Friday, October 07, 2022

Redemption In Slow Motion


Anatoly and Avital Scharansky, Prisoner of Zion, phoning from Air Terminal, Ben Gurion, To

President Ronald Regan to express gratitude for his part in Anatoly’s release.

On July 4th, 1974, Anatoly Sharansky and Natalia Stieglitz got married in a friend’s apartment in Moscow. Both planned to move to Israel; but Stieglitz had to to leave immediately because she had an exit visa that would expire the next day. Sharansky hoped to receive a visa soon thereafter. And so Anatoly went with Natalia to the airport, where they pledged to each other: “Next year in Jerusalem."


After that, life changed dramatically for both of them. Anatoly, who was soon known by his Hebrew name Natan, was refused an exit visa and eventually arrested, spending 9 years in prison. Natalia, or Avital, led a worldwide campaign for Natan’s release. After 12 years apart, the United States secured Natan’s release in a spy exchange; and on February 11th, 1986, Natan was finally reunited with Avital. When he first saw her, Natan made reference to that promise they had made 12 years before, and said to Avital: Silchi li she'icharti k'zat, "Sorry I’m a little late."

Redemption isn’t always on time. Jews prayed for “next year in Jerusalem” for 1,900 years of exile; but even when we knew it would take quite a bit longer, we sang the song anyway. Big dreams are often a little late.


At first glance, Sukkot commemorates a non-event: after the Exodus from Egypt, the Jews spent 40 years in the desert, dwelling in huts. Why is this celebrated with a holiday?


Perhaps the best way to understand Sukkot is to compare it to Pesach. The Talmud (Sukkah 27a) notices, and derives halakhic practice, from the unusual symmetry between the two holidays; both are a week long, and both begin on the 15th of the month exactly six months apart.


Thematically, there is much in common between the two holidays. On Pesach, the central ritual is the Korban Pesach, the Passover sacrifice, which symbolizes the protection God gave the Jewish homes on the night of the Exodus; the Sukkah commemorates the protection God gave the Jews while camped in tents during the years of the desert.


In both holidays, the theme of protection is combined with a memory of the difficulty and adversity. On Pesach, it is remembered through the bitter herbs, which are eaten together with the Korban Pesach; even on the very night of redemption, the years of slavery are not forgotten. On Sukkot, the tent, which symbolizes protection, is specifically built as a diraat aray, a flimsy, temporary structure; God may have protected the Jews in the desert, but they were at the same time homeless and vulnerable. Both Pesach and Sukkot connect us to the ups and downs of redemption, to moments of distress and deliverance at one time.


But the analogy between Pesach and Sukkot ends with Matzah. This quickly baked bread is all about “chipazon”, hurry, a redemption so rapid that one leaves the house in surprise, grabbing some unbaked dough on the way out the door.


Matzah offers a vision of instant redemption; doors fling open, seas split, former slaves march forward to freedom. Everything moves at lightning speed. By contrast, Sukkot is about a point in history when things more or less stood still. For forty years, day in and day out, the Jews lived in the same tents, with the same food, and the same complaints. Only at the very end, after barely crawling through the desert, do they finally arrive at the doorstep of the promised land. Sukkot commemorates a redemption that moves at a snail’s pace.


Pesach is a story made for the silver screen, with high drama and a conclusion that is miraculous. Sukkot, on the other hand, seems to be a celebration of tedium, of forty years when not much happened. And the question remains: What exactly are we celebrating on Sukkot?


Redemption is a topic fraught with preconceptions. Our default is to expect the most of redemption; it should be immediate, transformative and astonishing, a moment of clear divine intervention. If the Messiah doesn’t ride in on a white donkey, it’s not a true redemption.


When the Zionist movement arose, some Orthodox Jews adopted an anti-Zionist stance. One of the arguments they used against Zionism is that it runs counter to a passage in the Talmud (Ketubot 111a) that (according to a manuscript cited in Rashi) says that the Jews should not “push forward the redemption.” This is seen as a prohibition against the Jewish people taking redemption into their own hands, as they are obligated to wait for the Messiah.


From this perspective, any attempt to create a Jewish State before the arrival of the Messiah is a fraud and a heresy. Every redemption should be absolute. When the Messiah comes it will feel like Pesach, with a new Moshe and many miracles.


But other Rabbis had a very different perspective on Zionism. Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Kalischer, who was an early 19th century proponent of the return to Zion, pointed out that the Talmud Yerushalmi (Berakhot 1:1) states that “such is the redemption of Israel, at first it is bit by bit, and as it proceeds, it gets larger and larger.” These religious Zionists saw the hand of God in every step forward. Because of this, they could appreciate the contribution of unusual heroes; Rav Kook famously said that when the young secular Zionist pioneers played sports to strengthen their bodies, their exercise was as holy as reciting Psalms. Their newfound strength would build a new country. A slow motion redemption doesn’t follow the ordinary script, with ordinary heroes.


And this is exactly what we are celebrating on Sukkot. What the early Zionist rabbis are describing in their writings is precisely what Sukkot commemorates: a redemption that comes bit by bit, one which is halting, imperfect and and at times confusing. On Sukkot, the distance between one step and the next on the road to redemption is measured in years, not feet.


As we approach the 75-year-anniversary of the State of Israel, we can say that what we have seen is a Sukkot-type redemption. On a daily basis, Israel is imperfect and tests our patience; but when we see it in the context of the last 2,000 years of Jewish history, we recognize that it is miraculous.


Sometimes redemption arrives a bit late. Sukkot reminds us that we need to cherish every step on the road to redemption.  

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