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Sukkot: The Nexus Point

From: Conservative Judaism
Volume 63, Number 4, Summer 2012
pp. 101-107 | 10.1353/coj.2012.0048

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

The nexus between soul and body is a key spiritual location for Judaism. Soloveitchik contrasts religious man (or homo religiosus), the person of religion as understood by Rudolf Otto,1 with halakhic man, an idealized person living in the world of Jewish law. A key element of the comparison, that which is distinctive of Judaism, is this emphasis on the necessary connection between body and soul. Soloveitchik says,

Halakhic man differs both from homo religiosus, who rebels against the rule of reality and seeks refuge in a supernal world, and from cognitive man, who does not encounter any transcendence.2

The halakhic individual strives not to get into heaven but to make a heaven on earth.3 In other words, human experience, the nexus point between soul and body, is the key location in which we discover spiritual possibility. The psychotherapist Ernest Becker alerts us to the horror and the glory of this meeting place in his book The Denial of Death. He says,

Man is literally split in two: he has an awareness of his own splendid uniqueness in that he sticks out of nature with a towering majesty and yet he goes back into the ground a few feet in order blindly and dumbly to rot and disappear forever.4

The month of Tishrei, filled with Jewish celebration, mirrors this dichotomy between body and soul that exists within Jewish theology. Sukkot in particular, with its incredibly physical and tangible mitzvot, draws attention to the role of the physical body in discovering holiness. The Torah language itself is sensual:

On the first day you shall take the product of lovely trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Eternal, your God, seven days.5

Rashi comments on this verse that “fruit and wood must be equivalent.” Thus we have to find the wonderful produce of beautiful trees.6 An etrog has a wonderful aroma and strong taste. “Willows of the brook” is an unusually poetic image in the otherwise straightforward description of the holy day practices. Sukkot immerses us in the realm of beauty and nature and sensuality. Bodily, sensual commandments impel halakhic man to notice the holy around him.

The rabbis illustrate this nexus, this junction point, in the following talmudic legend. A blind man and a lame man are standing guard over the orchard of the king. The lame man says to the blind man, “Look, there are some fine fruits here!” The lame man then rides on the back of the blind man to pick the fruit and they eat it. The king sees that his fruit has been eaten and has the two men brought before him. They plead for mercy. The blind man says, “How could I have robbed your orchard? I couldn’t even see the fruit to steal it!” The lame man says, “For me too, I could never have climbed the fence to even enter the orchard!” “Ah,” says the king, “I know exactly what happened. The lame man directed the blind man to the tree. He then climbed on his back to pick it, and you shared the fruit of your sin!” So it is with us, says the Talmud. God hurls the soul into the body and judges them both together. Sin is possible only when both the soul and the body work together.7

This talmudic source makes a claim startling to both the religious individual and to the cognitive. The soul is no more or less pure than the body. Further, the body may indeed lead us into temptation, but the soul does so as well. Yet for the halakhic individual, for the person who lives in the world of Jewish law, nothing could be more obvious. The body has appetite but only the soul knows desire. Sin is born out of the joining of appetite and desire.

Though the Talmud puts this equation in the negative, focusing on sin, the reverse is also true. A person cannot perform good deeds without that same meeting of body and soul. Mitzvot are all about the holy expression of appetite and desire.

This dilemma of body and...

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