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This Sunday evening, Jews around the world will begin their observance of the week-long festival of Sukkos. There’s much to learn from this celebration that concludes the annual cycle of Jewish holidays. So I’m returning to these thoughts from September, 2001, which remain more relevant than ever.
Once upon a time there were three little pigs. One built a house of straw, until the big, bad wolf blew it down and gobbled him up. One built a house of sticks, until the big, bad wolf blew it down and gobbled him up. But one built a house of bricks and was safe from all the huffing and puffing of the big, bad wolf.
Society teaches values to successive generations through its children’s stories. The story of the Three Little Pigs is one of our most enduring fables, teaching the importance of good planning and disciplined effort. But it also carries with it a more subtle message, that safety rests in our own hands and our own labors, that security can be bought for the price of a pile of bricks and a bucket of mortar. This ideal, if it was ever true, went up in flames together with New York City ‘s skyline and Washington’s military nerve center on September 11.
More appropriate now than the Three Little Pigs is Robert Burns’s adage about “the best laid schemes of mice and men.” Indeed, the World Trade Center towers were each designed to absorb the impact of a Boeing 727; what the architects failed to factor in was how the fuel carried aboard a transcontinental airliner would create an inferno capable of compromising the structural strength of steel support beams. Of course, we don’t blame the architects; none of us imagined the acts of incomprehensible evil that brought down those towers.
Which is precisely the point. We cannot imagine the design and the reach of evil. We can make our best effort, erect walls of brick around ourselves and roofs of steel over our heads, but we will never be completely safe. The world is too unpredictable an arena, the mind of the wicked too dark a cavern.
As if to drive home the instability of temporal existence, observant Jews around the world will disrupt their normal lives this week by moving out of their homes into little stick houses to live as our ancestors lived in the desert after their exodus from Egypt. But more than an attempt to recreate the experience of a fledgling nation traveling toward its homeland, the holiday of Sukkos offers us an opportunity to attune our minds to a most fundamental principle of Judaism — that however great our strength and the might of our own hands, however elaborate and well conceived our plans, life strews unexpected obstacles in our path that can scuttle our most certain victories and demolish our most solid edifices.
A sukkah may be built of virtually any material: wood, brick, steel, canvas, or even string may be used to construct its walls. But no matter how stable or how precarious its walls, the roof of a sukkah must be composed of s’chach, thin strips of wood or leaves, through which the light of the stars can shine at night. And when one sits in the sukkah and looks up at the s’chach — the barest representation of a roof, which will not protect him from even the lightest rainfall — he is inspired by the recollection of his ancestors who trusted in the protection of the Almighty, the One who took them out from under the rod of their oppressors and guided them through the inimical desert before bringing them safely home.
In his visionary writings, the prophet Ezekiel describes a great battle on the eve of the messianic era, when the all forces of evil in the world combine themselves into a great army called by the name Gog and Magog. The brilliant eighteenth century thinker Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch interprets the prophet’s vision not as a military battle but as an ideological war between the philosophy of gog — “roof”– and the philosophy of sukkah, where those convinced that their fate lies in the power of their own hands and their own resources will attack the values of those who recognize the limits of human endeavor to influence the world.
In the immediate wake of the World Trade Center destruction, cries rang out for vengeance and military retribution. Since then, more measured voices have asserted that this war will be like no other, without defined enemies or defined borders, without clear strategies or decisive victories. This is an unfamiliar kind of crisis, where we find our capacity to respond in our own defense or to secure our own future profoundly diminished in a new world order.
So now the citizens and leaders of the world’s last remaining superpower must grapple with the uncertainties of a violent present and a murky future. Some will respond by declaring that we must work harder to take control of our own fate. Others will concede that we will never be secure again. And they will be right: no building, no bunker, no shelter made of brick or concrete or iron will guarantee our safety from the perverse imagination of extremists who can rationalize indiscriminate mass murder.
Yet for all that, the Jew sitting in his sukkah will look up at the heavens and be at peace. He will recognize that the best laid schemes often come to naught and that, after doing all that can be done, we are best off leaving our fate in the hands of the One who placed the stars in their courses, the One from whom protection ultimately comes for those who trust not in their own strength, but in the source of all strength.
As the winds of autumn blow with the first hint of winter, we may shiver with cold but never with fear. The illusion of the roof we can see reminds of the invisible reality of the wings of the Divine presence. We neither abandon ourselves to fate nor try to seize hold of it, but turn with confidence to face the future, secure in the knowledge that we have prepared ourselves as best we can to meet whatever life holds in store for us.
Confounded in the cultural and spiritual darkness of Persian exile 2372 years ago, the Jewish people faced a calculated plan for genocide beyond anything devised by Adolph Hitler. A conniving King Ahasuerus, inspired by his devious viceroy, Haman, laid out a scheme to exterminate the entire Jewish nation in a single day.
With the full force of the king and his empire turned against them, how could the Jews hold out any hope of salvation?
But in the wink of an eye, literally overnight, Haman fell out of favor and, through an improbable confluence of apparent coincidences, the Jews became the king’s most favored nation while the enemies who conspired to destroy them were themselves destroyed.
And how do Jews commemorate the divine intervention that saved them from annihilation? On this day that the sages equate with Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, we replace fasting with feasting, exchange prayerful reflection for revelry, and eschew the simple white garments of purity for masks and costumes.
Purim becomes a day of backwards and inside-out, of contradictions and reversals, of parties and paradoxes.
In keeping with the counterintuitive practices of Purim, allow me to conscript a pair of latter-day Jewish cognoscenti to dispel confusion with the light of clarity:
Dustin Hoffman and Sydney Pollack.
It was the December after my ninth birthday. A menorah rested on the bookshelf over the television console. Across the room, beside the fireplace, the lights of a tree twinkled red and green and blue. I was standing next to my mother as she held a candle in her hand. My father wasn’t there. He wasn’t into these things.
My mother lit the lone candle, ushering in the first night of Chanukah. She didn’t recite the blessing. She didn’t know it. I remember watching the wick catch, watching the flame grow bright, and asking myself, “Now what happens?”
“We light the candles for eight nights because the oil burned for eight days,” my mother had told me. What oil? I wondered. But something about her brief explanation stopped me before I asked. Maybe she didn’t know, either.
A year or two later, at my suggestion, the menorah had disappeared and only the tree remained. Waiting for the morning of December 25th when all the presents could be opened at once seemed far more dramatic than diluting the experience over a week, especially when those wrapped boxes mysteriously appeared under the tree day after day over the course of almost a whole month. Chanukah just couldn’t compete.
Only two decades later did I come to appreciate how much my own experience had truly been a Chanukah story.
SEEKING SPIRITUALITY FROM A TO ZEN
When I went away to college, I left behind the tree with the menorah. December 25th had become as irrelevant as Santa Claus, and I preferred an envelope with a check to wrapped presents that would most likely be returned for credit. I eagerly adopted the ambivalent agnosticism of so many of my peers, celebrating dormitory weekends by emptying six-packs rather than observing commercialized annual holidays with empty rituals.
Sometime toward the end of my university career I found myself attracted to Zen. Not in the traditional style, with its practices of discipline and self-mastery, but the pop-spiritual variety learned from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and similar modern scriptures.
Aligning myself with the spiritual energy of the universe became my goal. I wanted to choose good over evil because, ultimately, that brought good karma and tranquility. Surely, this was the road to Truth.
But we all know which road is paved with good intentions. As sincere as I may have been in my aspiration to travel the road to Truth, I found with annoying frequency that when my desire to do good clashed with my desire to indulge amoral self-interest, good threw in the towel at least two times out of three. Forced to take stock of myself, I had to concede that, for all its high-sounding ideals, a spiritual discipline that produced no moral discipline wasn’t worth its mantras.
TOO LATE FOR THE HIPPIES
I hadn’t developed much discipline in my academic life, either. Oh, my grades were good enough, but four years studying English literature and writing had left me with neither gainful employment nor vocational direction. It was 1983, a decade late to join the hippies or beatniks, but that didn’t stop me from swinging a backpack over my shoulders and hitchhiking across the country. If I hadn’t found Truth in the ivory tower, perhaps I might find it in the heart of America.
Sixth months crisscrossing the country brought me no closer to Truth, but it did whet my wanderlust, and I soon boarded a flight across the Atlantic to continue my journey through Europe, after which Africa, Asia, and Australia lay upon my horizon.
Half a year into my journey, Europe ended with a short hop across the Mediterranean to Israel, where I sought to have a classical Jewish experience — volunteering to pick oranges on a kibbutz. But it was December, with little agricultural work to be done; moreover, the dollar was strong, resulting in some 9 million American tourists in Europe, many of them draining south into Israel as winter weather set in. I found the kibbutz placement office blocked by a line of 20-somethings camped out like they were waiting for tickets to a Rolling Stones concert, oblivious to the signs screaming, NO PLACEMENTS UNTIL JANUARY.
Desperate for a break from the stresses of travel on a shoestring, I cast about for some way of imposing routine upon my life before departing for Africa and, somehow, found myself invited to attend yeshiva.
Yeshiva? The word was unfamiliar, but the offer of a bed, hot meals, and a daily schedule of classes proved irresistible. It was two weeks before Chanukah, and I would finally learn about the secrets of the menorah and the miracle of the oil.
THE CLASH OF CULTURES
Although a period of peaceful coexistence followed Alexander the Great’s occupation of the Land of Israel, it didn’t take long after Alexander’s death before the ruling governments began to feel first discomfited and later threatened by their Jewish subjects and the Judaism they practiced. Greek philosophy recognized man as the pinnacle of creation, perfect in his accomplishments, answerable to no one but himself. Greek mythology embraced a pantheon of gods characterized by caprice and selfishness, by lust and vengeance, thereby sanctioning similar behavior among men.
And even though it was no longer the Greeks who controlled Israel, the Ptolemys of Egypt and later the Seleucids of Syria had thoroughly absorbed the cultural values of the empire that had briefly ruled over them. How offended they must have been by a Jewish society devoted to self-perfection through submission to a divine code of moral conduct.
When they could no longer tolerate the Jewish threat to their ideals, the Syrian-Greeks contrived to destroy Jewish ideology. Whereas their predecessors, Babylon and Persia, had turned to violent oppression, the cultural successors of Alexander’s empire posed a much more subtle danger: in place of physical violence or outright prohibition of Torah observance, Antiochus IV of Syria banned only three practices: the Sabbath, bris milah (circumcision), and Rosh Chodesh, the sanctification of the new month.
The Sabbath testifies to the divine nature of the physical universe: without this weekly reminder, we easily loose touch with and ultimately forget our relationship with the Creator of all. Bris milah testifies to the divinity of life: it is the sign of our higher calling, reminding us that we can control our physical impulses rather than allowing them to control us, that each of us is a work-in-progress striving toward self-completion and self-perfection. Rosh Chodesh testifies to the divinity of time: it is the ceremony that fixes the calendar and imbues the Jewish holidays with an intrinsic holiness. Without Rosh Chodesh, placement of the holidays would become arbitrary, leeching all meaning from them the way American Federal holidays have lost all substance in the eyes of most Americans.
The Jews refused to submit, and in the end the Syrian-Greeks resorted to more draconian decrees and eventually violent repression. But their plan had been sound: had they succeeded in stopping our adherence to those three basic precepts, they would have succeeded also in reducing Torah observance to an empty ritual, one that might have continued on for generations, but would have quickly become bereft of all meaning and spiritual significance. For this reason, the observance of Chanukah always includes one Sabbath, always passes through Rosh Chodesh, and is eight days long as a remembrance of the bris, the covenant between the Jew and his Creator.
Chanukah celebrates victory not only over our Grecian oppressors, but also over the Hellenists, those Jews who promoted a new syncretism of Judaism, wherein they hoped to intermingle Jewish practice with that which they found most attractive in Greek culture. The Maccabees recognized the absolute incompatibility between Greek ideology and Jewish philosophy, and they foresaw that ultimately one would have to prevail over the other. Without staunch defenders fighting for Jewish identity, the torch of Judaism would inevitably be extinguished and only the tree of foreign culture would remain.
ILLUMINATING THE GENERATIONS
Despite the victory of the Maccabees, the threat from Greece did not disappear. To this day it persists in its cultural assault against the values of Jewish tradition. The nine year old boy in America, or Britain, or even in Israel, who looks at the Chanukah candles and wonders what they mean, who sees no difference between the flames of the menorah and the twinkling lights of the tree, testifies to the victory of the Greeks.
But not every child has forgotten the lights. The rekindling of the menorah each year reminds us that the torch of Jewish tradition continues to illuminate generation after generation and dispel the darkness of apathy and assimilation. However much the ideological descendants of the Greeks strive to extinguish the lights, the eternal flame that burns within the soul of the Jewish people still shines on and on.
In my own observance of Chanukah, I rejoice that my own children have grown up not only with the lights of the menorah, but with a growing understanding of what they mean. I’m grateful that I’ve been able to give them what my parents were unable to give me: self-knowledge, the greatest weapon against cultural extinction.
Through the generations and across the world, the Jewish people have successfully adapted to living as guests among disparate societies, but only by retaining a strong sense of our history, the values of our heritage, and a familiarity with the culture that keeps our sense of identity alive and vibrant. Compromise these, and the Jew, together with his Judaism, will surely vanish. Preserve them, and we guarantee that the victory of the Hasmoneans over the Greeks will be renewed in every generation as a victory of the Jewish people over assimilation.
Originally published in the St. Louis Jewish Light and Aish.com.