Plural Unity: The Antidote to Fragility (Sukkot 5784)

The holiday of Sukkot is supposed to be the merriest day in the Jewish calendar. It is also the holiday of togetherness and peoplehood. Of all the holidays of pilgrimage, Sukkot was the most popular and the most beloved. So much so that in our sources it’s called Hechag, THE holiday, and Zeman Simchateinu, the time of our joy.

In the time of the Second Temple, the Jews were, as usual, divided. The Sadducees were comprised of the priestly class and the wealthy. They stood opposed to the Pharisees, which included the rabbis, the sages, and most of the people, the Essenes, and many others. There was tension between these groups, but on Sukkot, divisions were forgotten and the liturgy was carefully designed to contemplate the sensitivities of each faction. For example, the core of the Water Ceremony (Simchat Beit Hashoe’va) was a popular procession in which sages and commoners led the people, with the priests uncharacteristically behind. During the Temple ritual, the High Priest, almost by definition a Sadducee, conducted the rituals respecting Pharisean customs – especially in one critical ceremony: the pouring of water over the altar as a way of imploring God for abundant rains.

One particular Sukkot, however, all that would change.

The year was ~100 BCE and Judea was ruled by Alexander Yannai. Yannai was the grandson of the last remaining Maccabee, who established an independent Jewish kingdom after defeating the Seleucids in the heroic war we remember every Chanukah. He was charismatic, well-spoken and took power amid messianic expectations. Being a Sadducee, but also a disciple of the great Pharisee Nitai of Arbel, he was seen as a unifier; and having secured more territory for Judea, he was credited with making the country safer and stronger.

But behind the veneer of openness and unity, Yannai was power-thirsty and had little regard for Jewish government norms. He refused to give up the title of High Priest, ending the separation of power between the secular and the religious, as he was both priest and ruler. He illegitimately proclaimed himself king, a title to which only descendants of King David can aspire. The Talmud tells how he neutered the Sanhedrin (which acted as high court) by filling its benches with loyalists and declaring himself immune from prosecution. In sum, what we would call today “checks and balances” were dismantled. Then, he deliberately set to favor an extremist Sadducean minority and give them inordinate power at the expense of the Pharisean majority. Finally, his military strategy became erratic. He annexed Idumea and Iturea despite the advice of the sages (the sages were afraid that if we annexed another people, we’d end up with one of them ruling us).

A growing discontent with Yannai’s policies came to a head during Sukkot. There were hopes that Yannai will use the holiday of unity to make a gesture towards the Pharisees and the people and thus heal the divide. Instead, he did the opposite.

Tens of thousands of pilgrims had participated in the Water Ceremony and were now massed on the Temple esplanade, carrying their “four species” and waiting for Yannai, as High Priest, to pour the ritual water over the altar. The Sadducees didn’t believe in that ritual, but they were a minority. The masses were tense, and the air was pregnant with hope and anticipation. The pouring of the water would beseech a loving God to bless his people with a good year, with rains and crops, with peace and health.

Yannai took the golden jar, looked at the crowd, smiled smugly, and then defiantly poured the water on his own feet as the Sadducees clapped and laughed. A gasp of horror rose from the esplanade. And then the shock gave way to anger. Somebody threw an etrog at Yannai. That broke the dam. The king was pelted by thousands of etrogim and called a usurper and a tyrant. And it was clear now that he was.

Yannai quietly and matter-of-factly ordered his personal guard to enter the esplanade and mow down the protesters who had only lulavim to protect themselves. This wasn’t a Jewish army. For some time, the Jewish army, which was a popular army since the time of the Maccabees, had refused to follow the tyrant blindly, so Yannai replaced them with a professional mercenary force mostly composed of Cilicians and Psydians. He no longer had to deal with opinionated and scrupulous Jewish soldiers, but rather with efficient and obedient killing machines.

Six thousand Jews died at the temple that day. A seven-year civil war ensued, in which the sages and the people fought against the Sadducees and Yannai’s mercenaries. More than 50,000 Jews died and much of the country laid in ruins.

Through sheer brutality, Yannai put down the revolt. The final act was a mass execution of Pharisees and their families. Yannai feasted with his concubines while people were beheaded, quartered and, in an innovation from the West that was all the rage, crucified. Historians used to believe that Talmudic sources and the historian Josephus Flavius (who recorded those events in the decades that followed) were grossly exaggerating Yannai’s cruelty. But in 2018, while digging the foundation of the new Bezalel Academy building in Jerusalem’s Russian Compound, workers found the mass graves of that massacre. It included women, children, and even fetal remains, indicating that pregnant women were executed too. Artifacts and coins infamously engraved with the text Yehonatan Hamelech, King Yehonatan (Yannai’s full Hebrew name), confirmed the origin of the site. Not Josephus nor the Talmud had exaggerated one bit.

Although Yannai ruled for almost 20 years after the revolt, the seed of destruction was planted. A few years after his death, a new civil war broke out and Rome’s Pompei used the opportunity to occupy Judea. When the Romans needed a puppet king, Herod, one of the “annexed” Idumeans, was happy to oblige, just as the sages had feared. That was the end of Jewish sovereignty for twenty centuries.  

Contemporary comparisons are tempting, but the protagonists of that time are not equivalent to those now, and the Israel of today is not the Hasmonean kingdom. Yannai is not Benjamin Netanyahu, and the Pharisees are not the Protest Movement. Today’s Israel is stronger and more resilient than Yannai’s ever was. But the issues are the same: corruption, separation of powers, management of Jewish diversity, religious monopoly by a minority, and rule of law. And last but not least, the relationship with the non-Jewish inhabitants of the land and the management of the relations with the superpowers of the time. The Israel of two millennia ago failed – almost deliberately – in those five dimensions. Those structural issues are still with us, and our management of them is not always stellar. Like then, the state depends on keeping a set of delicate balances and “status-quos,” and like then, we seem to have a pathological fascination with shaking the tightrope, and then we scratch our heads in disbelief when the acrobat splats onto the ground.

There’s maybe little we, as funders and leaders, can do about the geopolitical issues, but each of us can contribute to making this Sukkot a feast of unity and togetherness instead of one of division and internecine hatred. Maybe we can show ourselves and the world that we learned something from that fatidic Sukkot thousand years ago. Maybe we can realize that our shared home is fragile, like a Sukkah, and needs all the care and love that we can give it.

Sukkot is about opening our homes and our hearts to our neighbors, to exercise radical hospitality and celebrate the diversity of our people. Rabbis argue about the value of the mitzvah of inviting people to our Sukkah. Inviting somebody you like, somebody that will bring you a benefit, is less meritorious. Instead, you should push yourself to invite somebody that isn’t like you, even somebody you dislike, to challenge yourself to discover your shared humanity. Our lives are flimsy and conditional, like the Sukkah. Our history taught us that our lot can change without warning. But being together, realizing that we can count on each other, is the ultimate antidote to our fragility, both as individuals and as a people.

This is not a naïve call to ignore our differences, nor, God forbid, to cease fighting for what’s right. It is a call to realize that there’s a mutuality of fate that transcends our divisions, to rediscover the beauty of living within a diverse people, that like a diamond, is more valuable the more facets it has. It’s a call to realize that keeping a diverse people whole hangs on a delicate equilibrium that needs to be handled with responsibility and care.

As I’ve said many times, Judaism teaches us that those in government bear the brunt of the responsibility. It is up to them to set the tone, show moderation and respect, and refrain from creating division and mistrust. There’s no “bothsidesing” Yannai and the Pharisees. Yet, governments reflect their societies. As Rabbi Heschel said, “In a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.” It’s very convenient for us, as individuals and funders, to say that it’s only up to those in power. We all have power to do good. We all can contribute to a healthier and more respectful Jewish collective. 

Yes, we are fragile like the Sukkah. The Jewish people was, is and will always be vulnerable. Thank God our Jewish State is strong, but it’s also surrounded by enemies, and the threat of internal dissolution lurks in the crevasses of our divisions. We can succumb to that threat, or we can try living in plural unity, because that’s our antidote to fragility. Not in vain, during the holiday, we read the wise imprecation of Ecclesiastes that resonates today as it did 2,000 years ago: “A cord made of many threads won’t easily break.”

Chag Sameach.