Can you smell the air? It’s strange how something you can’t see can fill you with such pleasure. It’s like getting a massage from the inside. I have the same kind of feeling when I pray. But do you think I can explain that to my socialist friends here?
“The work nourishes my soul,” Simcha tells me.
I’m not sure if he really believes it or just repeats Jonathan’s every word. It’s not that Jonathan isn’t a righteous man, he is, but he insists that time for study only takes away from nation-building.
“What will we have built,” I ask him, “if we don’t know what God expects us to do? And don’t tell me, ‘live.’ We may exist, but we will not be living if we don’t seek guidance from our sages. As Rav Kook says, all our most cherished possessions are vessels of the spirit of God.”
“You’re right, Tevye,” Jonathan answers. “A people with a land are no better than a people without a land, if they do not have the spirit of God. To show you I’m not completely ignorant, I can quote authorities too. It was Rav Landau who said, ‘Torah cannot be reborn without labor and labor, as a creative and nation-building force, cannot be reborn without Torah.’ I can tell our people how to build, and even why they should work, but I can’t tell them how they should live. Not even I am that arrogant.”
So Jonathan began to spend time during the Sabbath studying with me. And once the others saw that their leader was not afraid to open a holy book, they too joined in our sessions. Even some of the devoted Marxists put down their manifestos long enough to read the weekly parsha. Of course, it didn’t take long for new rabbis to emerge. Everyone suddenly was the Rambam. Then the arguments grew worse. Some people wanted their own study groups. It was like the old joke about every Jew needing their own synagogue. Jonathan saw the problem growing and called a meeting of the executive committee. They decided to end the study groups to prevent the cohesion of the kibbutz from disintegrating.
Jonathan apologized to me for ending the sessions. He said I should continue to study and to be the rebbe for the kibbutz, but most of the chaverim would be better off sticking to socialist polemics. The followers of Hillel and Shammai fought over every interpretation, Jonathan reminded me, but in the end the rabbis had decided to accept the teachings of Hillel. “We have decided to accept your interpretation, Reb Tevye,” he said.
Well, I was filled with pride. I remembered what the rabbi had told me back in Anatevka about being like Hillel trying to explain the Torah with one foot in my mouth. If he only knew the respect I had earned. Yes, I know, he would probably spin in his grave.
At least the committee listened to me when I told them we must celebrate Sukkot, since it is a celebration of the harvest. They’re still not that enthusiastic about holidays that aren’t related to the harvest or the revolution. But I insisted the children learn what it meant for the Israelites to wander forty years in the desert. That’s why I’m building this little booth we call a sukkah.
The Lord said, “For in booths did I make the children of Israel dwell when I brought them out of the land of Egypt.” And so each year we build our little sukkahs to remember our ancestors’ wanderings. Now, with unrest in the villages, it is especially nice to retire to our sukkah of peace.
The Israelites could see the stars through the roofs of their booths, that’s why I’m putting these fronds on top instead of something solid. To tell you the truth, this reminds me a little of where we lived when we first arrived in Palestine. The tents and huts often had so many holes we might as well have been in sukkahs.
We have another tradition during Sukkot. You take a palm branch, a myrtle branch and a willow branch and bind them together. We call this is a lulav. And this thing that looks like a giant lemon is a citron or etrog. We hold them together and recite a prayer, “Blessed art Thou, Lord our God, King of the universe who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us concerning the taking of the lulav.” Then we wave them in each direction, north, south, east and west, up and down. This little ritual shows our belief that God is everywhere.
We eat and sleep in the sukkah. On the seventh day, at least in the synagogue, all the Torah scrolls are taken out of the ark and the congregants march around seven times with the lulav and etrog. This day even gets its own name, Hoshana Rabba.
On the eighth day we celebrate Shmini Atzeret and say a prayer for rain.
The most joyous day of the year is the following day, Simkhat Torah. This holiday marks the completion of the annual cycle of Torah readings. On this day, all the Torah scrolls are again removed from the ark and congregants march, sing and dance around the sanctuary with them. This is done seven times, called hakafot.
This is the time of year I miss our little synagogue in Anatevka the most, but we’ve developed our own way to celebrate here that will reflect the joy we feel. We’re going to have a torchlight procession and lots of singing and dancing, which the chaverim don’t need any excuse to do, so we’ll start a new tradition.
This excerpt is from Mitchell Bard’s new novel, After Anatevka – Tevya Goes to Palestine available now in paperback and on Kindle.