The Dance of Life
There’s a certain carefree joy in these summer months. As you can see from the attendance in the last couple of weeks, many take their vacations now, vacations that they’ve looked forward to all year. But in the Jewish calendar, we have a 3-week period of profound sadness that began last Tuesday with the fast of the 17th of Tamuz and will conclude 3 weeks later with Tisha B’av on August 1st. It may be counter intuitive to be sad on summer days when the sun shines the brightest, but how can we ignore the terrible things that have happened to us over the millennium at this time of the year? From the destruction of both Temples to the Inquisition to the Holocaust, the events of these 3 weeks play a prominent role. Every major tragedy that happened to the Jewish people either happened during this time or had its roots in something that happened during this time.
And I feel that it’s spiritually essential for us to feel this profound sadness for a short time every year. How can we be truly grateful and appreciate fully the joy in our lives, the gifts that Gd has given us, unless we also can feel the depths of the tragedies that have happened to our people? After the 3 weeks comesShabbos Nachamu, the Sabbath of Consolation, and we begin the process of repair that culminates 7 weeks later with Rosh Hashana and then Yom Kippur.
Finally comes Sukkot, called zeman simchateynu (the time of our joy) when we’re bid to sit in a Sukkah and experience the joy of what is truly important in life—not our strong houses or cars, but just what we can fit in the Sukkah, namely our family and friends and the Shechina, the Presence of Gd.
If one reviews today’s Torah reading it may be hard to find some meaning in the details of all the holiday sacrifices that take up so much text. I admit it’s very hard for the modern mind to relate to slaughtering bulls and rams and sheep to celebrate our holidays. Many years ago, as I pushed myself to review it I was so glad it did for a glaring detail of the sacrifices of Sukkot seemed to jump off the page at me, crying out for attention. Let me share it with you now.
The Torah (Num. 29:12) commands: “On the 15th day of the 7th month, there shall be a holy day for you; you shall not work; you shall make a festival for Hashem for a 7 day period. [So far so good. Here’s the part that struck me.] You shall sacrifice…13 young bulls, 2 rams and 14 male lambs in their 1st year; they shall be unblemished.” The Torah then fills us in on the rest of the details of the offerings of that day. It sounds fascinating, does it not? All kidding aside, what’s really amazing is that each day had exactly the same offerings with the exception of the bulls. While the 1st day had 13 bulls, the 2nd day had 12, the 3rdday 11…till the last day, the 7th day that had 7 bulls. Why? Is the 1st day more important to warrant more bulls?
It’s hard to make sense of the details of the sacrifices and I couldn’t find help in the commentaries I reviewed other than pointing out the total number of bulls equals 70, the same as the ancient 70 nations of the world indicating that Sukkot is an international holiday. In fact, Christians from all over the world often come to Jerusalem on Sukkot to celebrate.
From my perspective, when I come across a passage in the Torah that difficult to understand, I always assume that there may be some deep secret there before dismissing it. And so—as is my inclination—I looked for a gematria and the significance of these numbers and this is what I found.
On the 1st day of Sukkot, 15th of the month, 13 bulls. 15 + 13 = 28. On the 16thof the month, the 2nd day: 12 bulls. That’s still adds up to 28. On the 7th day, the last day, the 21st of the month: 7 bulls + 21—also is 28. 28 seems to be the constant in relating the offerings and the dates of Sukkot. How do we write 28 in Hebrew? We use the letters Kaf Chet, which spells koach meaning “strength.” And why is it only the number of bulls that fluctuate with the calendar? Perhaps it’s because the bull is the strongest and carries the strongest lesson.
What’s the lesson? It’s that the dance of emotions in life is what gives us koach(strength). The taking in to our souls the profound sadness of these 3 weeks, and the corrective process of looking into our souls over the next 7 weeks till we get to Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, gives the Jew an amazing koach, a strength of spirit. It’s not always easy to be happy and feel the joy of life when it comes. If one truly goes through the process, one will be able to accept the true joy of Sukkot. And there’s no one who doesn’t do that dance of emotions, if not with the Jewish calendar, than for sure with life at one time or another. Just a week before the death of my father I had a wedding and a Bat Mitzvah—the dance of life!
There’s a wonderful b’racha that Jewish law tells us to make when we see 600,000 or more Jews together: Baruch Ata Hashem Elokeynu Melech haolam, chacham harazim, “Blessed are You Hashem, our Gd, King of the universe, Knower of secrets.” At such an impressive gathering, why focus on secrets? Focus on Gd, the creator of the world, or Gd, the most powerful, or Gd the Redeemer who brings Jews together. Why, Gd, Knower of secrets?
When I stand in front of the congregation on the High Holy Days when we have the largest crowds, it’s impressive, even in our boutique congregation—hundreds of Jews standing together. But when I look at the faces—having been truly privileged to be intimately involved in most of their lives at one time or another—I see the death of a spouse here, a marital problem there…a baby naming here, and a wedding there…illness here, divorce there…a Bar Mitzvah here, a Pidyon Haben there…job loss here, depression there…a graduation here, a 25th wedding anniversary there. It’s a shul full of people, but each one is and individual, each one is unique.
When Moses discusses the choice of his successor with Gd in today’s parsha (Num. 27:16), he addresses Gd as Elokey Haruchot kol basar, “Gd of the spirits of all flesh.” The question is, why the plural “spirits,” and not just the “spirit of all flesh?” The Midrash (Tanchuma 10) teaches that this refers to, “Gd, Who knows the importance of appreciating the uniqueness of the spirit of each individual,” the Gd of each spirit.
Yes, Gd knows that each of us is a unique holy soul. And just as Gd responds differently to each soul, based on their unique experience and abilities, so must a leader like Moses, and so must we all. All of us do the dance of emotions in our lives—from bliss to sorrow, from depression and sadness to joy and contentment. Sometimes the dance brings us so low, we get stuck and can’t move. But if we don’t dance alone, if we hold each other’s hand as we’re thrown this way and that way—as I found with your support during shiva—then we can find an amazing Koach, a marvelous strength to get up and fully take in the joy when it comes. May we take in the sadness of these 3 weeks and after it ends, may we all be open to experience the true joy of life. Amen!