I used to pass the fellow each morning as I walked up Broadway in lower Manhattan on my way to work. He would stand at the same spot and hold aloft, for the benefit of all passers-by, one of several poster-board and marker signs he had made. One read “I love you!” Another: “You are wonderful!” The words of the others escape me, but the sentiments were similar.
He seemed fairly normal, well-groomed and decently dressed, and he smiled broadly as he offered his written expressions of ardor to all of us rushing to our offices. I never knew what had inspired his mission, but I know that something about it bothered me.
Then one day I put my finger on it. It is ridiculously easy to profess true love for all the world, but it is simply not possible. If one gushes good will at everyone, one offers it in fact to no one at all.
By definition, love must exist within boundaries, and our love for those close to us is of a different nature than our empathy for others with whom we don’t share our personal lives. And what is more, only those who make the effort to love their immediate families and friends have any chance of truly caring, on any level, about all of mankind.
Likewise, those with the most well-honed sense of concern for their own particular communities are the ones best suited to experience true empathy for people who do not share their own national, ethnic or religious identity.
The thought, it happens, is most appropriate for this time of Jewish year, as Sukkos gives way, without so much as a second’s pause, to Shemini Atzeres (in the Gemara’s words, “a yom tov unto itself.”)
While most Jewish holidays tend to focus on the Jewish people and its particular historical narrative, Sukkos, interestingly, also includes something of a “universalist” element. In the times of the Beis HaMikdosh, the seven days of Sukkos saw a total of seventy calf-sacrifices offered on the altar, corresponding, says the Gemara, to “the seventy nations of the world.”
Those nations – the various families of the people on earth – are not written off by our mesorah. A mere four days before Sukkos’s arrival, on Yom Kippur, Jews in synagogues around the world read Sefer Yonah, the story of the prophet who was sent to warn a distant people to repent, and who, in the end, saved them from destruction. Similarly, the sacrifices in the Beis HaMikdosh, the Gemara informs us, brought divine blessings down upon all the world’s peoples. Had the ancient Romans known just how greatly they benefited from the merit of the sacrificial service, Chazal remarked, instead of destroying the structure, they would have placed protective guards around it.
And yet, curiously but pointedly, Sukkos’s recognition of the worth of all humanity is made real by the holiday that directly follows it, Shemini Atzeres.
The Hebrew word atzeres can mean “refraining” or “detaining,” and the Gemara (Sukkah, 55b) teaches that Shemini Atzeres (literally: “the eighth day [after the start of Sukkos], a detaining”) gives expression to Hashem’s special relationship with Klal Yisroel.
A parable is offered:
A king invited his servants to a large feast that lasted a number of days. On the final day of the festivities, the king told the one most beloved to him, “Prepare a small repast for me so that I can enjoy your exclusive company.”
That is Shemini Atzeres, when Hashem “detains” the people He chose to be an example to the rest of mankind, when, after the seventy sacrifices of the preceding seven days, a single par, corresponding to Klal Yisroel, is brought on the altar.
We Jews are often assailed for our belief that Hashem chose us from among the nations to proclaim His existence and to call on all humankind to recognize our collective immeasurable debt to Him.
And those who are irritated by that message like to characterize the special bond Jews feel for one another as hubris, even as contempt for others.
The very contrary, however, is the truth. The special relationship we Jews have with each other and with HaKodosh Boruch Hu, the relationships we acknowledge in particular on Shemini Atzeres, are what provide us the ability to truly care – with our hearts, not our mere lips or poster boards – about the rest of the world. They are what allow us to hope – as we declare in Aleinu thrice daily – that, even as we reject the idolatries that have infected the human race over history, “all the peoples of the world” will one day come to join together with us and “pay homage to the glory of Your name.”
© 2006 Rabbi Avi Shafran