Monday, October 5, 2009

Zman Simhateinu: Sukkot and Hineini

Jews, particularly Jews outside of Israel, appreciate fear and trembling. Or at least that is how most Yidden tend to interpret their Judaism. Blame the exile and the Holocaust. Blame the strum and drang theological influence of austere Christianity. Or take solace in Maimonides's reading of the human condition, which identifies fear as the first step in drawing close to the Divine from joy and love.

Maimonides posits loving rather than fearing God as the essence of Judaism while discussing the concept of teshuva (repentance). One takeaway is that Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is really a day of love. Solemn love, sure, but love all the same. It is no coincidence that the Jewish Sages compare the wedding day as another Yom Kippur for the bride and groom. And perhaps it should not be very surprising that following Yom Kippur, our most solemn annual wedding day, comes the seven day festival of Sukkot on which Jews are veritably commanded to be happy and to dwell in temporary dwellings, two customs that anyone familiar with Jewish weddings--or newly married life--is surely familiar with.

The linked message of Yom Kippur and Sukkot, the by turns solemn and joyous rekindling of man's relationship with the Divine, reveberates throughout the many rituals of the two holidays. My favorite example comes from the two very different activities that once played out in the Temple in Jerusalem. On Yom Kippur the high priest alone was allowed into the Temple. There he would represent the entire people, offering a rich array of sacrifices in the presence of the people's most treasured artifacts. Five days later, the same Temple would play host to all of Israel in a week long party known as the Simchat Beit HaShoeva. For five days feasting, dancing and music rang out from the hallowed grounds. "Anyone who has not seen the the Simchat Beit Hashoeva," records the Mishna, "has never experienced real happiness in his life."

The joy of Judaism, the simcha of Sukkot, was never so easy to latch onto in Jewish communities outside of Israel. Jews in Minneapolis, New York and Baltimore appreciate the gravity of our faith and so Yom Kippur they do well (I leave aside the troubling implication of a faith that is mostly called into play strictly at times of tragedy and solemnity). But observing the festivals of Sukkot, Pesach and Shavout outside of Israel is a pale imitation of what can be found in the country.

Sukkot is a national holiday in Israel. Schools close, the buses advertise holiday greetings and green and gold sukkot (the temporary dwellings that give the holiday its name) blossom in the land's urban concrete jungles. As Gil Troy writes in the Jerusalem Post, "with camping trips and mass priestly blessings at the Wall, with Stock Car Races, all day learning fests, and a 70,000-person Jerusalem parade featuring Christian Zionists from all over the world--Succot truly becomes zman simhateinu, the holiday of our joy."

On kibbutz we brought the joy home. In the days before the festival we took a tour through the acres of date fields that surround Tirat Zvi. While we got a chance to sample the fresh dates that are the key non-sausage export, the purpose of the tour was to see how the kibbutz harvests three of the four Arba Minim, the four species central to the symbolism of Sukkot. Besides the aravot, willow branches, the other three items--lulav (a closed date palm), hadassim (myrtle branches), and etrog (citron), are all harvested locally and sold throughout the country.

During Sukkot we tapped our inner Simcha Beit HaShoeva with a song-and-dance extravaganza to entertain our host families on kibbutz and introduce the name we chose for our garin. I was even tapped to sing a song in Chinese, Jay Chou's ShanHu Hai. Last summer I performed the song with the Chinese director of my Beijing based language program and so I approached this latest performance with some pedigree. Nevertheless it was hard to compare singing a song of lost love and longing to 100 Chinese peers and performing the same tune to a crowd of kibbutzniks, none of whom--including the girl who sang by my side--had the slightest idea what the lyrics were about!

Our garin name is Hineini. Here I am. I am ready. The deceptively simple word appears only fourteen times in the Torah. But it is the critical word Avraham uses when answering God's call to sacrifice his dear son Isaac, Yakov uses when deceiving his father for Esav's birthright, and Moses uses when answering the call from the Burning Bush. It is the only word spoken by both God and man in the Torah. And it is what Isaiah says when the voice of God calls out "Whom shall I send forth, and who will go for us?" "Hineini," replies the prophet, "Here I am. Send me."


  1. What do you mean by "only word spoken by God and man in the Torah"?

  2. good fact check! i book i read made the "only word spoken" claim so i used it myself, i believe point is its the--or one of the few--non 'I/and' kinds of word in the Torah verbalized by men and G-d.