Though we concluded the High Holiday season this past week with Simchas Torah, it is vital that we realize an underlying theme that connects all four holidays and, indeed, the beginning of the Torah, parshas Bereshis. This theme is Jewish unity, a topic so often discussed but rarely achieved.
During the Days of Awe, our awareness of unity stems from the unique spiritual experiences of those days, during which we all step beyond our individual selves and establish contact with the fundamental Godly spark in our souls. At the level of the soul where no separation exists between man and God, no difference exists between one man and another. On Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur we are thus able to pray together as a collective entity.
Despite the intensity of this experience, it has a drawback. Since the feeling of unity we experience during the Days of Awe stems from a level in our souls far above that of our ordinary, everyday thought processes, we may revert to a feeling of separation after the holidays have passed and we return to the realm of ordinary experience. Sukkos teaches us that we must remain unified even at the level where a person’s individual identity is taken into consideration, where one of us is an esrog and another, a willow. Although differences may exist with regard to our potential and the degree to which we have developed it, we still stand united, bound together in one collective entity.
The sequence of the holidays is vital. The all-pervasive experience of the Days of Awe and the essential awareness of unity that they evoke prepare us to for the lesson of unity Sukkos teaches. The intense spiritual service of the Days of Awe jolts us out of our self-consciousness and enables to reorient our values, so that we can relate to each of our fellow men as we ought.
This progression toward deeper unity reaches its peak on Simchas Torah, when the scholarly and the unlettered, the observant and the non-observant, Jews from every background and way of life join together in exuberant dancing with the Torah scrolls. Personal differences that would at other times divide them fade away.
This unity is given tangible expression by the custom of dancing in a circle on Simchas Torah. A circle has no beginning and no end and every point is equidistant from the center. On Simchas Torah we forget who is a “head” and who is a “tail.” A common nucleus unites us all and fuses us into a collective identity.
While Sukkos teaches us that even as individuals we stand together as a unified people, Simchas Torah takes us even further. At this time we lose all consciousness of our individual identities – we step completely beyond ourselves. The experience of Simchas Torah is not, however, a return to the level of the Days of Awe, during which we transcend our individuality through a spiritual service, linking with others above the level of ordinary experience. For on Simchas Torah, the absolute bond of togetherness is revealed within ordinary material experience, in the midst of eating, celebrating, and dancing.
But then Tishrei comes to an end and we begin a new year back in the mundane world of work, family, and relationships. Often the inspiration we received during the holidays is but a faint memory and we feel slighted, short-changed, unjustly accused, or insulted that the unity we felt so strongly is also a thing of the past. The portion of Bereshis gives us a clue as to how we should handle this.
An intriguing midrash in this week’s Torah portion relates a small but profoundly meaningful episode that transpired during the genesis of the universe, one with timeless relevance 5,769 years later. On the first Tuesday of creation, the Bible reports, the earth – and all that it contains – emerged.
“And the earth brought forth vegetation, herbage yielding seed after its kind, and trees yielding fruit.”
Yet, according to the midrash, all this changed with the discovery of iron, one of the most common elements on Earth, making up about 5 percent of the planet’s crust. Those hitherto invulnerable trees now shuddered at the prospect of being felled by metal ax blades. The trees understood full well that against the mighty iron ax they had little chance to survive. Upon hearing their laments, according to the midrash, the iron retorted, “Why are you trembling? As long as you don’t provide the wood for the axes’ handles, you will remain immune from harm.” In other words, the iron was telling the trees that it would be incapable of destroying them without their assistance. If the trees failed to contribute their wood for the ax handle, the iron’s efforts to destroy them would be futile.
This exchange between the iron and the trees is, obviously, to be understood metaphorically. What is the symbolism the rabbis are attempting to convey to us? “¨No one – that is no one – can cut you down in life without your own consent. Sure, people can be obnoxious, selfish, and insulting; they can be tough, rude, and difficult. But their attempt – consciously or subconsciously, intentionally or unintentionally – to cut you down is their business. You decide whether to grant them the permission to actually fulfill their intent. It is you who must, each and every time, empower them to destroy your mood, demolish your self-worth, and paralyze your soul.
If you want to really feel empowered to live a noble and deep life, you have to do two things. One, stop unjustly criticizing others, and two, believe in yourself, your soul, your power to do good, and continue to affect the world around you positively, despite the negativity from others. Let us all utilize to the utmost our inspiration from Rosh HaShana, Yom Kippur, Sukkos, Simchas Torah, and parshas Bereshis to make the world a better place, a world saturated with light and love for all mankind.