Chancellor's Parashah Commentary
Ismar Schorsch is the chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary.
When I was a youngster growing up in small-town America in the 1940s, the only sukkah in town stood behind the synagogue. It did service for the entire congregation. Even my father, the rabbi of our Conservative synagogue and devoutly observant, never seemed to entertain the idea of putting up a sukkah in our backyard. In those days, people had less time for domestic rituals and shied away from any public display of their Jewishness. The synagogue in Pottstown, a large, handsome, basilican structure on the main street, had become the last arena of individual and collective Jewish expression.
The same was true for the lulav and esrog, two or three sets in the synagogue for rabbi, cantor and interested lay persons. Again, no one ever thought of acquiring a personal set, perhaps because of cost, though, I suspect, more so because Judaism had increasingly been reduced to a religion that was done for you.
The celebration of the festival of Sukkot in America some fifty to sixty years later is remarkable testimony to the resurgence of traditional Judaism. Jewish neighborhoods are awash with family sukkot and ever more synagogues during Hallel resemble a sea of palm branches. The irony is exquisite: if once the absence of family sukkot reflected our unease in the face of a pervasive modicum of anti-Semitism, today the profusion of huts, which recall the homelessness of ancient Israel in the wilderness, attests to our sense of at-homeness. No need any longer to maintain a low profile.
Religiously, the reappropriation of the sukkah and lulav by individual Jews bespeaks a reawakening of our religious sensibility. A Judaism executed for us by surrogates can never yield deep satisfaction. To pay someone to recite Kaddish for a loved one we have lost divests the ritual of all religious worth. Or as Solomon Schechter said in a related context: "We cannot have our love letters written for us. We must write them ourselves, even at the risk of bad grammar." (Seminary Addresses, p. 242). The metaphor is apt because ritual is a language, the medium by which we communicate with God. It can't work for us unless we try to speak it. Perfection comes with persistence.
But let me go beyond platitudes. How does the language actually work? Each time we perform a ritual act in Judaism, we recite a blessing appropriate for the moment. Most of these blessings begin the same way: "Barukh atah ... asher kiddeshanu b'mitzvotav ...," which I would translate as "Praised are You, O Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, who has hallowed us with acts of holiness ..." Thus, for example, before we sit down to a meal in the sukkah we recite the following blessing: "Praised are You, O Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, who has hallowed us with acts of holiness, by commanding us to dwell (temporarily) in the sukkah." The point of my translation is to underscore the ritual as an act through which we may achieve a state of holiness. The entrance of God into our lives begins with us. The mitzvot embody God's will as perceived by Judaism, an ancient, sacred language of deeds that elevates us above the raucous torrent of every day life. Touched by holiness, we begin to sense a reality normally out of reach.
The dynamic of this interactive experience is vividly depicted by the Rabbis in deep readings of several biblical verses. The first verse declares: "At scoffers He scoffs, but to the lowly He shows grace" (Proverbs 3:34). Resh Laqish understands the verse to mean that "for those who go to defile themselves (the scoffers), God opens the door, but those who go to purify themselves (the lowly), God assists." According to this interpretation, the verse deals with our intention prior to a specific act and not with what might happen to us after the act is done. If sin is what we seek, God will not stand in our way, but God will help us if we wish to let a bit of holiness into our lives. In other words, God follows our lead.
As is its wont, the Talmud adds an analogy from everyday life to make the point still clearer. A particular merchant is peddling both naphtha and balsam. To the customer who wants to buy some naphtha, he says, "Go measure the quantity yourself (because of its foul odor)." But to the customer who wants some balsam, he says, "Come let us measure together so that we can both enjoy its sweet aroma."
Yet another verse in this talmudic passage leads to the same insight. It succinctly sums up the reason for the dietary laws in Leviticus: "You shall sanctify yourselves and be holy (11:44)." The Talmud reads this verse to mean that if we set about to elevate our lives with a tad of holiness, we shall find ourselves awash in holiness. Or in another formulation, if we here below hallow ourselves a bit, God will add immeasurably to our holiness from above (BT Yoma 38b-39a). In each case the verse in Leviticus is read sequentially, or better reciprocally, that is if we initiate the quest for holiness ("sanctify yourselves") then God shall intervene to aid us in reaching our goal ("be holy").
In short, grace in Judaism is not undeserved. If we take the first step, God will meet us more than halfway. Acts of ritual create settings of holiness in which the presence of God becomes palpable. Ritual is a two-way street where the I and the Thou encounter each other. In the life of medieval kabbalists, these talmudic readings played a large role. What they did on earth set the heavens in motion. The Rabbis did not go so far. God waits for human initiative. On our own, we would not get very far. Hence we thank God "who has hallowed us with acts of holiness." The religious life is not a monologue. As we do the mitzvah, we sense an infusion of holiness intermingling with our own.
Shabbat shalom ve-hag sameah,