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Rabbis' Blog

The Party No One Wanted To Miss

Sukkot is a festive holiday filled with special mitzvot and rituals. Dining in the Sukkah is always a highlight (even when the weather doesn’t cooperate!) and reciting the blessing over the Four Kinds evokes many special lessons about gratitude to G-d and Jewish unity.

The historic significance of the holiday and why it holds such a special place in the collective national Jewish memory is perhaps due to the unique celebration each year on Sukkot in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Each night of Sukkot there was an all-night party featuring the most exquisite orchestra, choir, dancers and jugglers. The greatest scholars and teachers of the nation danced and juggled the night away as thousands watched enthralled.

This annual week-long event was called “Simchat Beit Hashoeiva.” It was so intense that the Talmud declares “whoever did not witness Simchat Beit Hashoeiva - never witnessed true joy in life.” What was this party all about?

The daily service in the Holy Temple featured the wine libation. Specially prepared wine was poured on the altar as an offering to G-d. On Sukkot there was an additional water libation. Every morning water was drawn from a nearby spring and poured on the altar at the same time as the wine.

Sounds simple enough, but the Jews in Temple times took this water libation very seriously. So seriously, that the festivities started in midafternoon continuing through the night culminating with the ceremonious water-drawing at daybreak with much fanfare.

The party was not just the top-of-the-line entertainment of its time, it was mainly a spiritual event that caused many participants to become prophets as well. The closeness Jews felt with G-d during those joyous evenings was unmatched, indicating that the Sukkot water libation represents something important about our relationship with G-d.

Wine is sophisticated and valuable. There are many different types and some fetch a good price, but wine can go sour. It can enhance life and relationships but when abused can be the catalyst for real disasters. Water on the other hand is simple, unflavored, refreshing, available in abundance and never goes bad.

Judaism has both “wine” and “water” elements. We need to be intellectually and emotionally invested in Torah study and Mitzvah observance and derive pleasure and joy from Jewish living. But this track needs constant maintenance and preservation.

The core of our Jewishness must be simple and unchanging as water. The essential connection every Jew has with G-d regardless of their level of knowledge or observance never goes sour. The “water libation” in the Holy Temple on Sukkot highlighted this eternal connection and caused the epic celebration to escalate every night to unprecedented levels. Because knowing that we belong to G-d and the Jewish nation no matter what is the most exciting thing you can tell a Jew.

 

 

We need to reveal all the letters

In the early 1940s the Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe sent a rabbi to meet with a philanthropist in Chicago who hailed from a well known Russian Chassidic hamlet. American life had caused him to abandon traditional practice, and the rabbi was instructed to speak with him only about Judaism and not to solicit nor accept any donations.

Towards the end of their conversations the philanthropist pulled out his checkbook and asked, “Who should I write the check to?”

“No one,” replied the rabbi to the man’s surprise. “I did not come here for your money.”

“Then why did you come?” he asked incredulously.

The rabbi responded with the following analogy. The holiest object in Judaism today is a Torah scroll. Every letter must be written precisely as dictated by our 3,000-year-old tradition and even one missing or faded letter renders a scroll illegitimate. In Eastern Europe religious scribes traveled from town to town offering their services to check the community Torahs to ensure all the letters were still intact.

The Jewish nation is compared to a Torah scroll and every Jew is another letter. Even one “faded” Jew impacts the entire nation. “I am like a traveling scribe,” concluded the rabbi. “My goal today is to ensure your “letter” is intact through strengthening your connection to Torah study and Mitzvah observance.”

Upon hearing this analogy the Previous Rebbe made one correction. Letters in the Torah scroll are ink on parchment and when a letter goes missing it ceases to exist. Jews are better compared to letters engraved in the Two Tablets. Engraved letters can fade due to accumulated dust that hides them from view, but they are never truly lost. You just need to clear away the dust and the letter will be revealed in all its beauty.

In this week’s parsha we learn about the mitzvah of writing a Torah scroll. On the last day of Moshe’s earthly life, he wrote a scroll and gifted it to the Jewish nation as an eternal heritage and symbol of our unity. Here is how this all connects to the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

While Rosh Hashanah is called the Day of Judgement, forgiveness and atonement are absent from the Rosh Hashanah liturgy. There is almost no mention of misbehavior, sins and remorse. The Yom Kippur liturgy, on the other hand, is all about confession, repentance and seeking forgiveness and yet the day is considered even holier than Rosh Hashanah!

Both holidays emphasize Jewish unity, but on Rosh Hashanah we access a level of our Jewishness that transcends the details of our behavior. We appreciate that we ultimately stem from the same source and our actions can never change who we are.

On Yom Kippur we reach a level of unity that emphasizes how even while dealing with the muck of ignorance, apathy and assimilation, every single Jew remains essential. Our nation is incomplete if even one letter is “faded.” And the incomparable holiness of Yom Kippur gives us the power to clean away all the “accumulated dust” and ensure that every Jew is connected in a revealed way.

 

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