By Dennis Davis
We are at end of the cycle which commences with Rosh Hashanah and ends with Simchat Torah which itself is preceded by Sukkot. There is a coherent and important line that stretches through this entire period.
Rosh Hashana is the symbolic day on which the world was created — Hayom Harat Olam. It is thus a two-day reflection on creation, in particular the recreation of a world committed it foundational principles of social justice for all as is evident in the choice of the Torah reading on the first day. This period of reflection demands that we search for the principles of justice on which the world was created.
The reading of the Akedah (1) on day two is a profound warning that we must exercise the thought process bestowed on us by the Divine rather than follow irrational voices in our head. There is a sufficient body of Midrash on the Akedah to show how poorly Abraham fared in his treatment of Yitzchak, as is evident in the fact that Sarah never speaks to her husband again. This is a majestic protest against robotic fundamentalism.
By the time we arrive at Yom Kippur, the focus shifts inward. We commence the Kol Nidrei service by requesting permission to pray with the Abaranim — those who had converted out of the faith during the Spanish oppression of Jews on pain of death. On Yom Kippur they returned to the shul to ask permission to pray with the balance of the congregation. And the introductory prayer confirms that they were so permitted. No-one cross-examined them as to their frumkite, their Haskafah and frankly how they could have committed so formal a breach of Jewish commitment.
The process embraces the idea of a Jewish communitarian vision, a determined assertion of the principle that each Jew is responsible for another — a Jewish version of Ubuntu if you wish.
Sukkot switches to a focus on the universal. The Talmud (Sukkot 55b) teaches as follows:
Rabbi Eliezer said, “Why are 70 offerings brought on Sukkot? For the (merit of the) 70 nations of the world.” On this, Rashi makes the following comment, “To bring forgiveness for them (the 70 nations which comprise the world), so that rain shall fall all over the earth.”
Viewed in this way, we are taught that Sukkot has a universal element, which is absent from Pesach which represents the exodus from Egypt and the emergence of a Jewish nation, and from Shavuot which celebrates the giving of the Torah to the Jews.
When the entire cycle of festivals is read together, it is clear how we continue to fall short of the overall challenge and regrettably fail to embrace an integrative approach to the welding of the universal and the particular, which flows from this period in the Jewish calendar as whole.
We do not take the warning about uncritical fundamentalism with sufficient care. We gloss over the true emphasis on community, notwithstanding our diversity, which is so central to the way we commence Yom Kippur. And sadly the hegemony of a monastic form of religious tradition prevents a fulsome embrace of our attempt to contribute to the unity of humankind, albeit through the prism of diversity.
It goes without saying that within the context of a diminishing Jewish community in South Africa, the road map, as provided by the lessons of these days taken cumulatively, is essential if our community is to survive and continue to contribute to the overall narrative of the country in which we live.
(1) the binding of Isaac — Genesis 22
Dennis Davis is the retired judge president of the Competition Appeal Court and currently an hon prof of law at UCT and UWC.
• Published in the PDF edition of the October 2021 issue – Click here to get it.
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