Thursday, October 1, 2015

Getting a Handle on the Messiah - Reflections on Sukkot 5776

Symbolically speaking, Sukkot is one of the most richly textured holidays on the Jewish calendar. 

On one level, Sukkot is Chag HaAsif, the autumn harvest holiday, a opportunity to rejoice in Gcd's benevolence for the bountiful crop. A related theme is that of water/rain, and how we pray for sweet rains and (thus) prosperity for the coming season.

It is also Chag HaSukkot, the holiday of the temporary booths. The sukkah (booth) itself contains many layers of meaning: according to Rabbi Akiva, it represents the temporary physical dwellings the Jewish people inhabited during their desert trek from Egypt to Israel. According to Rabbi Eliezer, the booths represent the spiritual Clouds of Divine Glory which enveloped and protected the Jewish People during that trek.

But the holiday of Sukkot is also deeply imbued with imagery of the coming messianic age. 

If Pesach/Passover is all about the birth of the Jewish Nation and the beginning of our historical journey; if Shavuot/Pentecost is all about accepting the Torah at Mount Sinai and receiving our Divine Charge - to perform the mitzvot and bring the ennobling Light of the One True Gcd to the world; then Sukkot is all about the end of that historical process and the beginning of a new, post-historical epoch for humankind.

The English word "messiah" comes from the Hebrew word Moshiach which means "anointed one." Moses was a moshiach, one anointed by Gcd to leadership; so was King David. (One idea posits that in every generation there is a person, anointed by Gcd, ready to step forward as the messiah and begin the Redemption of the Jewish People - if only we demonstrate our readiness for it.)

But for all of the discussion in the Talmud and later sources, we have only a fuzzy idea about the messiah and the messianic age. Here's what we do know: 

- The Messiah will be a human being, a direct descendant of King David;
- He will teach Torah to the masses;
- He will lead all the wayward Jews back into the fold of the Divine Covenant;
- He will restore the Davidic dynasty, and restore the Jewish People to our ancestral homeland in Israel, tribe by tribe, clan by clan;
- He will build the Third (and final) Temple on Mount Moriah, the site currently occupied by the interloping Golden Mosque, and the Divine Presence will return to it as in the days of the First Temple;
- In ways which are poorly understood, the righteous of all past generations will come back to life and we will be able to interact with our ancestors - Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, our grandparents and great-grandparents, and (who knows?) maybe even Bach and Handel;
- He will lead all the gentile nations to abandon their sophisticated idolatries and embrace the simple belief in, and the sovereignty of, the One True Gcd;
- Once the Immanence of Gcd floods the world, nations will make war no more; the forces of hatred, avarice and evil will be destroyed; and the Messiah will usher in an era when the family of man will finally - finally! -  live together in peace, in liberty, in prosperity and in brotherhood.

Quite the job description.

The holiday of Sukkot is all about the Messianic Age. The public Torah readings on Sukkot from Zechariah and Ezekiel are all about messianic times and prophecies. The sukkah itself represents the rebuilt Temple. The Ushpizin, the spiritual visitors whom we welcome into our sukkah, are the righteous souls who will be resurrected.

Unique to Sukkot, the Temple sacrifices for this holiday include 70 bulls as olot, elevation offerings: these bulls represent the 70 Gentile Nations of the world, on whose behalf we pray. In the messianic future, representatives of the 70 Gentile Nations will send emissaries to the Temple to pay homage to Gcd and celebrate Sukkot with Jewish People.

The four species - palm, myrtle, willow and citron - which we hold together and wave during Sukkot prayers, are deeply symbolic of messianic times. The bundling together of this disparate group represents unity among the disparate groups of Jews; it also represents the Unification of Gcd's name in the world, in contrast to our current state, in which the knowledge of Gcd is fractured, twisted, corrupted. And the image of dozens upon dozens of palms being held aloft and waved recalls the prophecy that, "then (in the messianic times) the trees of the forest will rejoice and dance; Before Gcd who comes, who comes to judge the world."  (Psalm 96)

All of the foregoing explains why Sukkot is also called Zman Simchateinu, our Rejoiceful Time. Sure, we have a mitzvah to rejoice on all of our festivals, but there is a special measure of simchah, joy, on Sukkot - it is the Jew's most cherished dream to see the return of the Shechinah, the indwelling presence of Gcd, return to the world. Then, the veils of self-doubt and confusion will be removed; then, the meaning of the historical process will become clear; then, the love of Gcd and our fellow man will flood the world.

There is no greater joy than contemplating and celebrating the delicious prospect of that imminent reality.

But Sukkot suggests something more, coming on the heels (as it does) of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. I would like to suggest that the message of Sukkot is that we must all behave as though each one of us is the Messiah.

After all, Sukkot belongs to us all: Every Jew has an obligation to wave the four species; every Jew has an obligation to sit, eat and dwell in the sukkah. In other words, every one of us has a role to play in the fulfillment of the messianic future that Sukkot represents.

The Rambam says that every Jew has the potential to be a Moses. So it follows that every Jew has the potential to be a messiah, an Anointed One. 

How so? Through rigorous introspection and spiritual/moral development; through an all-permeating "Gcd-Consciousness" that the deeply pious cultivate; through a personal recognition of the sovereignty of Gcd and the authority of His Torah in our lives; through a burning passion for goodness, kindness and justice; and through acting as a catalyst for spiritual growth in others.

What if the fate of the world rested on your ethical choices? On the intensity of your tefillah/prayer? On whether you keep kosher or not? On whether you keep the Shabbat or not? On whether you bite your tongue and avoid that juicy tidbit of gossip - or not?

Because I've got news for you - in a very real sense, it does.

The great paradox of Sukkot is that the rickety sukkah, with its leaky roof and shaky walls, represents the mighty, unwavering hand of Providence as it has protected the Jewish People throughout our turbulent history. Similarly, it is through turning inward to cultivate our deepest spiritual gifts that we can begin to transform the external world around us.

May we all merit to see the coming of the Messianic era in our life times, Amen.

Chag Sameach/Happy Sukkot.

PS: To see an earlier blog post on Sukkot, click HERE.

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