WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE – Shabat Hol HaMoed Succot – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon
A friend and colleague of mine use to say “Succos has no Mazel.” People are all “shulled out” from the High Holidays, and another religious occasion just doesn’t turn them on. If that observation feels familiar, you are missing a great deal. A week to express our joy in nature, for one thing. Nature, the yield of our planet, is a gift from G-d, and this week we can fulfill a special Mitzvah by our pure joy in that gift. V’hayeeta akh sameyakh, says the Torah: Just be happy! So we build our Succa, we roof it with branches – pines in the east, corn stalks in the Middle West, or palm branches in California – and we peek through that roof to see the stars. We invite our friends to share a meal in our Succa, and we even go to shul!
Of course the Torah has more messages this week than just “be happy.” Every day we read about the holiday calendar, or about the sacrifices our ancestors offered to observe these occasions. Standing out from the other Torah readings is the one for the Sabbath during Succos. This time we read the story of a supernatural spectacle: Moses experiencing G-d. Standing on a rock at the top of Mount Sinai, Moses is given the unique opportunity to witness the Divine procession, and even allowed to view the passing glory from the back. All this in response to his urgent plea for evidence of the authority that is being given to him. From this same mountain just a scant few days ago, Moses saw the Israelites worshipping the Golden Calf, and in his shock he broke the Tablets of the Law that he was bringing them. Returning to the camp, he set the Levites to execute mortal punishment on the idolaters, and then he turned to G-d in prayer.
“You tell me to bring this people up,” Moses pleads, “but whom will You send with me? And how will I know that You are with us?… If Your presence does not go with us, do not take us away from here. How will it be known that I and Your people found favor with You? Only if You will go with us, and we will be distinguished, I and Your people, from all the nations on earth.”
Only if we will be distinguished. Those four words “we will be distinguished” are one word in Hebrew: v’nifleenu. From the root word palah – to separate, to make different, to distinguish – comes Moses’ one condition for Jewish identity. V’nifleenu – we will be different.
So how different are we? Can we be distinguished from every other nation on earth? After all, no two national groups are identical, are they? Can’t you always tell a Greek from an Eskimo? Or a Zulu from a Swede? Maybe it’s a little more difficult to distinguish between a Cuban and a Spaniard, or between a Turk and…. a Jew? Features and coloring get confusing, at times. But Moses gave us a further measure of difference. If the Divine Presence goes with us, he prays, that will distinguish us.
Is the Divine Presence not available to other nations? King David sang “G-d owns the earth and its fullness, the world and all who dwell there.” Not only Jews. Other nations may have other beliefs, and make other choices. But they too are G-d’s creatures.
What’s the difference?
Choice is the difference. Many scholars have debated whether we are the “chosen people” or the “choosing people.” By choosing to take the Divine Presence with us on our journey through life, we can fulfill Moses’ prayer. When we build our Succa and rejoice in G-d’s gift of Nature, we distinguish ourselves. When we shake the “four species” –lulav & esrog – to all six directions, we distinguish ourselves.
Certainly observant Jews are not the only nation that is religiously committed. We know that. Here in America we see it demonstrated among church groups. It is truly impressive to note that frequently those church groups who are most fervent tend to be our best friends. We were here first, and they respect that history. Our Bible is their Old Testament. We can expand the letter of the Torah with centuries of rabbinic interpretation, but the commitment that we feel parallels that of our friends. What’s the difference? We were here first. Just as Moses brought the Divine Presence with him and his tumultuous people, through the desert, through the trial at Sinai, through battles with savage tribes to reach the Jordan, so we bring that Presence with us through exile, through persecution, through Holocaust – and back to the Jordan and the Salt Sea and the Holy City. Enemies still attack us but we can draw courage from the One who journeys with us. Our friends of other nations respect our sacred survival, our hereditary rights and our determined devotion. Let us value our difference.
V’nifleenu, said Moses. “We will be distinguished.” That humble distinction is a treasure, as Succos reminds us today.