13. The Jews and the Nations of the World

Sukkot is special in that the nations of the world also have a part in it. The Sages say that the seventy bulls that we are commanded to sacrifice during the seven days of Sukkot correspond to the seventy nations of the world (Sukka 55b). As we have already learned (section 7 above), on Sukkot it is revealed that nothing is not connected to sanctity, so the positive value of the world’s nations is illuminated as well. The order in which the sacrifices are offered is unusual. On the first day we offer thirteen bulls, on the second day twelve. The numbers continue to descend each day, until on the seventh day we offer seven bulls (Bamidbar 29:12-34). The idea is that on the inside, deep down, the root of every nation in the world is good, though sometimes their actions manifest terrible evil. It is therefore necessary to separate the good from the bad. By gradually decreasing the number of sacrificial bulls, the negative forces dissipate until, on the seventh day, we offer only seven, the number that is most suitable for revealing sanctity in this world, which was created in seven days (Ein Ayah on Shabbat 2:7).

The prophet Zechariah teaches us that in the future, Sukkot will serve as a litmus test for the nations of the world. Those who ascend to Jerusalem to worship God and to celebrate with the Jewish people will merit great blessing, as we read:

All who survive of all those nations that came up against Jerusalem shall make a pilgrimage year by year to bow low to the King, Lord of Hosts, and to observe the festival of Sukkot. Any of the earth’s peoples that do not make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem to bow low to the King, Lord of Hosts, shall receive no rain. If the Egyptian people do not go up…the Lord will bring on them the plague He inflicts on the nations that do not go up to celebrate the festival of Sukkot. Such shall be the punishment of Egypt and of all other nations that do not come up to observe the festival of Sukkot…. (Zechariah 14:16-19)

Our relationship with non-Jews is complicated. Over the course of our long history, they have often treated us very badly; nevertheless, our basic attitude toward them is positive. The Sages tell us, “Woe to the non-Jews, who sustained a loss that they are not even aware of. During Temple times, the altar atoned for them. Now, what atones for them?” (Sukka 55b). A midrash makes a similar point. “Israel said: ‘Master of the world, we sacrifice seventy bulls on their behalf. By rights they should love us. Yet they hate us!’ The verse (Tehilim 109:4) attests to this, stating, ‘They repay my love with accusations, but I continue to pray’” (Bamidbar Rabba 21:24).

Zohar explains in many places that we offer seventy bulls for the seventy nations out of love, in order to increase abundance and blessing for them (Zohar I 221a; III 256a). Even if they hate us, by offering the bulls on their behalf, we ensure that they are too preoccupied with their bounty to torment us (ibid. I 64a; II 187a). Ultimately, though, if they are ingrates and still hate us out of wickedness, the abundance they receive will become a stumbling block for them. Mishlei (25:21-22) attests to this: “If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink. You will be heaping live coals on his head, and the Lord will reward you” (Zohar III 259a and 24a-b).

The responsibility that we show for the entire world reveals more of Israel’s special qualities. These qualities find expression on Shemini Atzeret, when we experience the special love between God and Israel. For this reason, we offer only one bull then. In the words of our Sages (Sukka 55b), “Why do we offer only a single bull on Shemini Atzeret? It corresponds to a singular nation. This can be compared to a king of flesh and blood who told his servants, ‘Make me a big feast.’ Then on the last day of the celebration he said to his favorite, ‘Make me a small banquet, so that I can enjoy your company alone.’” (See 7:2 below.)

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Translated By:
Series Editor: Rabbi Elli Fischer

The Laws of Shabbat (1+2) - Yocheved Cohen
The Laws of Prayer - Atira Ote
The Laws of Women’s Prayer - Atira Ote
The Laws of Pesach - Joshua Wertheimer
The Laws of Zemanim - Moshe Lichtman

Editor: Nechama Unterman