Thursday, October 05, 2006

Sukkot (Haftarot)

Apocalypse Then

With all the hyperbole about the recent terror attacks on the United States as an “apocalyptic” event [this was written in 2001], it is perhaps appropriate to acquaint ourselves with the original. Two of the haftarot for Sukkot, that for the First Day and that for Shabbat Hol Hamoed, may well be described as apocalypses—that is, visions of cataclysmic events that will precede, and usher in, the blessed age of the End of Days.

Interestingly, the original definition of the word is simply, “a prophetic disclosure or revelation,” from the Greek apokalyptein (apokalyptein), “to disclose that which has been covered.” This is in fact taken from the Greek title of the last book of the New Testament, better known as “the Revelation of John.” Apocalyptic literature was a popular genre in the ancient world, spanning both Jewish and proto-Christian groups, including such books as the biblical Daniel; the Apocryphal and Pseudepigraphic books of Baruch, Enoch, 4 Ezra; various works of the Dead Sea Scrolls, midrashim, the New Testament, etc. Some scholars claim that such apocalyptic visions are not indigenously Jewish, and that these violent, supernatural visions of the Eschaton, involving total transformation of nature, if not the abolition of the corporeal world in favor of a heavenly kingdom, is more characteristic of Christianity, Gnosticism, and the mystery religions of late antiquity than it is of Jewish messianism, which is more this-worldly oriented.

Indeed, it is significant that many of the Messianic visions in the Bible do not involve violent upheaval, but simply foretell the redemption of Israel and the emergence of a better, more peaceful and abundant world. This is the case of Isaiah 2: ”they shall beat their swords into plowshares”; Ch. 11, “the lion will lie down with the lamb…”; Ch 40-66 of that book, including the prophecies of consolation read during the final seven sabbaths of the year; the vision of great bounty at the end of Hosea; etc., etc. Reflecting upon the variety and contradictory nature of these descriptions of Redemption, one is reminded of Maimonides’ famous words in the final chapter of Mishneh Torah, where he notes the folly of engaging in Messianic speculation (which he rather strangely equates with divrei aggadah), since they lead neither to love nor to fear of God, but are a distraction from more significant spiritual pursuits; he rather sanguinely suggests that one should believe in the things “in a general way,” and wait and see what happens (Melakhim 12.2). This issue likewise brings us to the controversy between natural and supernatural concepts of Messiah—but such a discussion leads us too far afield.

To return to our haftarah: the reading for the First Day of Sukkot is Zechariah 14, the final chapter of the writings of this prophet who, together with Haggai and Malachi, was among the last group of biblical prophets, whose prophecies span the final years of the Babylonian Exile and the return to Zion. As such, he is much concerned with the coming Return and Reconstruction and, further on, with the situation of the returned exiles in the newly reconstituted Judaean kingdom. Thus, in one of the earlier chapters he deals at length, and in a beautiful ethical way, with the halakhic question of whether the returnees need to observe the fast of Tisha b’Av (Chs. 7-8). His prophecies are also filled with concrete visual symbolism, perhaps more so than any other prophet with the possible exception of Ezekiel (horses of different colors; a surveyor with a measuring line; a horsemen standing among the myrtles; four horns; a giant menorah flanked by two olive trees; etc.).

Chapter 14, with which the book concludes, is part of a unit of three chapters headed “A Vision (masa) of the Word of the Lord concerning Israel,” which concerns the ultimate vindication of Jerusalem. It opens with a vision of a “day that is coming for the Lord,” when all of the nations will gather against Jerusalem to make war. Just when the situation seems most hopeless, God Himself will appear “with his feet standing upon the Mount of Olives” to make war against these enemies. The mountain will split in two, creating an enormous valley; the Jews will then flee to “the valley of my mountains,” while the nations, together with their mounts and livestock, will be destroyed in a gruesome plague (vv. 12-15; it seems to me that these verses logically precede vv. 6-11, the latter being brought earlier to describe God’s miraculous acts in an unbroken sequence).

Verse 5 is difficult; the translation “you shall flee” is based on the Masoretic vocalization; KJV, RSV, and NJPS translate “shall be stopped up” based on a reading of wnstm as venistam rather than venastem. But the Masoretic reading here makes more sense, and of course has the authority of tradition behind it.

Verses 6-9 depict a sequence of wondrous and strange events, whose understanding is made more difficult by the difficult and rather opaque Hebrew. Lo yihyeh ‘or yekarot veqipa’on has been variously rendered as “there shall not be light, but heavy clouds and thick” (OJPS); “neither cold nor frost” (RSV); “neither sunlight nor cold moonlight” (NJPS). (When I manage to sit on this verse with a proper library I will try to get to the bottom of this, and share my findings with my readers, b”n. The general drift seems to be of a day of unnatural darkness and cold.) This is followed by “a day known to the Lord” that shall be neither day nor night, when there shall be a great light towards evening; finally, living waters will flow out of Jerusalem, to the East and West. Tosefta Sukkah and other midrashim describe this as a trickle beginning beneath the altar, which gradually becomes a mighty torrent: a miraculous fructification of the arid desert! All these supernatural events, reflecting the overwhelming power of the Almighty, culminate on the day when “the Lord will be king over all the earth; on that day the Lord shall be One and His Name One.”

Following the vision of God’s kingdom become manifest to all mankind, those people remaining from the nations, who had not previously acknowledged God, will come up to Jerusalem every year to worship God on the festival of Sukkot; whoever shall not make this pilgrimage will be deprived of rainfall. In brief, the Lord God of Israel will be totally vindicated in the eyes of the nations, and Sukkot will become a festival set aside for the worship of God by the Gentile nations. Interestingly, in our own day some philo-Judaic Christian groups, most notably the Japanese Mikoya, celebrate “the Festival of Tabernacles” in this spirit, including a parade down the main street of Jerusalem singing Hebrew songs dressed in their native costumes.

We know from elsewhere that Sukkot was seen as related to the universal motif (I don’t know whether this was originally based upon this passage in Zechariah, or is independent of it): the Rabbis explained that the seventy bullocks offered during the course of the festival week were symbolic of the seventy nations of the world. Perhaps the underlying idea is that Sukkot does not commemorate any specific event in Israel’s history, as Pesah does the Exodus or Shavuot the Sinaitic Revelation, but broad principles, such as God’s Providence in protecting Israel while in wilderness, or His bounty, as seen in the Feast of the Ingathering. It was thus more amenable to expressing more universal ideas.

Two questions need to be asked: what is the spiritual and/or psychological meaning of these ubiquitous visions of an apocalypse that is to precede the dawning of a new age? (For, notwithstanding the exceptions, they are so universal that they may be reasonably described as a component of the “collective unconscious” of mankind.) Second, beyond the universal message already mentioned, and the specific verse here mentioning the Festival of Sukkot, what is the connection of the apocalyptic theme to Sukkot (the account of the war of Gog and Magog in Ezekiel 38, which is almost a byword for the apocalypse, is also read on Shabbat Hol ha-Moed)?

Perhaps the apocalyptic vision may be seen, quite simply, as an attempt to cope with the problem of human evil. Since the existence of evil within the human race is palpably tangible—nay, is enormously powerful—it must be subdued and eliminated before the long awaited Golden Age can come. A smooth, painless transition is impossible because evil is so potent and widespread. The alternative, of course, is that mankind will suddenly become good (this was Beruriah’s counsel to Rabbi Meir: do not pray that sinners should die, but “may sin disappear from the world”; Berakhot 10a). But we have already discussed the difficulties with this solution in our discussion of Isaiah 11 (HY II: 7th Day of Pesah);: how can such a thing happen without eliminating the very concept of free will: i.e., by radically changing human condition to something utterly different than what it is.

The motif of the apocalypse is so tenacious that it even occurs in secular guise, as in the Marxist world-scheme. What is the belief in violent revolution as a necessary precursor to the socialist paradise but a so-called “scientific,” “dialectic” version of apocalyptic thinking? This is the rationale for the dictatorship of the proletariat: as a stage in the consolidation of power of the working class before true socialism can emerge. Or its first cousin, the theory espoused by certain radical students in 1960’s that pushing the capitalist establishment towards greater repression can only be for the good, as this will catalyze the emergence of dormant revolutionary forces in the working class.

We shall return to the connection of Sukkot to messianic or apocalyptic vision in our discussion of Gog and Magog for Shabbat Hol ha-Moed.

Dedication of Solomon’s Temple on Sukkot

On the Second Day of Sukkot, observed as a festival day outside of the Land of Israel, 1 Kings 8:2-21 is read as haftarah. This section, which follows the detailed description of the construction of Solomon’s Temple and various items within it, describes the actual dedication of the Temple, which occurred during “the month of Eitanim,” i.e., Tishrei, on “The Festival” (be-hag)—i.e., Sukkot. (This one verse seems to be the reason for its choice as haftarah.) This also seems to be the first time this generic term is used to refer to Sukkot, meaning, that it is The Festival par excellence.

In any event, there is a gathering of the elders and the heads of the tribes, at which the ark of the covenant was brought up from the City of David to be placed in the Temple itself. This ceremony was performed with great joy, expressed mainly in the offering of sacrifices “without number.” The ark was placed inside the Sanctuary in the place set aside for it, beneath the wings of the kerubim, and a cloud filled the House, signifying God’s indwelling from then on. Verses 12-21 contain a brief prayer that Solomon uttered at this time; the much longer petitionary prayer in vv. 22-53, describing the variety of occasions when people may pray to God “through” this House, as well as the blessing of the people in vv. 56-66, is not included here.

Shabbat Hol ha-Moed: Gog and Magog

The haftarah for Shabbat Hol ha-Moed Sukkot (the Intermediary Sabbath of Sukkot), when it occurs, like that for the First Day of the festival, is an eschatological vision: in this case, the famous apocalypse concerning the war of Gog and Magog. The vision of Gog and Magog spreads over Chapters 38-39 of Ezekiel, but in most communities the selection read for the haftarah only incorporates 38:15-39:16 (the Yemenite custom is to read 38:1-23).

The passage begins with a prophecy addressed to “Gog of the land of Magog,” a mysterious figure, described as the chief of the Arabian provinces of Meshech and Tubal; presumably the name refers to some figure who will emerge some time in the future, leading to much speculation in each generation. (Most recently, latter-day dorshei reshumot—“expounders of signs”—have suggested that the unaccented gimel in Gog and Magog may be read as a soft sound, as in the Yemenite pronunciation, yielding something similar to the name “George,” or possibly even “George from [i.e., the son of?] George”; an ingenious hiddush, but one I prefer leaving to Purim Torah).

In any event, the prophet is instructed to tell Gog to gather a large army, with all kinds of armor and weaponry, and to come up “like a storm” against the mountains of Israel, ”a land which had been a continual waste,” thinking that it is vulnerable, unprotected territory. He is told that he will “cover the land like a cloud,” and will expect to seize much spoil, but at the end, rather enigmatically, is informed that the tryue purpose is so that “the nations may know Me through you, my holiness being sanctified through you” (v. 16).

Then comes the climax: once Gog enters the soil of Israel, God will judge him and the many nations that are with him ”with His great anger.” There will be a great tremor and shaking (earthquake?), at which all living creatures—the birds and beasts of the field and fish and creeping things—will tremble; there will be pestilence, and blood, and driving rain, and hailstones, and fire and brimstone, upon him and all his branches. Thus God will be vindicated: “I will be made great, and sanctified, and made known in the eyes of the nations; then they shall know that I am the Lord” (38:23; cf. 39:8). The denouement shows the inhabitants of Israel going out, using the weapons of Gog’s fallen army as kindling wood for years, Gog and his armies being buried in a huge mass grave filling an entire valley, the purification of the land from the dead bodies continuing for many months.

Apart from the details, names, etc., the questions raised by this chapter are similar to those raised by Zechariah 14: a) Why were such violent, bloody readings were chosen for the joyous festival of Sukkot? b) What are we to make of the whole apocalyptic principle—psychologically, theologically, historically, etc.? I will begin with the second group of problems.

A prominent Jewish theologian of my acquaintance recently suggested, in informal conversation, that chapters as this and Zechariah 14 contain the seed of the spirit of triumphalism that underlies the Islamic principle of“Jihad” which has so upset our world over the past month. One can see here the idea of all-out war in order to vindicate the name of ones particular God—i.e., the spirit of triumphalism which would impose ones own religion upon all mankind, by any means necessary. He continued that even such a well-loved verse as Zech 14:9, with which we end Aleinu three times every day, “on that day Ha-Shem will be One and his own name One,” is in fact highly triumphalist, implying the imposition of a particular name of God on all others.

Is this really so? Must monotheism necessarily lead to the type of exclusivism that is but one step away from hatred of others and of their culture, and from there to condoning, if not initiating, violence against them? And what is the alternative? Should we advocate, in this modern and tolerant age, a type of clawing, sentimental openness that accepts any and every form of human religious belief and practice as somehow valid, and that says that “everything is relative to culture”? Does this not imply that we must, in effect, read all the laws against avodah zarah off the books?

These are highly complex questions, requiring a profound and careful philosophical analysis of the concept of avodah zarah, and an attempt to determine precisely what it is about it that Judaism found so abhorrent. After all, the rejection of idolatry is at the very heart of the Torah (“whoever denies idolatry is called a Jew”—b. Megillah). Several thinkers have written important and serious studies on this subject in recent years (Moshe Halbertal and Lionel Kochan come to mind); I have put forward a few of my own reflections on the subject in the past (HY I: Yitro) and hope to delve more deeply into this problem in the future. For the moment, I must suffice with two brief insights.

First, the apocalypses of Zechariah and Ezekiel do not depict Jews waging holy wear against pagan unbelievers, but paint an eschatological scene in which God Himself is the sole actor, “standing with his feet upon the Mount of Olives” or, in Isaiah 63, striding up from Bozrah with his clothes seeped with blood. This fact in itself will have a tempering effect on those who would see the Bible as giving sanction to a Jewish “Jihad” (for all but the most hard-cure crazies, anyway; and, if I may paraphrase Hazal from a different context, “there is no guardianship for crazies”). As for the positive message to be gleaned from these apocalypses: as I mentioned last time, these and similar visions express the awareness of the realty and potency of human evil, and the insight that the road to a better world must inevitably involve the destruction of such evil.

Secondly, I would like to suggest my own exegesis of the “magnifying and glorifying” of God’s name, and His Name “becoming one” that are mentioned here. This does not mean that all people will come to recognize the Tetragrammaton, the Ineffable four-letter Name of God in Hebrew, sacred to the Jews; rather, that God’s name in the deeper sense, as the verbal-conceptual medium by which He is known to human being (and which is, in the end, a finite condensation of the Infinite) will be one. In other words, that all mankind, in its various cultural and linguistic frameworks, will come to know God as He is in truth (with, of course, the inevitable, natural limitations of the power of human mind). The details of this idea require further working out and the deeper theological study mentioned above.


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