First Day of Sukkot
October 3, 2009
15 Tishre 5770
Sukkot is known as \”HeHag – The Festival\”. Liturgically it is called \”Zeman Simhateinu – the Time of our rejoicing\”. It is difficult for us to connect it with the apocalyptic and cataclysmic events associated with the end of time. Yet, this is just the association made in the haftarah for the first day of Sukkot. The prophet, Zechariah, describes the victorious battle over Jerusalem in which God will conquer Israel\’s enemies who have vanquished Jerusalem. After their defeat, these nations will ultimately recognize God. According to Zechariah, these events will occur on Sukkot and forever thereafter, the nations will make pilgrimage to Jerusalem on Sukkot to affirm their acknowledgement of God.
In Zechariah\’s prophecy, God personally does battle for Jerusalem: \”Then the Lord will come forth and make war on those nations as He is wont to make war on the day of battle.\” (14:3) It is often the case in our tradition that we attempt to understand future events by looking at those of the past. Targum Yonathon identifies \”the day of battle\” in this future redemption with God\’s battle against the Egyptians at the sea in the exodus story – the Jewish standard for all future acts of redemption: \”And God appeared and did battle with these nations as He did battle at Yam Suf (the Sea of Reeds where God split the sea).\” Rabbi David Kimche further explains: \”since the verse [in Zechariah] does not make explicit with which battle to compare it, the Targum associates the future battle with the battle at Yam Suf where Moses said to them: \’The Lord will do battle for you and you shall remain silent\’. Here, too, He will do battle with these nations [for Israel\’s sake].\” (adapted translation)
The following midrash takes this idea one step further. It has Israel\’s enemies learning from past events in its history so that they might conjure up better ways of trying to destroy it. Still God ultimately triumphs over their schemes: R. Berechiah said in the name of R. Levi: Cursed be the wicked who scheme against Israel, each one boasting: \”My counsel is better than yours.\” Esau said: \”Cain was a fool, for he slew his brother Abel while his father was still alive. Didn\’t Cain know that his father would be fruitful and multiply and would beget Seth? I shall be more careful. I shall slay my bother when my father\’s death is near and inherit his portion.\” Pharaoh said: \”Esau was a fool. Didn\’t he know that while his father was alive, his brother Jacob would be fruitful and would multiply? I shall be more careful. I shall smite the children of Israel while they are still infants.\” So in saying \’Let us deal wisely\’ (Ex. 1:10), Pharaoh meant: \”Let us act more knowingly than those who preceded us.\” At once Pharaoh charged all his people, saying: Every son that is born ye shall cast into the river (Ex. 11:22). Haman said: \”Pharaoh was a fool when he charged all his people, saying: \’Every son that is born ye shall cast into the river, and every daughter ye shall save alive\’! Didn\’t he know that the daughters would marry, would be fruitful, and would multiply? I shall be more careful: \’I shall destroy, slay, and cause to perish all Jews, both young and old, little children and women\’ (Esther 3:13).\” And Gog and Magog [Israel\’s enemies at the end of time] will say: \”All those before us were fools when they schemed against Israel. Did they not know that Israel has a Protector in heaven? We will be more careful – first we will make war against their Protector, and then we shall destroy Israel.\” But God will say to Gog and Magog: \”You wicked ones, you expect to make war against Me? I, Myself, will fight against you.\” Thus Scripture says: The Lord will go forth as a mighty man . . . like a man of war . . . He will behave Himself mightily against His enemies (Isa. 42:13). And Scripture also says: For I will gather all nations against Jerusalem to battle . . . Then shall the Lord go forth, and fight against those nations, as when He fights in the day of battle . . . and the Lord my God shall come, and all the holy ones with You (Zech. 14:2,3,5b). And what does Scripture go on to say? The Lord shall be King over all the earth (ibid. 14:9). (adapted from Midrash Tehillim 2:4 Buber ed. p. 25-26)
In this midrash, the nations come to recognize that the battle against Israel is ultimately a struggle against God. It is their assumption that, ultimately, breaking the moral restraints that God imposes upon the world is the ultimate weapon against the Jews (humanity as a whole). According to this midrash, God will never let this happen and ultimately the nations will come to recognize God and all that this implies. This acknowledgement of God is embodied in our celebration on 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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