Sukkot- First Day
October 7, 2006
Zechariah\’s prophetic message, in this special haftarah for Sukkot, records his vision of the end of time. This dramatic account, which according to Zechariah will occur during Sukkot, foresees an excruciatingly painful attack by the nations upon Jerusalem and God\’s ultimate triumph over these enemies. The remnant of God\’s enemies will, in the end, recognize Him and make Him the source of their worship. The description of God\’s battle with His enemies is vivid and its consequences are cataclysmic: \”Then the Lord will come forth and make war on those nations as He is wont to make war on a day of battle. On that day He will set His feet on the Mount of Olives, near Jerusalem on the east; and the Mount of Olives shall split across from east to west, and one part of the Mount shall shift to the north and the other to the south, a huge gorge…\” (14:3-4)
How is one to understand this vision? There seem to have been two major tendencies, one which viewed God\’s setting His foot on the Mount of Olives as an actual description of God and His actions and the other which understood these images figuratively. The first tendency can be seen in this excerpt from a 4th century midrash: \”[A pagan asked:] Does your God have legs? [The Jew responded:] \”With regard to your deity it is written: \’They have legs but they cannot walk\’ (Psalm 115:7) but with regard to our God, it is written: \’On that day, He (God) will set His feet on the Mount of Olives.\’\” (Lamentations Rabbah 1:40) This perspective remained a credible point of view all the way into the middle ages, particularly among Rashi\’s students and colleagues, as is illustrated in the commentary of Rabbi Joseph Kara (12th century France): \”He will set His feet\” – this refers to the feet of the Holy One Blessed be He.
The second perspective also had early representation: \”Ten descents did the Shechina (God\’s Indwelling Presence) make into the world: … And One will take place in the future, in the days of Gog and Magog. As it is said: \’And His feet shall stand that day upon the Mount of Olives.\’\” (Avot deRabbi Natan version a, chapter 34, Schechter ed. p. 102) Similarly, Targum Yonathon (~7th century Eretz Yisrael) also professed this viewpoint in its translation: \”And He (God) revealed His might, at that time, on the Mount of Olives.\” This school of thought became prevalent amongst early Spanish Jewry which tended to be more rational in its outlook, as is evidenced in the words of Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra (11th century Spain): Behold God will perform signs and wonders on that day that have yet to be seen. This is made even more explicit by Rabbi David Kimche (12th century Provance): \”One should read this verse as a parable…as is interpreted by the great sage, Rabbeinu Moshe, [one must understand this vision to mean] that God is the cause of the miracles that will be seen there.\” (adapted translation)
The contrast between these two positions could not be more pronounced. Each vantage point is profoundly influenced by worldview and cultural milieu. What joins these disparate positions is a loyalty to a shared text of meaning and a desire to shape the way they look at the world through the sacred text. Since their theological outlook regarding the text represent human attempts to understand that which is ultimately beyond human beings, it should not surprise us that their interpretations should vary so. What remains important is that they see God\’s \”hand\” involved in their own lives and ultimately in ours. This message is central to the festival of Sukkot.
This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
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