments of those who insist that there is no other way. We know how to put the dreidels away and open the sefarim.
And with our determination, our mitzvos and our limud haTorah, we can prove worthy descendants of those who came before us, and continue as a people to persevere.
The great and powerful empires of history flared mightily but then disappeared without a trace. Their lights were bright but artificial.
Ours, small as they may be, are eternal.
“The sheerest form of corporate anti-Semitism in recent memory” is how popular political commentator Ben Shapiro characterized the recent decision of Airbnb, the San Francisco-based company that matches travelers with private home lodging around the world, to no longer list homes in Yehudah and Shomron’s Jewish communities.
Others echoed that judgment, like columnist Jonathan Tobin, who wrote a piece in Haaretz under the title “Boycott Airbnb, Unless You’re Good With Anti-Semitism.”
Whatever one might think about Airbnb’s decision – I’ll share my own feelings below – to label it “anti-Semitism” is something of an overreaction. And using the epithet only lessens its import when invoked where it is truly deserved.
There are facts in this world that we don’t like, but our dislike doesn’t change them. There are facts, in fact, that are unfortunate, even ugly. But, again, they remain, despite their ugliness.
One such fact is that, while Yehudah and Shomron are, as they always have been, essential parts of Eretz Yisrael, Israel’s sovereignty over the areas is not recognized by most of the world. Some of that world, to be sure, hates Jews. But some of it simply sees the territories captured from other countries in 1967 as something less than parts of Israel proper.
Gilad Erdan, the Israeli government’s point person for fighting the boycott movement, may contend that, as he recently told an interviewer, “there is no distinction between this part or that part of the state of Israel.”
But Israel herself, we might remind ourselves, has chosen not to officially annex the areas captured in 1967, other than East Jerusalem. So whether they are “occupied” (as the Arab world calls them) or “disputed,” as less invested parties label them, they are not officially parts of Israel like Tel Aviv, Haifa or Yerushalayim. (And Airbnb, it should be noted, pointedly did not include East Jerusalem in its decision.)
Even the U.S. State Department, which, under President Trump, no longer refers to those territories as “occupied,” still does not consider them parts of Israel. Its most recent Report on Human Rights Practices has a section on “Israel, Golan Heights, West Bank and Gaza.” The diyuk is obvious: the Heights, Yehudah and Shomron and Gaza – all of them parts of Eretz Yisrael – are not, in the eyes of the U.S., parts of Israel.
So Airbnb, although it clearly lacks backbone and succumbed to pressure from Palestinian activists, can offer a defense of its action, which it did.
“We are most certainly not the experts when it comes to the historical disputes in this region,” it admitted in its statement announcing its new policy. “Our team has wrestled with this issue and we have struggled to come up with the right approach.” Which, it goes on to explain, is, in part, to “consult with a range of experts…” Leading, here, to the conclusion that “the Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank… are at the core of the dispute between Israelis and Palestinians” and thus should not be part of the company’s offerings.”
The statement ends with an expression of “deep respect” for the strong views on both sides of the issue; and the “hope… that someday sooner rather than later, a framework is put in place where the entire global community is aligned so there will be a resolution to this historic conflict and a clear path forward for everybody to follow.”
Anti-Semitic? Not to my lights.
Illogical, though? Oh, yes.
In fact, ludicrously inconsistent? Ditto.
There are disputed, and occupied, territories throughout the world. Iraq-occupied Kurdistan, for one. And Iran-occupied Kurdistan, for another. Turkey-occupied Cyprus for yet another. China-occupied Tibet. Russia-occupied Crimea. Want a place to stay in any of those places? Airbnb will be happy to help.
So the company’s focus on Israel alone is telling. Of what, though? Anti-Semitism? It’s possible, of course. But focus on Jews doesn’t necessarily bespeak hatred of them.
Klal Yisrael, although less that two tenths of one percent of the world’s population, captures the attention of the other 99.8% to a strikingly disproportionate degree. Likewise, Israel, one of 193 countries in a large, variegated and unruly world.
Hen am levadad yishkon uvagoyim lo yis’chashav. “Behold it is a nation that will dwell alone, and will not be reckoned among the nations” (Bamidbar 23:9). Bilam’s words have rung all too true throughout our history, and resound no less loudly today.
The crazy attention the world gives Jews and the country established for them should inspire us, confirming as it does the truth of the Torah, which includes what Bilam may have meant as a curse but which stands as a silent yet deafening testimony to the specialness of Klal Yisrael.
© Hamodia 2018
“Notorious anti-gunner George Soros joins anti-gun billionaires Steyer and Bloomberg. There is no end to how much they’ll pay to push their elitist agenda on Americans.”
Thus tweeted the National Rifle Association three days after the fatal shooting of 11 Jews in Pittsburgh by a right-wing anti-Semite. George Soros, of course, is the wealthy philanthropist who funds liberal causes, is a perennial victim of conspiracy theories, was one of those targeted with letter bombs by a right-wing dingbat last month, and is Jewish.
Tom Steyer is another billionaire philanthropist given to liberal causes and, because his father was Jewish, is regarded by some as a Jew.
Michael Bloomberg is, well, you know who he is. And his ethnicity.
No, I’m not – repeat, not – accusing the NRA of being anti-Semitic. Only noting that the group’s recent tweet-targets are people whom unabashed anti-Semites have relentlessly and gleefully attacked as Jews.
Then we have the many anti-Semites on the political left, who target people like billionaire activist Sheldon Adelson or conservative commentator Ben Shapiro, who, according to a study conducted by the ADL was the most frequent target of Jew-hating tweets in 2016. (Significant in itself, the study found that from August 2015 through July 2016 a total of 2.6 million tweets contained anti-Jewish sentiments.)
Anti-Semitism on the fringes of the left is exemplified by the likes of Louis Farrakhan, who, as impaired in humor as he is in intelligence, thought it funny to compare Jews to termites; and Linda Sarsour, who cautions her intersectionality-addled admirers that Israelis must not be “humanized.”
So whom, exactly, are we Jews to fear? Who is the Jewish people’s enemy? Those on the far right, or on the far left? The answer, of course, is “both of the above.”
Which conclusion leads to a thought that needs to be a prominent part of our thinking these days. Namely, that when an “us-vs.-them” mentality becomes dominant in a society – and such an attitude, disturbingly, has come to affect more than just the fringes – it does not bode well for the progeny of Yaakov Avinu.
Historian Deborah Lipstadt put it well, likening anti-Semitism to a latent infection that lies dormant and re-emerges at times of stress. Jew hatred, in the end, is, she says, “a conspiracy theory,” and needs only societal strife to become active.
For better or worse, Jewish figures will always be prominent on the political and cultural scenes. The Jewish soul is hard-wired, to use a discordant metaphor, to try to better the world.
Truly knowledgeable Jews know that the path toward that goal does not lead through politics, but consists of embracing Torah and mitzvos and being worthy examples of ovdei Hashem. But even Jews who are misguided in their good intentions, who see salvation in this or that political or social stance, are motivated by their neshamos, clear-sighted or clouded. And thus, Jews will always rise to the top of whatever heap they perceive as a hope.
As a result, those who harbor the spiritual cancer that is Jew-hatred will always find Jews among those they label as enemies of all that is shiny and good, and will point to them in order to spur other hate-filled people to embrace their cause.
That’s how Jews can be hated because they are communists or capitalists, elitists or defenders of the common man, allies of blacks or racists; how they can be vilified for being “Zionists” or globalists, why both Mr. Soros and Mr. Adelson can be portrayed as Der Ewige Jude, the reviled “Eternal Jew,” of our time. What matters in the end – the only thing that matters – is that they are… Jews.
There’s a real-world application of that truism. Recognizing that exacerbating the political rift in the United States today is not just inherently lamentable but the very opposite of “good for the Jews,” we are acting irresponsibly if we jump into the melee and hoist a flag, furthering the societal inflammation. Sides, we do well to realize, don’t always have to be taken.
These words are being written before the mid-term elections; you’re reading it after them. During their campaigns, some candidates sought to garner votes by appealing to the very worst in voters, seeking to capitalize on the rift in society and to stoke anger – aimed in whatever direction. Others chose to run more soberly, on records and positions. Which ones won and which did not is something you know but I, as I write, do not. But the answer to that question will play a role in how secure we Jews can hope to feel, going forward in the American galus.
© Hamodia 2018
An October 17 article of mine at Tablet concerned the #MeToo movement. It bemoaned the state of general society’s inconsistent attitude toward women and suggested that it might be helpful if new norms based somewhat on the halachic prohibitions against yichud and negiah were adopted by the wider world.
The piece unleashed a number of angry responses on social media; and a rejoinder, in the form of a personal letter to me, was published by Tablet too, and can be read here:
My response to that rejoinder is below:
Dear Mrs. Jankovits
Thank you – and I mean that sincerely – for offering your perspective, an important one, to the discussion I hoped to spur.
I am appalled to read that you have been verbally assaulted as a woman by men in observant environments. While I have spent my entire life to date in such environments and have never seen a woman treated that way, I take your word for what you have experienced, and can only bemoan it. Jewish modesty is not limited to dress, and governs men no less than women.
But I cannot accept your contention that considering the halachic laws of yichud and negiah (which ban an unmarried man and woman from being secluded in private or touching one another, respectively) to be preventatives against abuse is “outlandish.”
If, at the earliest stage of a bad man’s bad intent toward a woman, she is warned of whom she is dealing with by his actions or words, how could that not help prevent the sort of assaults that the #MeToo movement has rightfully decried?
If, in a world with restrictions modeled on those of halacha, a man invites a woman to a secluded place or touches her in even an “innocent” way, that would be her signal to immediately recognize his less than honorable designs. And it is self-evident that if a man and woman are not secluded, he cannot wantonly abuse her without fear of witnesses.
That was the essence of what I wrote, and I don’t understand how anyone could read it as an attempt, God forbid, “to silence Orthodox women, to perpetuate abuse and to hide and shelter Orthodox abusers.”
As I explicitly wrote, sexual abuse does exist in the Orthodox community. Whether it is as widespread as you claim – and that exists, as you contend, within many marriages – is simply unknowable. You imply that it is very common, and that the relative dearth of claims is due to intimidation or social pressures. I allow you your assumptions, but assumptions, in the end, are not the same things as facts.
Yes, there are self-selected studies that show sexual abuse in the Orthodox community at levels similar to those in other parts of society. But a careful read of them yields the realization that a large part of such abuse, while reported by adult women, is about things that took place when they were children or adolescents, those least likely to realize that yichud and negiah are red lines that, if crossed, label the adult violator, whoever he is, a person to resist and avoid.
Child abuse is unquestionably a tragic and serious problem to which Orthodox society has, sadly, not shown itself immune. There is much to say about that topic its terrible toll and the efforts in the Orthodox community over recent years to combat it. Much to say about the studies, too, as in my P.S below.
But it is not the issue addressed by the #MeToo movement, and thus not pertinent to my essay. And conflating the two issues obscures the one at hand. We indeed need to better educate our children about abuse, and that is in fact happening in many places in many ways. But child abuse and adult-on-adult abuse are two very different, if equally abhorrent, animals.
You contend that “When women have been brave enough to voice their abuse, they are bullied, silenced and threatened again by our male leaders, rabbis who dismiss abuse, rabbis who protect abusers.” Every one of the congregational and teaching rabbis I know is are deeply sensitive to women’s safety and wellbeing, both within marriage and “on the street.” The picture you paint of chauvinistic disdain for women on the part of rabbinic leaders is as bizarre to me as if you had painted a landscape with black grass and a green sky. I don’t deny you your impression, but please know that it is diametric to mine.
I’m sorry but, for better or worse, I cannot change the fact that I am a “male Orthodox rabbi,” but I will not concede that that fact renders me unable to participate in the conversation about abuse, or makes me inherently insensitive to women. I don’t think that is a judgment either my wife or our six daughters (or any of the scores of female students I taught over many years) would regard as justified or fair. As to experience with sexual assault victims, I do indeed have some, though all were cases that took place when the victims were children. So please don’t deny me a voice in the discussion.
Finally, it is not “misogynistic” to note that women performers who appear in minimal clothing are not helping the cause of women’s dignity. It is factual.
Nor is counselling modesty in dress “victim blaming,” any more than counselling pedestrians to look both ways before crossing a street, or telling men to not let their wallets protrude from their back pants pockets in public. That’s not to blame anyone but the inattentive driver or pickpocket; but such counsel is simple common sense. From your self-description as an Orthodox mother, you would not smile, I am sure, on one of your daughters going out in public in revealing clothing. By asking her to not cave in to society’s exhibitionist expectations, you are not blaming them; you are educating them.
At no point did I – or ever would I – assert that seeming Torah-observers “are not susceptible to perpetrating evil.” Quite the contrary, bad intentions are everywhere. That was the very premise of my article, which argues that sensible precautions modeled on those of halacha could benefit our unrestrained world. I did not intend for that suggestion to cause offense, only to spur discussion. Thank you again for furthering that goal.
All good wishes,
PS: Although child abuse, as I noted, is not what #MeToo is about, and not what my article and its suggestions concerned, some studies routinely cited about that issue are limited in what they can tell us.
Not only are some of them reliant (as they admit) on self-selected samples, which skew the results in the direction of artificially high percentages of abuse, but substantial amounts of even reported abuse was perpetrated by presumably non-Orthodox men (because the samples included women who only became observant after childhood).
And other studies report very different results. This synopsis of a 2014 Israeli study concludes that:
“Unexpectedly, no significant differences between observance groups are found for any childhood abuse (45%), physical abuse (24%), or emotional abuse (40%). Childhood sexual abuse has the lowest frequency (4.8%) of all abuse categories with more reported by Secular than Haredi respondents (7.7% vs. 3.1% p = .05).”
So, while even one case of child abuse is one case too many, and the Orthodox community must continue to be vigilant on this front, it is important, in the interest of facts and truth, to realize the limitations of studies.
A piece in Tablet about the #MeToo movement and Judaism’s attitude toward interactions between the sexes can be read here.
Justice Brett Kavanaugh is well into his service to the country as a member of its highest court, and the controversy that swirled around him as a nominee for the position is, at least for people who don’t live in the past, entirely in the past.
And so, with the contentious Senate Judicial Committee hearings that took place over Sukkos rapidly receding in the rearview mirror, there is little point in revisiting the issues of Mr. Kavanaugh’s qualifications, judicial record or activities in high school and college. Or in imagining that any of us can really know if either he or any of those who accused him of misconduct in his youth had testified entirely truthfully.
What is worth revisiting, though, at least to my mind, is a peripheral issue that emerged during the hearings: the invoking of Torah concepts to support political stances.
One example was a group of politically active Orthodox rabbis who support Republican causes that issued a press release during the hearings “Urg[ing] Immediate Confirmation of Judge Kavanaugh” and supporting that imploration with the argument that “The Bible not only doubly emphasizes that ‘justice, justice shall you pursue’… but it also enjoins us to avoid peddling in unsubstantiated rumors.”
Another, over at a left-leaning secular Jewish newspaper, was a respected Orthodox columnist who cited Pirkei Avos about the “importance of a good name” as an important qualification a leader must have. She quoted the Rambam, too, as asserting that someone considered for a public position must bear “no trace of an unpleasant reputation, even during their early manhood.”
To be sure, both not “peddling in unsubstantiated rumors” and insisting on a leader’s good reputation are entirely valid Torah concepts. But – and aye, there’s the richtigeh rub – knowing how to apply them to a particular situation where they seem to clash is not a job for either activists or columnists.
A Gadol baTorah, of course, can choose to offer guidance about a current event. But if any Gadol rendered any public daas Torah about the advisability of Mr. Kavanaugh’s confirmation, it escaped my attention. And that none likely did is hardly surprising.
To be sure, Torah expertise can be brought to bear on any issue. But we wouldn’t expect a Gadol to offer a daas Torah about the wisdom of a baseball rule or the propriety of a player’s behavior on the field. And we have no reason to expect a daas Torah ruling on most political matters either (many of which, come to think of it, have come to have much in common with sports). Not every issue, we all understand, is worthy of any great man’s time or consideration.
What’s more, just as the yod’ei ha’itim (Esther, 1:13) in Achashverosh’s court – the talmidei chachamim, Chazal tell us – purposely elected to not become involved in a burning contemporary political issue (whether Vashti should remain on her throne or not – one wonders if it was the subject of a The Shushan Times editorial), so is there little incentive, and much hazard, in contemporary Torah leaders venturing for no good reason into contentious current events waters.
Which, as I see it, leaves us lesser rabbis and columnists (and rabbi-columnists), with only the option of offering our personal opinions, based either on the political teams we root for or on arguments born of objective analysis of facts. But not with the option of co-opting the Torah for partisan purposes.
Rabi Tzadok in Avos (4:5) declares the wrongness of using the Torah as “a spade with which to dig.” That is to say, to use Torah study or knowledge as a means of attaining financial gain. But, at least conceptually, what he is implying is that Torah is not to be regarded as a tool to be employed toward other ends. Appropriating Torah concepts, particularly in a selective fashion and especially when it is unclear which concepts best apply, is something we should avoid at all costs.
Needless to say, there are many issues of public concern that, from a Torah perspective, are effectively “open and shut,” and about which we have every right and responsibility to promote the clear and obvious Jewish view. Nor is it necessarily wrong to suggest that a Torah ideal might inform our understanding of a particular topic. But claiming with surety that the Torah requires a particular position regarding a controversy where our mesorah’s guidance is far from clear, we should realize, is a less than proper pursuit.
© 2018 Rabbi Avi Shafran
I pass the large lady twice each workday, and no longer pay her much mind, unlike the tourists on the Staten Island ferry sailing with me, who have journeyed hundreds or thousands of miles to get a glimpse of – and, of course, a selfie with – the Statue of Liberty.
But when we moved to New York 24 years ago, we visited the statue with our children. The visit yielded one of those “kids say the funniest things” quotes, one we invoke to this day.
We marched up the 150 or so steps of the double spiral staircase from the statue’s base to its crown. It was an increasingly claustrophobic experience, as the passage grew narrower with our ascent, but with each step I marveled at the fact that I was actually walking inside the gift from France and symbol of freedom across the globe, seeing it from an entirely new perspective.
Impressively, even the youngest member of our family, a bright and energetic then-three-year-old, managed to scamper up the steps with his little feet.
His memorable comment, delivered with puzzlement, when we reached the top: “Where’s the slide?”
If he was distressed by our laughter and explanation that, unlike the culmination of other climbs he had made, there was no slide here, he didn’t show it. And while he may have wondered about the point of it all, good soldier that he was (and is – today as a member of Rav Shimon Alster’s kollel in Cliffwood, New Jersey), he dutifully marched with us back down.
So “Where’s the slide?” has become the Shafran family’s version of the saying, attributed to cartoonist Allen Saunders, “Life is what happens to us while we are making other plans.” Fixation on some end can obscure what one is experiencing now.
Yiddishkeit certainly focuses us on both the past and the future. As Jews we are enjoined to remember and try to emulate the Avos and Imahos, to recall Mattan Torah, the Beis Hamikdash and more. And we are ultimately enjoined to defer the impermanent indulgences of Olam Hazeh for the only meaningful and ultimate fulfillment of the future, Olam Haba. But none of that contradicts our need, at the same time, to recognize the import of the moment, the opportunity that the present alone provides.
We often find ourselves so focused on the slide that we don’t notice where we actually are, so absorbed in the later that we are oblivious to the now.
My wife and I try to get away for a day or two each summer in search of a waterfall we haven’t yet seen. Several years ago we hiked up a steep trail to experience Kaaterskill Falls, in upstate New York.
About 100 miles north of New York City, the falls have two tiers, with a combined height of 230 feet, higher than Niagara Falls. We didn’t know it at the time, but the falls have been the site of several fatalities, at least eight since 1992.
According to Rob Dawson, a state forest ranger, the last four people who died at Kaaterskill Falls were either taking or posing for pictures. They were focused, quite literally, on creating mementos of their having reached the falls – or, more likely of late, on transmitting images of themselves there to their friends and relatives on social media.
It’s understandable, of course, for a person to want a photograph of an achievement or event, and usually, baruch Hashem, the endeavor isn’t fatal. But reading of the tragedies reminded me of Saunders’ adage, and made me wonder if our obsession with documenting things hasn’t overly encroached on the wonder of actually experiencing them.
Think of all the time, effort and trouble that go into creating chasunah photos and videos. Leave aside how often most people really look at them after the first time. Just think of how much the recording of a simchah can deprive the principals and celebrants of enjoying the moment. (Please, professionals, no angry letters! I don’t mean to, chalilah, devalue your skill and work, only to spur thought.) And with the ubiquity of cellphone cameras, how much time people spend staring at little screens depicting joyous occasions rather than being parts of them.
There were no cellphone cameras when we navigated the Statue of Liberty’s innards; we hadn’t bothered bringing my Minolta. But even though we have no photos of the experience, and our little boy may have been disappointed by it, the trip to the crown, even sans slide, remains most memorable and vivid in my mind.
© 2018 Hamodia
We regard the enclosures where we spend Sukkos as, well, sukkos. And they are, of course; the walls comprise a necessary part of a sukkah. But it’s their roofs – the bamboo poles or mats woven for the purpose from slivers of the same material, or branches or leaves or thin, unfinished wooden slats – that give the structures their name.
The roofs, that is, made from vegetation once-alive but now detached from the earth it needs to grow: s’chach.
That word is from the Hebrew socheh, meaning to “cover” or “hover over.”
But there is another meaning to that Loshon HaKodesh word, as various sefarim note, namely “to see” or “to perceive.” That association would seem to imply that a sukkah somehow provides some special perspective. And, of course, it does.
On even the most mundane plane, living in a small rudimentary hut for a week, within sight of, yet apart from, one’s more comfortable, more spacious home, does afford a different point of view.
Like about our vulnerability, and reliance on Hashem’s everlasting rachamim. While our sturdy houses may be nearby, and if it rains hard enough we can – indeed should – return to surer shelter, our exposure to the elements in the sukkah, if we only care to ponder it, just magnifies our exposure to all sorts of threats, even in our “secure” abodes.
Not only are those abodes subject to other natural disasters – which we may not often think about, but should all the same, even if we don’t live in earthquake or flood zones – but there are dangers lurking wherever we are. Bad drivers and bad people, obstacles to trip over and germs with the potential to lay waste to our good health… That is part of the perspective granted the thoughtful sukkah-dweller.
But there is more. What the sukkah allows us to perceive, if we try, is that our homes and their contents are not us. That is to say, our possessions don’t really matter. The mindless man in a fancy car with the bumper sticker reading “The one who dies with the most toys wins” reflects a mainstream conviction, but it’s as far from Jewish belief as east is from west. Sitting in our primitive week-house, we come to know that what we have accumulated is simply not essential. In fact, no matter how much it may have cost us, in the end, it’s meaningless fluff.
Which is why Sukkos is zman simchaseinu.
No, I’m not being facetious. The happiness that is the theme of Sukkos and to which we make much reference in our tefillos on the holiday not only is not antithetical to our “deprivation”; it is born of it.
That’s because attaining true happiness begins with realizing what, despite its promise, doesn’t really make us happy. The “high” afforded by a new possessions dissipates quickly. The moment one first drives a new car, it becomes a used one.
What’s more, possessions only beget the desire, even the need, for yet more of the same, a truth that has come to be called the “hedonic treadmill” – “hedonic” meaning “pertaining to pleasure.” The treadmill mashal conveys the fact that the pursuit of happiness is like a person on a platform moving in the opposite direction, who has to keep walking just to stay in the same place. A person may achieve wealth, in other words, but his expectations and longings only rise in tandem. There’s no permanent net gain in happiness.
Chazal, of course, said it pithily: “He who has a hundred wants two hundred” (Koheles Rabbah 1:34).
And, as Chazal also said in many instances, pok chazi – “go out and look around.” At all the possession-endowed, that is, here: the entertainers, sports figures, best-selling authors, the old-moneyed and the lottery-winners. They may zip around in Lamborghinis and check the time on Rolexes, but is their happiness quotient necessarily greater than that of those who take the bus and keep time with a $5 watch? Are their grand estates more of a home than the simplest, cozy cottage? A cogent case could be made that the precise opposite is true.
In the end, dependency on having stuff is what keeps us from being truly happy. Because authentic joy comes from things unavailable from Amazon.com. Like our relationships with our parents and children and friends, and with our community. And, ultimately, with Hakadosh Baruch Hu.
So the sukkah is indeed a source of “sight,” or, perhaps better, insight. It opens our eyes, letting us better see that, ultimately, what we really have is not what we own, but what we are.
And, fully comprehended, that is the true path to simchah.
© 2018 Hamodia
A mother and father are notified that their darling little boy broke a neighbor’s window. They feel, and of course are, responsible to right the wrong. They are, after all, where the buck stops in their family.
But they may be responsible in a deeper sense too. If the boy didn’t just accidentally hit a ball through the Feldstein’s picture window but rather carefully aimed a rock at it – and had been influenced in his disregard for the property of others by some remark he heard at home – the responsibility exists on a much deeper level than mere buck-stopping. The parents, in a sense, are complicit in Yankeleh’s act of vandalism.
The concept of “arvus” – the “interdependence” of all Jews – is sometimes understood as akin to the first, simpler, sense of responsibility. Jews are to regard other Jews as family, which they are, and therefore to take responsibility for one another.
But Rav Dessler, in Michtav Me’Eliyohu, teaches that Jews are responsible for one another in the word’s deeper sense too.
When a Jew does something good, it reflects the entire Jewish people’s goodness. And the converse is no less true. Thus, when Achan, one man, misappropriated spoils after the first battle of Yehoshua’s conquest of Canaan, the siege of Yericho, it is described as the aveirah of the entire people (Yehoshua, 7:1). Explains Rav Dessler: Had the people as a whole been sufficiently sensitive to Hakadosh Baruch Hu’s commandment to shun the city’s spoils, Achan would never have been able to commit his sin.
Several weeks ago, we read in the parashas hashavua of the eglah arufah, a ritual that is commanded if a murder victim, presumably a wayfarer, is found outside a city. The procedure, which involves the elders of the city dispatching a calf, is called a kapparah, an atonement, yet there seems to be no sin for which the elders need atone. That’s because part of the ritual is their declaration that they did everything they could to ensure the safety of the visitor. And it certainly isn’t atonement for the killer; if he is ever discovered, he faces a murder charge and its penalty.
Here, too the arvus factor may be the solution. Even if no particular person was directly responsible for the wayfarer’s murder, what could have enabled so terrible an act to happen might have been a “critical mass” of lesser offenses, perhaps things that Chazal likened to murder, such as causing another Jew great embarrassment or indirectly causing a person’s life to be shortened.
In which case, the atonement would be for Klal Yisrael as a whole, areivim as its members are zeh lazeh.
The idea, in fact, is borne out by the passuk itself, which prescribes what the elders of the closest city are to say at the eglah arufah ceremony: “Atone for Your people Yisrael” (Devarim, 21:8).
So, if a Jew commits a financial crime, it may never have been able to happen had all of us been sufficiently careful to not “steal” in other ways.
Every cheder yingel knows that even a small coin placed in a pushke is the fulfillment of a mitzvah. It should be equally apparent, especially to all us grown-up children, that the misappropriation of even a similarly small amount of money is the opposite.
And so Jews, whoever and wherever they are, who cut corners for financial gain – who underreport their income or avoid taxes illegally or are less than fully honest in their business dealings – contribute thereby to the thievery-matrix. And then there is “thievery” of more subtle sorts, like wasting the time or disturbing the sleep of another. Or misleading someone – which Chazal characterize as “geneivas daas,” or “stealing mind.”
That deeper concept of arvus leaves us to ponder the possibility that some less blatant and less outrageous – but still sinful – actions of other Jews, ourselves perhaps included, may have, little by little, provided a matrix on which greater aveiros subsequently came to grow.
On Yom Kippur, Jews the world over will repeatedly recite “Ashamnu” and “Al Chet Shechatanu.” Both, oddly, are in the first person plural. It is a collective “we” who have sinned. One approach is that if any Jew anywhere is guilty of a sin on the list we recount, the arvus of Klal Yisrael obligates us to confess on his behalf. But, on a deeper plane, that arvus implies something else too: That even with regard to aveiros of which we are personally innocent, we may still be implicated.
May our viduyim and teshuvah be accepted Above.
Gmar chasimah tovah!
© 2018 Hamodia