One of the unique features of the Sukkot service in the Beit HaMikdash was the daily offering of bulls, with the number declining from thirteen on the first day to seven on the seventh and last day. Throughout the holiday of Sukkot, a total of seventy bulls were offered, corresponding to the proverbial seventy nations of the world.
These bulls served as atonement for their sins, which would ensure that they, too, were blessed with heavenly rain and prosperity.
“Rabbi Yochanan said: Woe to the idolaters who lost something and they don’t know what they lost. For when the Beit HaMikdash existed, the altar atoned for them. And now [with the Temple destroyed], who will atone for them?” (Masechet Sukkah 55b)
Indeed, who – or what – atones for the nations of the world today?
As we celebrate Sukkot this year, it is clear that the world is troubled. From threats of nuclear war emanating from North Korea to the scourge of radical Islamic terror that has Europeans experiencing the anxieties to which Israelis have long become accustomed, world peace, harmony, and even coexistence seem like unattainable fantasies.
Some nations still lift their swords against other nations but more lethal weapons and a dearth of elementary humanity are more typical. It is a world in need of atonement, which means a redirection of its energies and objectives.
Perhaps even worse than the geopolitical nightmares that abound is the collapse of the universal morality that mankind honored for centuries, if not millennia. Even if failures were frequent, hypocrisy not uncommon, and the perpetration of horrors rationalized, at least there was always a sense that an objective morality existed and that the Divine Will needed to be ascertained and implemented.
But God has largely disappeared from Western society and His will no longer inspires the moral conclusions of mankind. Biblical sins have been nullified and marriage has been redefined.
For the first time in history, more American adults are unmarried than are married. The European birthrate is below replacement level and its eventual decline and transformation seems inevitable. Acts that once were considered unseemly and properly kept private are today routinely publicized and lionized. All sense of propriety has been shaken.
Something changed dramatically in Western society over the past century, for the worse, and the dividing line seems to be the 1960s.
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Sin existed before the 1960s, of course, and while all the moral maladies of modern man were extant, they were kept hidden for the sake of propriety. It was assumed that certain vices (say, adultery) were wrong, even despicable, and polite society could not tolerate them.
But what was considered scandalous, appalling, and reprehensible in Hollywood sixty years ago is de rigueur today – and, properly marketed, can even boost one’s career rather than kill it. Not that long ago, having a child out of wedlock was shocking and unwed mothers gave birth in hiding. Today, roughly 40 percent of American children are born out of wedlock, and even the term “wedlock” is derided.
Alternative lifestyles are celebrated, and even many Jews have embraced the modern amorality. Respect for authority – parental, political, or religious – has deteriorated, exactly as the Mishnah (Masechet Sotah 49b) predicted would happen in the pre-Messianic era.
God’s will as explicated in the Torah is immaterial to an increasing number of Jews whose values are rooted in the prevailing liberal orthodoxies and are accordingly malleable.
Atheism has always existed (Tehillim 14:1) but has had a renaissance in the modern world. More than 10 percent of Americans consider themselves atheists, less than two-thirds characterize themselves as religious in any sense, and the trends are not positive.
Traditional morality is mocked as antiquated, parochial, narrow-minded, bigoted, intolerant, mean-spirited, and worthy of suppression, while the new notions are lauded as progressive, enlightened, tolerant, sophisticated, and assumed in polite company to be the societal norms that must be shared by all right-thinking people. It has been a dramatic shift in attitudes.
What changed in the 1960s?
Some look to the Kennedy and King assassinations, the civil unrest in American cities, or liberal Supreme Court decisions that removed God from the classroom and overturned laws that attempted to regulate private behavior. Others point to the Vietnam War, Woodstock, and even later to Watergate as the watershed moments.
Certainly they all played a role, but they are more symptoms than causes of the moral transformation of American life.
To me – and this is pure speculation – the turning point in the modern history of the world, as strange as it sounds on the surface, was Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War of 1967, the 50th anniversary of which we celebrated a few months ago.
Allow me to explain. One of the grandest prophecies in the Torah –one that is being fulfilled before our eyes – is God’s promise to restore the Jewish people to the land of Israel before the end of days.
“And God will bring back your captivity and have mercy on you…” (Devarim 30:3).
Rashi notes the grammatically arcane use of the verb “v’shav” instead of “v’haishiv,” and comments (citing Masechet Megillah 29a) that God, in a sense, returns from the exile with us.
“It is as if the Divine presence rests with Israel in the hardship of exile, and when they are redeemed, He includes Himself in the redemption and He returns with them.”
Here is my theory. The Divine presence went into exile with us almost two millennia ago and has now returned with “your captivity” to Yerushalayim and the land of Israel.
It was the triumph of the Six-Day War, Israel’s liberation of Yerushalayim, and especially Jewish sovereignty over the Temple Mount – after nineteen centuries – that symbolized God’s return. If every day for millennia we prayed several times, “May our eyes behold Your return to Zion in mercy,” Jews fifty years ago witnessed it.
If we bless God as “the One who restores His presence to Zion,” we have been blessed and fortunate to have seen the beginning of that process.
But if we posit that during the exile, Shechinta b’galuta, the Divine Presence was in the exile alongside us, then it is also true that with the return of the Divine Presence to Israel and Yerushalayim, the Shechinah has receded from the exile, from America, Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa, home to most Jews for nearly two millennia.
As the Divine Presence in the exile began to retreat in the 1960s (and do note that the first breaches in the moral order occurred in the early 1960s), as Yerushalayim became sovereign Jewish territory, and as Jews flocked to the land of Israel from across the globe, God’s “presence” among those nations declined and began to disappear.
As a consequence, His moral norms that had guided Western man for centuries began to depart from public life as well. In their place, modern man has substituted immorality, even an inversion of morality, dysfunction, breakdown of the family, loss of values (even while paying lip service to values), and loss of shame.
With a loss of the Divine Presence among them, the nations of the world began to create their own moral norms, fabricate their own value systems, and not a small number of Westerners have fancied their conclusions as reflecting a morality superior to the one that God offered His subjects, both Jews and gentiles.
It is a new world in which even mentioning God in public is mocked by the self-styled elites. Note as well that the intermarriage rate among
Jews, which hovered around 5 percent until the 1960s, has skyrocketed since.
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Certainly God’s “glory fills the entire universe” (Yeshayahu 6:3). That can and will never change. God as Creator wills the world into continued existence and guides mankind according to His providence.
But His presence – the sense of immanence and nearness that people have to Him and His morality – is variable and depends on time and place. People perceive it differently depending on their individual spiritual levels.
The Divine Presence, however, never departs from the Kotel Hama’aravi, the Western Wall of the Temple (Midrash Rabbah Shemot 2:2).
There are times during the year when we feel that God is especially close to us, such as the Days of Repentance just past, the holiday seasons generally (Masechet Rosh Hashanah 18a), and in our sukkot.
And of course there are remnants of the Divine Presence in the exile as well. God’s presence is found wherever a minyan gathers to daven (Masechet Berachot 6a), wherever ten people sit together and learn Torah, and even wherever one person learns by himself (Masechet Avot 3:6).
But whereas the Shechinah was centered in the exile during our long sojourn there, it is now, again, centered in the land of Israel and it is experienced less and less in the exile. Consequently, its influence on the nations has declined and is evaporating along with the traditional moral order.
The Six-Day War may have been the turning point, but the return of the Divine Presence to the land of Israel and its concomitant withdrawal from the exile is a gradual process. As such, the attrition of the basic moral norms unfolded over the course of several decades, with each new divergence causing a brief stir among those still guided by biblical morality but then quickly becoming accepted as the new normal.
Traditionalists, who are often treated today as “heretics” from the prevailing political correctness, have suffered legally and socially. Christians, for example, who do not wish to lend their personal services to same-sex weddings that offend their consciences, have been sued, prosecuted, and persecuted through social media. Some have been hounded from their jobs and communities. The same could easily happen to religious Jews.
What is widely construed as progress and advanced thinking is actually a regression to the morality of the primitive ancients. With God’s presence in the exile waning, those who cling to faith are perceived as archaic and intolerant – the exact opposite of the customary respect society had for people of faith for centuries.
The very notion of God has been whittled down to some fuzzy notion of “what feels good or right” and the idea of God as Creator, King, and Lawgiver no longer animates most of Western society. A Gallup poll found that 10 percent of Americans were atheists in 2016; in 1967, the figure was 1 percent.
One might ask: if this is true, and the Divine Presence has relocated to Israel, then why is there such aggressive secularization occurring in some parts of Israel today? But that, too, is to be expected, in order to keep the scales of free choice balanced. Increased spirituality has always been countered by increased sacrilege.
The revelation at Sinai was followed by the sin of the golden calf, the First Temple era saw rampant idolatry, there were immoral scenes within sight of the Second Temple, etc. The return of the Shechinah has precipitated attacks on the dissemination of Torah in the IDF, secular schools, and elsewhere in Israel. The pendulum swings both ways, but the process is irreversible.
Is there any hope for the future of Western civilization, at least in the short term? When the Beit HaMikdash stood, when God’s presence was manifest to all who visited and His moral code was clear, concise, and compelling, the altar and the seventy offerings of Sukkot atoned for the nations of the world.
“And now [with the Temple destroyed], who will atone for them?” What will atone for them – and for us?
Already, more than half the world’s Jewish population resides in Israel. This is a momentous development and will further propel the world to the glorious era when “the Torah will go forth from Zion and the word of God from Yerushalayim (Yeshayahu 2:3).
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The world certainly could benefit from a return of the Jewish people to Jewish values. That remains the primary role of Jews still in the exile – the propagation of true Jewish values rather than the parroting of secular clichés and platitudes. Jews must speak of Jewish values without fear or hesitation and must never conflate secular values with Jewish values.
We do ourselves and the world a disservice when we adopt the moral norms of others as “Jewish” (merely because some Jews profess them) and seek to tack Torah values to the prevailing winds of modern society.
It is important to reiterate that, with all the hostility we have felt from the nations of the world in the past, and from many in the present, the Jewish people still retain responsibility for the well-being of all God’s creatures.
Our dissemination of true Jewish values, with sensitivity and courage, can bring atonement to the nations as did the seventy offerings of Sukkot in the Beit HaMikdash. But we are not simply universalists. There is majesty to our unique relationship with God, the mission with which He entrusted us, the covenant that is 3,800 years old, and the splendor and even the vicissitudes of our nation.
We celebrate that uniqueness in the sukkah, the shelter and symbol of faith. And after the seventy offerings of Sukkot on behalf of the nations of the world, we tarry for one more day with God and offer just one bull as God celebrates with the one nation that bears His name and whose existence depends on His Providence.
On Sukkot, with joy and gratitude, we rejoice in the restoration of the Divine Presence to its natural locale and recommit ourselves to seeking atonement for ourselves and the world – nudging mankind forward to the era of true redemption.