When we gather in joyful celebration in our sukkot with our families and friends, what should be on our minds? Certainly, we should be cognizant of the many miracles that Ha’kadosh Baruch Hu performed for us in Midbar Sinai. But there is an important aspect of Sukkot that is often neglected. One might argue that its relevance today is of crucial importance.
The Netziv writes in his introduction to Shir Hashirim that Shlomo Ha’melech recited his Sefer Kohelet on Chag Ha’Sukkot. On Sukkot all the sages of the non-Jewish nations were sent to Yerushalayim to stand near the bull sacrifices that were intended for blessings of rainfall for the next year for the entire world. Perhaps it was G-d’s intention for all the nations of the world to witness the Jewish people involved in an act of universalism on their behalf; and for the Gentile world to come close to G-d through the Jewish people. Therefore, since the nations of the world were already assembled in one place, the reading of Kohelet on Sukkot was a subtle Mussar in teaching the world what Shlomo Ha’melech wrote at the end of Sefer Kohelet (12:13-14):
ס֥וֹף דָּבָ֖ר הַכֹּ֣ל נִשְׁמָ֑ע אֶת־הָאֱלֹהִ֤ים יְרָא֙ וְאֶת־מִצְוֺתָ֣יו שְׁמ֔וֹר כִּי־זֶ֖ה כָּל־הָאָדָֽם
“The sum of the matter, when all is said and done: Revere G-d and observe His commandments! For this applies to all mankind.”
Let us go back to the bulls that were sacrificed daily on Sukkot in the time of the Beit HaMikdash. Today we reference these sacrifices in the Mussaf service that is recited daily on Sukkot. What exactly are these bull offerings? This is how the Gemara in Sukkot 55:2 explains these sacrifices:
א”ר אליעזר הני שבעים פרים כנגד מי כנגד שבעים אומות
“Rabbi Elazar said: These seventy bulls that are sacrificed as additional offerings over the course of the seven days of Sukkot, to what do they correspond? They correspond to the seventy nations of the world, [and are brought to atone for their sins and to hasten world peace.]”
Rashi on the Daf clearly indicates that the sacrifices of bulls are for atonement of the human race because the world is judged for water on Sukkot. One should not think that universalism is restricted to a practice that we are no longer able to fulfill without a Beit HaMikdash.
We also find the message of universalism on Yom Kippur. On Yom Kippur, late in the day, we recite the Haftorah of Yonah. Throughout the Machzor, our Yom Kippur liturgy is almost exclusively centered on us – the Jewish people. The Book of Yonah is a striking interruption to our Jewish-centered day of inward reflection. Suddenly we are confronted with a Jewish prophet commanded by G-d to go and save a non-Jewish city.
This theme is elaborated in Man of Faith in the Modern World: Reflections of the Rav, Vol. 2, by Rabbi Abraham R. Besdin. He quotes Rabbi Dr. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, who said:
“… It is therefore, characteristic of the universal embrace of our faith that as the shadows of dusk descend on Yom Kippur day, after almost twenty four hours of prayer for Israel, the Jew is altered through the Book of Jonah, prior to the closing of ‘the heavenly gates (Neila),’ that all humanity are God’s children. We need to restate the universal dimensions of our faith, especially when we are sorely persecuted and are apt to regard the world in purely confrontational terms.”
In one of the Rav’s most important articles entitled “Confrontation,” published in Tradition volume 6 No. 2 Spring- summer 1964, Rabbi Soloveitchik addresses the inherent internal conflicts of particularism, the need for the Jew to be self-centered and protective by being insular, and at the same time the need to be useful and productive citizens of the world in which we live. In the words of the Rav:
“Our approach to and relationship with the outside world has always been of ambivalent character, intrinsically antithetic, bordering at times on the paradoxical. We relate ourselves to and at the same time withdraw ourselves from, we come close to and simultaneously retreat from the world of Esau.”
The Rav’s thoughtful article “Confrontation” is a complex piece that is worthwhile to read but beyond the scope of this essay. However, it is precisely this theme that runs through Sukkot. We sacrifice bulls on the behalf of gentiles and pray for the repentance and welfare of the non-Jewish world.
We live in a time where the ugliness of anti-Semitism has been awakened and has come out from its underground slumber. The natural reaction to this hatred is to recoil into our own world. It would be only natural to become a nation introverted and concerned with nothing but its own survival. Yet, no rabbi or leader will suggest that we do not recount the story of the sacrifices that were made on Sukkot on behalf of the 70 nations of the world in the Beit HaMikdash. We will stand up throughout the Musaf Amida for seven of the eight days of Sukkot and recount the sacrifices of bulls on behalf of the non-Jewish world. Additionally, we will recite the “Blessing for Rain” on behalf of the entire world because there is a concept of universalism that is intrinsic to Jewish values.
We must combat anti-Semitism in the strongest and boldest ways. But it is also important for the Jew to think of and pray for the gentile world as we pass through the month of Tishrei, when G-d is particularly close and open to our prayers. We need to pray that the anti-Semitic genie be quashed and put back in the bottle and that G-d grant peace in our conflicted world. These prayers could replace the bulls that were sacrificed on behalf of the non-Jewish world during Sukkot in Temple times.
(For additional thoughts on the theme of universalism and our relationship with the gentile world, see the Gemara Gitin 61A and the Rambam’s Hilchot Melachim 10:12, where he codified our responsibility to be charitable to non-Jews for the sake of peace in the world.)
Rabbi Ronald Schwarzberg is the Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Ahavas Achim.