Sermon: Sukkot (Rabbi Maurice Michaels)

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 21 March 2015

While rejoicing is a feature of all of the chagim it is a particular characteristic ofSukkot.  Indeed, as we just read in the Amidah, z’man cherutenu, the season of rejoicing, is one of the titles by which this festival is known.  The other special aspect of Sukkot is that it is regarded as a universal occasion, as compared to the particularistic nature of Pesach and Shavuot, relating as they do to the Exodus from Egypt and Giving of Torah to our ancestors.  By contrast to the individual offerings that were sacrificed on those occasions in the Temple, on Sukkot seventy bullocks were brought, one for each of the then known nations of the world.

The combination of these two qualities, rejoicing and universalism, are reflected in this being the time of the annual Global Ceasefire Day, which is scheduled for thisShabbat.  Back in 1999 the filmmaker Jeremy Gilley started Peace One Day, which was launched at the Globe Theatre in London.  After much lobbying around the world, a resolution was put forward by the UK and Costa Rican governments and was unanimously adopted by UN member states, formally establishing an annual Global Ceasefire Day on 21st September.  The first was celebrated in 2002.  Of course, there is a long way to go between convincing the United Nations to establish the Day and having it implemented by all the government and, indeed, non government forces currently waging war around the world, but you have to start somewhere.  As the original Peace One Day literature said, “If you build a house you start with one brick, if we want peace we must start with one day.”

Peace, as we know, is of the highest importance in Judaism.  So let’s look at just a very few of the vast quantity of mentions in Jewish literature.  In the midrash,Sifrei, Rabbi Levi said, ‘Peace is precious, for the blessings after the Sh’ma and at the end of the Amidah conclude with a prayer for peace.  The priests’ blessing also ends with a prayer for peace, for none of the blessings is at all beneficial unless peace is also present.’  Pirkei Avot, the manual of ethical teachings of the sages, includes Rabban Gamliel’s saying, ‘The world is sustained by three things – by justice, by truth, and by peace, as it is said’ – quoting the prophet Zechariah – ‘Render in your gates judgements that are true and make for peace’.  And, of course, we have Hillel’s instruction, ‘Be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace’.

That last is emphasised in the midrash, Leviticus Rabbah, Hezekiah said, ‘Great is peace, for concerning other commandments it is written, When you come upon your enemy’s ox going astray …; When you see the donkey of one who hates you …; If you come upon a bird’s nest …; – that is, only if the commandment comes your way are you called upon to perform it.  But what is said about peace?  Seek peace and pursue it; that is, seek it where you are and pursue it elsewhere.’

So peace as a concept is clearly very Jewish, but it was an idea that had – and still has – practical implications.  The Talmud tells us, ‘One person alone was brought forth at the time of creation in order to teach us that that one who destroys a single human soul is regarded as the destroyer of the whole world, while one who preserves a single human soul is regarded as the preserver of the whole world.’  Maimonides records that, ‘When siege is laid to a city for the purpose of capturing it, it may not be surrounded on all four sides, but only on three, to give an opportunity to those who want to flee to save their lives’.

The prophets Isaiah and Micah stated, ‘They shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation and never again train for war.’  Moving a stage on from that the Mishnah asks ‘Who is the greatest hero?’ and responds, ‘One who changes an enemy into a friend’.

Thus we begin to realise that peace can only be brought about when we humans and God are working together for it.  On a number of occasions I’ve participated in Remembrance Day Services and I always read these words of Reb Nachman of Bratzlav, ‘May it be Your will to annul wars and the shedding of blood from the universe, and to extend a peace, great and wondrous, in the universe.  Nor again shall one people raise the sword against another and they shall learn war no more. But let all the residents of earth recognise and know the innermost truth: that we are not come into this world for quarrel and division, nor for hate and jealousy, contrariness and bloodshed; but we are come into this world to recognise and to know You, may You be blessed forever.’

As the world again marks Global Ceasefire Day, may that recognition and knowledge fill the hearts and minds of all the residents of this world.  Amen.