By Yosef Y. Jacobson
|The Eighth and Ninth Innings |
This Thursday and Friday, Oct. 4 and 5, 2007, mark the two-day Jewish festival of Shemini Atzeres and Simchas Torah (meaning "the eighth day of assembly" and "the joy of Torah"), during which Jews the world over sing and dance with Torah scrolls in their arms. This holiday, celebrated in Israel in a single day (1), immediately follows the seven-day festival of Sukkos (literally, "huts"), when we sit in booths covered with branches to celebrate G-d's protection of His people (2). A fascinating passage in the Midrash (3), an anthology of oral rabbinic traditions passed down from generation to generation, captures the theme of this holiday, whose function and purpose is -- unlike every other festival -- not stated in the Bible. The Midrash understands the significance of this festival of Shemini Atzeres as a divine response to the problem of anti-Semitism (what else is new, right?).
The Torah instructs the Jewish people to offer 70 bulls during the festival of Sukkos (4). On day number one -- 13 bulls; on day number two -- 12; on day three -- 11; on day four -- 10; on day five -- nine; on day six -- eight; on day seven -- seven. Together they made up the number 70 (For a discussion on the morality of sacrifice in the biblical tradition, see the essay "Why the Obsession with Sacrifices?")
Following this seven-day holiday, comes the festival of the eighth day, Shemini Atzeres. Based on the pattern outlined above, we would expect the Torah to instruct us to offer on this day six bulls. Yet, surprisingly, the Torah gives us very different instructions (5): "The eighth day [following the seven days of Sukkos] shall be a day of assembly for you; you shall not engage in any labor. And you shall offer an offering, a delightful aroma to G-d, one bull..."
Why, suddenly, this drastic change from seven bulls just one day earlier, on the seventh day of the holiday, to one bull on the eighth and final day of the holiday? Why the drop from seven to one?
This is the question that perturbs the Midrash mentioned above.
Honoring all peoples
To answer this question, the Midrash first addresses why the Jewish people were instructed to offer 70 bulls during the seven-day holiday of Sukkos. Why the number 70?
It was our way, explain the sages (6), of paying honor and tribute to the other 70 nations of the world. As we might recall from Genesis (7), Noah's fathered 70 children and grandchildren who, following the great flood, dispersed over the earth and recreated civilization. These 70 "founding fathers" became the progenitors of all nations, cultures and civilizations existing to this very day. On the festival of Sukkos, Jews are called on to focus on all of the nations of the world, to pray for them, to beseech G-d to bestow peace, security and happiness upon all the peoples of the globe.
Judaism never believed that "there is no salvation outside of Judaism." On the contrary, the Torah does not encourage conversion and actually prohibits Jews from proselytizing gentile. Why? Because Judaism sincerely believes that a gentile need not be Jewish in order to maximize his or her potential and find genuine fulfillment in life. "The pious among all the nations of the world have a share in the world to come," declares the Talmud (8). Maimonodes writes (9) that every single human being – Jew or gentile – can become "the holy of holies."
So on the holiday of Sukkos, it is our duty to extend our prayers, focus our meditations and make sacrifices for all of the nations scattered across the globe. Each day of Sukkos, Jews offered a particular number of animals, focusing their thoughts and prayers on particular nations. After seven days, all "70 bases" were covered.
Why Do They Hate Us?
The Midrash now proceeds to tell us about a conversation between the Jewish people and G-d:
"During the holiday of Sukkos, the Jewish people offer 70 bulls, dedicated to the welfare of the 70 nations. Said the Jews to G-d: 'Master of the universe! We offered 70 bulls for the benefit of the 70 nations. Naturally we would expect them to appreciate us. Yet in reality they loathe us! As the Psalmist states (10), 'They substitute my love with hate'"!
This is no small question. It's the lament of the Jewish people for more than 3,000 years: Why do so many people seem to despise them? What have they done to deserve contempt and derision?
Jews, deep in their hearts, know that they never wished to conquer the world; that they never poisoned wells, nor placed curses on non-Jews, nor used Christian or Muslim blood for Passover matzah. All they craved for was to live peaceful lives, dedicated to their families and communities. What is more, almost throughout their entire history, they fought for the underdog, for civil justice, for human rights. Whenever they had the opportunity, they served their countries loyally and stretched out a helping hand to gentiles in need.
So why, instead of gaining sympathy, understanding and appreciation from the non-Jewish world, have they, for the most part of their history, been rewarded with extraordinary hatred, mistrust and envy? Why has almost every country that housed Jews ultimately expelled them and targeted them for torture or complete annihilation?
"Are we really that bad?" Jewish children have been asking their parents for millennia. "Are we really an incarnation of the devil?"
Anti-Semitism in 2007
This is the big question Jews are, sadly, asking once again in the 21st century. In the decades following the Holocaust, it seemed to us, anti-Semitism became unpopular. We believed that the world, becoming more liberal and tolerant and seeing what Nazi Germany had done, was beginning to appreciate Jews for who they were and are: law-abiding citizens who wish to live peaceful lives, building careers, families and communities. The American Dream of true equality was materializing before our eyes.
But, suddenly, with the outbreak of the second Intifada, anti-Semitism sprung up again all over the world, especially in Europe, the continent that silently absorbed endless rivers of Jewish blood. In editorials, cartoons, country clubs and at dinner tables, Jew-bashing has become the norm. In recent years, Jews were beaten and killed while synagogues were set aflame. Much of the Arab world, if we are to take their own testimony seriously, craves for the destruction of Israel and the extermination of its Jews. Much of the West is united against the only Jewish State in the world.
Behold, once again, Jews ask a simple question: What have we done to deserve this? The state of Israel has been seizing every opportunity to make peace with its Arab neighbors. Time and time again, Israel was ready to make painful concessions to the Arabs for the sake of mutual co-existence and peace. In Oslo, Yitzhak Rabin resurrected the PLO, gave it autonomy in most of the West Bank and Gaza, and helped it build a police force, giving it ammunition and finance. In September 2000, Ehud Barak offered Yasir Arafat a Palestinian state, with its capital in East Jerusalem, as well as 100 percent of Gaza and 98 percent of the West Bank.
Then, in the very same month, the second Intifada broke out. Israel sustained hundreds of dead civilians, among them many children. Yet it responded lightly. It took a year and half of thousands of Jews being killed and maimed, their guts strewn over the pizza shops and cafés of their homeland and a March 2002 Passover massacre in Netanya killing Auschwitz survivors, until Israel finally sent its troops into the territories it conceded a number of years earlier to stop the mini-holocaust against Jews.
Yet the world condemned Israel. In august 2005, Ariel Sharon gave the Arabs all of Gaza, evacuating every Jew from the entire terrain. What did Israel get in return? Thousands of rockets launched at its cities, schools and homes, and a Gaza, turned into a terror-state. Yet the world continues to blame Israel for its occupation.
So we stand there and wonder, does the world have such a short memory? Why are we forever condemned as the Satan? Why are we loathed unconditionally, even when we have stretched out our necks for peace?
This, the Midrash suggests, is the question the Jews ask of G-d. We, the Jews cry, are consistently making sacrifices for our fellow nations; we are placing our children on the altar just to give peace a chance. We are attempting to help them out of their own misery. Yet they continuously respond with vile hatred. How ought we to deal with this? Standing Proud
Now, let us continue studying the Midrash, to encounter the divine response to this Jewish outcry.
"Thus says G-d to the Jewish people: 'Now it is time to make an offering only for yourselves.’” This, says the Midrash, is the meaning of the biblical verse, 'The eighth day shall be a day of assembly for you; you shall not engage in any labor. And you shall offer an offering, a delightful aroma to G-d, one bull.' “Let us celebrate and 'roll' together, you and I," G-d tells His people. No more the 70 bulls for the sake of 70 nations, as you did throughout the holiday of Sukkos. Now it is time for you to offer one bull for one nation – the nation of Israel.
What is the meaning behind these words? Is G-d suggesting that we forget about "international opinion” and fend for ourselves, because as nice as we will try to be, we will be rejected regardless?
Perhaps this is part of the message. It is certainly true that if Israel, for example, would follow instructions by the United Nations and "show restraint," there would be around 5,000 Jews dead in Israel each week. There comes a point where you must muster the courage to do what is morally right, not what is acceptable to people who could not care less if another million Jews die, just as they could not care less if a million Sudanese die and did not do a thing to stop the genocide of 800,000 innocent Rwandans slain in 100 days.
Yet, I think, there is a deeper and more optimistic message contained in these words.
G-d is not explaining to Israel the reason for anti-Semitism. Jew-hatred is a disease, universal and multi-cultural, generated by the evil existing in many a human being. What G-d is telling the Jews is this:
In the presence of anti-Semitism, make sure to stand tall and proud. Make sure to teach your children that being hated is testimony to their virtue, not their vice. "Now it is time to make an offering only for yourself." One bull for one nation. It is time to fortify your own identity, to understand that you are loathed because of your timeless commitment to a G-d of morality, of goodness and compassion. This is not a time to doubt yourself; rather it is a time to sand up for yourself and your faith. The Origin of Jewish Self Hatred
One of the most tragic side-effects of anti-Semitism has been Jewish self-hatred and self-shame. Many of our brethren, especially during the last 200 years since emancipation swept Europe, have come to believe that our greatest haters were not as bad as they appeared, that something was really wrong with the Jews, justifying at least some of the hatred toward the people of the Book. After all, went their line of thinking, if your child is loathed in every school he ever attends, is chastised by the principals and despised by most of his classmates, wouldn't the family therapist blame the child instead of the schools and all of the other children?
Should this logic not hold true regarding anti-Semitism as well? If almost every single culture and civilization saw the Jew as the embodiment of evil, should we not look in the mirror and discover the blemishes within, causing such animosity?
Thus, the phenomenon of Jewish self-hatred was born. Albeit, in their minds, it is merely an exercise of extreme self-examination, the self-appraisal of these self hating Jews often reaches super rational proportions, where they begin to view their people, their country and their heritage as the cause of all evil and horror in the world. You read Noam Chomsky and you wonder how a Jew can write such words about a people he supposedly knows so intimately. You read Norman Finkelstein and you are astonished on the words a fellow Jew uses concerning the Holocaust. You read Jewish essayists in the New York Times and in the Los Angeles Times, you listen to Jewish journalists on NPR or CNN, you reflect on lectures by Jewish academics, and you wonder: How can Jews become so shamelessly "objective" as to view Israel and its neighbors as morally equivalents, when Israel never killed a single Arab civilian intentionally, and the Arabs proclaim clearly that their goal is to exterminate every Israeli civilian alive?
Be More Jewish
This, then, is G-d's message to the Jewish people for Shemini Atzeres.
At a time of raging anti-Semitism, do not become insecure, apologetic and defensive. Do not view yourself in the way your antagonist sees you. Make sure you know who you are from the inside; learn what it means to be a Jew, not from people who hate you. Learn what it means to be a Jew from your own texts, from your own heritage, from your own grandparents, from your own Torah.
At a time of explosive Jew hatred, G-d calls out: You must do one thing — be more Jewish!
We cannot cure the plague of anti-Semitism. The anti-Semites need to do that. We can and must monitor anti-Semitism, warn against it and fight it, but we cannot rid the world of it. What we can and must do is to never allow ourselves to be defined by it.
Rolling with G-d
So during these two days of Shemini Atzeres and Simchas Torah, we take a good look at the Muslim countries, at the UN, at the State Department, at the Hague court, at the EU, and we say:
"We will be there for you and with you the moment you sober up and are ready for genuine peace. Israel is a country of peace and it is ready for peace at a moment's call. We crave life, peace and goodwill. But till you guys get your moral act together, until you start hating the bad guys and protecting the good guys, we will never despair, nor will we blame ourselves for the evil still existing in the world.
"Instead, we will, for the next 48 hours, take the Torah and dance with the Divine. We will 'roll' with G-d, celebrating a people and a tradition dedicated as much as ever to peace, love, morality and goodness. We will celebrate with the knowledge that evil will be defeated and good will prevail. We will reinvigorate ourselves with the faith that redemption is merely one step away."
And yet, paradoxically, G-d's response to us holds part, though not all, of the cure for anti-Semitism. For the world could ultimately only love a people that loves itself. When Jews will begin to respect themselves, they will win the admiration of the world. ~~~~~~~~ Footnotes:1) In Israel, Shemini Atzeres is a one-day festival, culminating this coming Thursday night. But in all Jewish communities outside the land of Israel, Shemini Atzeret is observed for two days, Thursday and Friday. Why the
The simple reason is this. In ancient times, the Jews living in Israel were privy to accurate information as to the day the new month began, established following testimony of witnesses who observed the new moon. The Jews of Israel thus knew the proper day of each holiday. The Jews living in further distances, however, lacked this information. Not knowing the exact day of the month, they celebrated each holiday two days. Even after a calendar was established, the Jewish Supreme Court instructed that outside of Israel we maintain the tradition of our parents and celebrate each holiday for two days.
On a mystical level, the issue is far deeper. Energy that can be internalized in the Holy Land in 24 hours requires double the time to be internalized in other places less spiritually acute. Thus, we require 48 hours for what Jews in Israel can accomplish in 24 hours (Derech Metzvosecah Mammar Einyan Yom Tov Shani Shel Galeyos).
2) Leviticus 23: 42-43.
3) Midrash Rabah Bamidbar 21:24.
4) Numbers 28: 13-34.
5) Ibid. 35-36.
6) Cf. Talmud Sukkah 55b.
7) Genesis chapter 10.
8) Tosefte Sanhedrin.
10) Rambam, end of Hilchos Shmitah and Yovel. Cf. Likkutei Sichos vol. 13 Hosafos to 12 Tamuz.
14) Psalms 109.
|Posted on October 8, 2007|