August 23, 2019 |

The VIP party

I meet Jews all the time who want to identify themselves as Jews to me. I get it - I like my people, too. I have Jewish pride. But it would be a lot easier for them if we had a secret handshake or signal to distinguish them as a member of the tribe. You see, I look overtly Jewish, with my kippa prominently on my head and, apparently, my Jew-aura. But most of my co-collaborators do not, and so they have to find some way to inconspicuously - or conspicuously - work a little Yiddish or Hebrew into supermarket pleasantries so we'll both know that they are fellow yidden. Sometimes, they just walk by with a furtive wave and say "shalom." Now we both know.

Jews have always struggled with particularity vs. universality. Jews only marry Jews (particular), so if you've had enough or you don't care or you date non-particularly, you marry a non-Jew (universal). Jews support Jewish causes (particular), except when they support aquariums, theaters and zoos (universal). We are not embarrassed to say that we support Israel, will never forget the Holocaust and always take care of our own, except some of us sometimes are embarrassed to say it.

Certainly, a healthier Jewish attitude would be to have a balanced approach to Jews vs. the world, one in which we can care about both the Jewish people and the world without seeming like - or being -- bad Jews. Luckily, Judaism seems to have this feature already encoded, even if most Jews don't know much about it. For instance, we always say two blessings before we recite the daily Shema (Hear O Israel). One, the Blessing of Creation (birkat yotzeir) is universal, as it praises "the One who illuminates the earth and all who dwell upon it with compassion." The second, the Blessing of Love, is more particular: "You have chosen us from among all the other nations and tongues and have brought us close to Your great name in truth."

Our attitude towards charity is not one of exclusion, either. One should give first to the Jewish poor of his home town, then to the Jewish poor of Israel and then to others as he or she sees fit. Jewish law dedicates an entire section of its teachings to the righteous gentle (the Noachide) and Isaiah's future vision of Messianic times imagines the nations of the world flowing like a river to Zion (chap. 2) to learn Judaism's teachings, not to convert to Judaism, but to fulfill the vision of being an inspiration (or a "light") unto the nations. We want to be a light unto the nations both for our own sake and for the world's sake. Not to mention God's. When we yearn for "tikkun olam", the repair of the world, we ought also to complete the phrase as it is found in the Aleynu prayer "b'malchut shaddai", in a kingdom of God. That's what we have to offer, but only if we stay true to our mission. When we are part of the world as part of our ethico-religious heritage, we are doing it right. When we are part of the world because we are spineless or apathetic Jews, we are doing it wrong.

The Sukkot and Simchat Torah holidays provide another good example of Jewish integration. Over the course of the 7 days of Sukkot, 70 bulls were offered as sacrifices in the Temple. The Talmud (Sukka 55b) says that this corresponds to the 70 nations of the world, rabbinic parlance for the whole world. Rashi elucidates that the Sukkot offerings were meant to include all the nations of the world in our prayers for rain and to atone for all their sins. Moreover, it is no secret that non-Jews could offer certain kinds of sacrifices in a Jewish temple, but Zecharya (chapter 14, the haftara reading for the 1st day of Sukkot) actually suggests that, in some future era, the nations of the world will actually participate in the Sukkot celebration: "and it will be that all the remnant of the nations that come upon Jerusalem will go up from year to year to bow before the King, God of Hosts and to celebrate the holiday of Sukkot."

However, after all is said and done, we return to our unique and intimate relationship with the Almighty. The holiday of Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah, which flows immediately from the back end of Sukkot, becomes the paradigm of a particularistic, only-Jewish celebration. This is how the Talmud says it:

Said R. Elazar: these seventy bulls correspond to what? To the seventy nations. Why the lone bull [of the eighth day]? Corresponding to the lone nation. A parable: A human king said to his servants: "Make a me a large feast." On the last day, he said to his intimates: "Make me a small feast so I can enjoy being with just you." (Sukka 55b[1])

The large feast is the Sukkot holiday, to which the entire world is invited. The small feast is Simchat Torah, to which only the one nation is invited, the confidantes of the king. The VIP party, the one that only your closest friends are invited to, is reserved for God's chosen people.

On Simchat Torah, we dance 7 hakafot (circles) around the synagogue, which is reminiscent of the seven circuits that brides walk around grooms at Jewish weddings[2]. The ones called up to the Torah to end and then begin again the Torah are called "bridegrooms[3]." Many Chassidic writers identify the Simchat Torah celebration with a verse from Song of Songs (8:6): "place me as a seal upon your heart", for after all the sukkah-dwelling and lulav-shaking, Simchat Torah has no celebration other than the love of God and His Torah. At the very end of the Torah, which we read on Simchat Torah, it says: "Torah was commanded us by Moshe, a heritage (morasha) to the community of Israel." (Deut. 33:4) Do not read it as "heritage/morasha", says the Talmud, but as "betrothed" (m'orasa).

We are God's one and only people and we will both delight in our mission, when times are good, and suffer through it, when times are bad. We have to be able to be the light unto the nations (for them) and the chosen people (for us) at the same time. This Simchat Torah, get up and dancing, kiss the Torah with joy and enjoy the last day of celebration until Chanuka with a full heart and an overflowing spirit.
Chag sameach!
Rav Avi
Footnotes
[1] A similar teaching is found in the Midrash Tanchuma, Pinchas 15 with some changes.
[2] Both customs are of relatively recent vintage. The hakafot are certainly modeled after the hakafot performed with aravot in the Temple during sukkot, but as R. Chaim Friedlander observes, those are done with a poor willow out of prayer and awe, while the Simchat Torah ones are done with the Torah out of love and joy.
[3] There are three bridegrooms: Chatan Torah (to finish), Chatan B'reisheet (to begin) and Chatan Maftir.

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Rabbi Avi Heller

Joined: July 27, 2007

Originally from Denver CO, Rav Avi received a BA from BU and Rabbinic ordination and an MA in Bible from YU. Before joining MJE, he was Director of Jewish Education at BU Hillel, co-directed the BU Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus and was an Associate University Chaplain. He has been the...

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