Sukkot is often trumpeted, especially in more modern circles, as the festival of Jewish universalism (see here for today’s example). This idea is most grounded in chapter 29, in the 70 cows sacrificed over the course of the holiday, taken by the Midrash as a symbol of the 70 nations.
But is this a false imposition of modern values? The midrashic explanation for the descending order of the cows is that it represents the 70 nations being lessened and eliminated. Sounds less universalistic.
This tension, though, didn’t start with modern values, it exists amongst the Midrashic texts themselves. For example, another Midrash describes the Jewish people’s complaint that, although they bring these sacrifices to atone for the nations of the world, their hatred for the Jewish people remains (perhaps they only read the previous Midrash).
These contradictions could reflect different perspectives among the rabbis on our relationship to the nations of the world. But it’s interesting to note that Rashi, at least, brings both traditions in the very same breath. Is there a way to harmonize the ideas?
Rav Kook suggests a fascinating and typically prescient idea. Long before the era of post-nationalism and globalization, Rav Kook (Ein Aya, Shabbat, Chapter 2, Section 7) suggests that as the world progresses and evolves towards greater recognition of God, differences between nations will be reduced. This is the meaning of the nations ‘being lessened and eliminated’- not that they will be destroyed by war, but that nationalism will have less strong a hold on the human imagination, that similarities between people will gradually overcome their differences. Post-nationalist ideologies are correct about the dangers of nationalism; the 20th century was soaked in its blood, and the movement away from these excesses is positive.
But total erasure of national identity is no less dangerous than its excessive expression. The number of cows is not reduced to zero, or even to one. It stands at seven (a nod to the seven nations of Canaan, perhaps?), and the Jewish people remain constant as the ‘scattered flock’, concerned for the nations of the world, and testifying to what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks calls the ‘dignity of difference’, the proper balance of universalism and national identity.
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