January 18, 2020

Table For Five: Sukkot

One verse, five voices. Edited by Salvador Litvak, Accidental Talmudist

And the Lord shall become King over all the earth; on that day the Lord shall be one, and His name one. From the Sukkot Haftarah, Zechariah 14:9

Rabbi Scott Bolton

Congregation Or Zarua, New York

This prophetic vision is not really about a time in the future or kingship grounded in history or empires or games of thrones. It is about the potential for realizing that we are more unified than divided. Even when we feel at political, spiritual and moral odds, to achieve unification without uniformity is on the horizon. It is a religious ideal. 

Our verse begets the question: What would we think, say and feel if we added a more expansive unity quotient to our life calculus? What if we asked, “How can I be the catalyst for one-ness here and now, baYom haHu today?” Words like “King” and “One” and “His name” are attempts to grasp the ineffable oneness of the Divine that is beyond a who, a what, a word or time. Hearing them chanted inspires shifts in perception. 

A certain percentage inside of us is linked to the immeasurable oneness of the universe. Beyond a Buberian I/Thou we arrive at a God/I/We/Every-thing-and-time concept that Heschel described by saying, “God is an afterthought.” Suddenly, our unity index climbs when we feel ourselves floating on seas of infinitude. We still need poetic verses like ours to be the oars for rowboats on the lakes of our lives. Hearing haftarah chanted is sublime, transcendent! We heighten our love and connectivity to our neighbors, our planet and our universe. We realize with thunderous calm that differences and distinctions we perceive today are part of the greater unfolding of a unified reality. One of our blessed roles is to actively unify. 

Rabbi Hillary Chorny

Cantor, Temple Beth Am

Six years and two kids into our marriage, we built our first sukkah last year. All four sides comprised our front patio: a retaining wall marked the east and south; a gate held the west; sliding doors straight into our living room abutted the north. Above us, schach and sky. I spent hours upon hours in the sukkah last year: sipping my morning coffee and letting the afternoon breeze kiss my neck as I nursed my newborn; watching the light of the Havdalah candle flicker in my toddler’s eyes as she searched the bamboo matting for gaps where the stars might shine through. Short of showering and actually sleeping through the night (which frankly never happened), we fully lived in that sukkah. 

Night and day in the sukkah. The Akeidat Yitzchak (15th-century Spain) comments on a verse from the haftarah on Sukkot Day One. Describing a vision of a messianic era to come, Zechariah preaches that there will be “one continuous day” (Zechariah 14:7) and on that day “God will be one” (Zechariah 14:9). The Akeidat Yitzchak hears in these verses an echo of creation: there was evening, there was morning; it was one day, or “day one” (Genesis 1:5). On Sukkot, our constant dwelling in sacred booths allows us to bask in the omnipresence of God as a taste of the world we strive to live in, one where we feel the touch of divinity at all times, in everyone we meet, and in everything we do.

Rabbi David Block

Associate Head of School, Shalhevet High School 

Why are we obsessed with God’s oneness? The holiest words that a Jew can say are those of Shema: “Listen, Israel … HaShem is One!” But why are we so adamant? Is there some sort of belief-in-polytheism epidemic going on? At least in 2019, these words feel meaningless. 

But they’re actually at the heart of the entire construct of our relationship with God. Monotheism vs. polytheism can simplistically be explained as one versus many. But as Rabbi David Fohrman notes, “The really significant differences between monotheism and polytheism are not quantitative, but qualitative.” It’s axiomatic to polytheistic systems that there is no one omnipotent “creator god.” If so, while these gods may be powerful, they are not all-powerful; they still have lacks and needs, as do we. So, humanity’s interaction to these gods is one of bribery, barter, quid pro quo. 

Monotheism revolutionizes the paradigm. If God is one, the Creator, it would be silly to barter with that Omnipotent Being. An interaction with God would be fundamentally different — it would be a relationship! It would be one of a creator and creation, like a parent and child. As Fohrman says, “The notion that a relationship is possible, and indeed desirable, between the human and the divine” — like monotheism celebrates — “makes little sense in the pagan system.” 

Thus, immediately following the words “HaShem is One” in Shema, we emphatically declare the implication of that Oneness: “V’ahavta — so, love your God.” That’s why we care about God’s oneness: It’s how we get to a relationship of love.

Rabbi Cheryl Peretz 

Associate Dean, Ziegler School

Zechariah’s words speak of great redemption when all will know and testify to the existence and oneness of God. These are the words that end the Aleinu liturgy said in every prayer service on the Jewish calendar. In an easy-to-miss phrase, the same prayer says, “V’hasheivota el levaveicha” — translated by many as “take God to heart” but really is a demand to actively put God on your heart. 

In Jewish thought, the heart has many functions. Kohelet Rabbah (the rabbinical commentary on Ecclesiastes) explains that the heart sees and hears, stands and falls, feels and knows, breaks and heals. Rabbi Yerucham Levovitz (1873-1936) says the heart is like a seismograph, recording every tiny tremor even if our conscious minds remain unaware of the impact. 

Today, we know that the heart is not the source of love — the ancients were mistaken. But doctors and scientists also tell us that the relationship between heart and emotions is extraordinarily intimate. Our emotions can actually change the shape and affect the operation of the heart. 

In life, we all live great joys and sorrows. It is in loosening the membranes surrounding the heart that we truly experience emotions leading to introspection, meaning and growth. This is the sacred invitation to place God on your heart and feel it in every moment — as a companion to the celebration, a comfort to the affliction, a renewal from the mundane. This is the fulfillment of the universal promise of redemption associated with Sukkot.

Salvador Litvak

Writer and director, AccidentalTalmudist.org 

Zechariah’s verse provides the last line of the Aleinu prayer, which concludes every prayer service on every day of the year. Why is this prayer so important, and why is this line its climax?

Tradition holds that Aleinu was written by Joshua as he led the Children of Israel into the Promised Land. In its first half, we praise God for distinguishing us from every other nation. Different how? We bend our knees and bow to the One God, Maker of Heaven of Earth. It is because we’re His servants that we know there is nothing else but God. We’re in God, but like fish swimming in water, we forget how much we owe to the transparent reality that sustains us. 

The second half looks to the future, when God’s presence will be as clear to everyone as it was to us when we ate manna from Heaven, took shelter from the desert sun under Clouds of Glory, and witnessed daily miracles. The path to that future includes one of the most misunderstood phrases in the Jewish world: tikkun olam. The verse reads “l’takein olam b’malchut Shadai,” the world will be perfected through the Kingship of the Almighty. In other words, the path to the repair and perfection of the world is knowledge of and bonding with God. 

God is already one. When we recognize that, His name will be one as well. Currently, too many people believe we’re alone and in charge. When we finally submit to the eternal values of the Creator and thank Him for the creation, the world will naturally transition to a paradise of peace, justice, beauty and equal opportunity for all.