Hag Sukkot and the Hajj: Mourn 700, Celebrate 70

ברוך דיין אמת.

700 dead on a pilgrimage is a tragedy for all people. For religion, it’s horrifying, since they clearly were going there to merely fulfill an obligation and to have a major spiritual experience.

There’s no mockery in my voice. There’s no schadenfreude in my words here. Just days ahead of Sukkot, a holiday known in Jewish history and law for its universal themes, this is a particular tragedy to mark. This time of year, Sukkot especially, is considered the pinpoint of joint Jewish and non-Jewish worship at the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.

In Judaism, a pilgrimage is called a Hagg – the exact term used in Islam, the Hajj. Judaism requires three pilgrimages a year to the Temple, while Islam requires the Hajj be performed once in a lifetime.

It’s a prophecy of the Prophet Zechariah that in the future, after great trials and tribulations, that the peoples of the world will make pilgrimage just like the people of Israel – the Jewish people – precisely on Sukkot. Not on the other major Jewish pilgrimages of Passover and Shavuot, but on Sukkot.

The reasons Rabbis have given over the centuries for that are all kind of fluffy to be honest. There is a peculiar number of bulls that have to be sacrificed over the seven-day festival, 70 (Number 29:12-18), which corresponds to the number of nations the Torah recounts existed in the aftermath of the Great Flood. Seventy stands in as a symbol for ‘everything,’ but the great Rabbi Eliezer mentioned in the Talmud says the number definitely refers to the other peoples of the world (Tractate Sukkah 55b). He is almost undoubtedly piggybacking off Zechariah’s prophecy, but his simple one-sentence metaphor has fed hundreds of holiday speeches on the idea of Sukkot being a universal holiday. Sukkot is a time to invite everyone into the literal and proverbial tabernacle we build outside our home, outside our comfort zones, and party to great food and music and tidings for a peaceful future.

Sukkot prayers at the Western Wall holding the lulav, the etrog, the myrtle branches and willow branches (CC BY 2.5 Pikiwikisrael via Wikimedia Commons)

Sukkot prayers at the Western Wall holding the lulav, the etrog, the myrtle branches and willow branches (CC BY 2.5 Pikiwikisrael via Wikimedia Commons)

It shouldn’t be lost on anyone that the imbroglio of illustrating this prophetic peace is the job of the religious leaders who are the most in tune with their congregants’ emotions and passions. Jews and Muslims are not at peace with each other despite all those rhetorical similarities. But let’s cut back on these token qualifiers and “buts” for a moment. We know all this shit is difficult. Forget it for a second.

As an Orthodox Jew aspiring to reinstate the annual trio of pilgrimages to Jerusalem, it is a pain to see 700 people fulfilling the exact same obligation die while doing it for no other reason other than some terrible accident of planning. I want Zechariah’s prophecy to mean something in this day and age. Sukkot’s redemptive power is a universal one, as the sacrifices brought tie in with a season of redemption on the heals of Yom Kippur but extending the forgiveness toward Jews through a network to atone for all the peoples of the world.

If I want Muslims to relate to my holiday of Sukkot for its universal redemption and for God’s atonement of all other peoples, in order to appreciate where I am coming from when I pray for the restoration of the Holy Temple in a disputed spot, then I must not ignore the tragedy of 700 pious people dying simply performing something they too recognize has restorative spiritual implications for the entire world.

It is simply the wrong kind of wailing to hear at such a holy occasion.

Thousands of Muslims perform the Hajj in Mecca (CC BY SA 2.0 Al Jazeera English via Wikimedia Commons)

Thousands of Muslims perform the Hajj in Mecca (CC BY SA 2.0 Al Jazeera English via Wikimedia Commons)

As Jews linger and wait for the chance to make their trek back to the Temple, there is a sense of awe I have at hearing so many people make such a trip to Saudi Arabia. If only we could appreciate that what we aspire to do for ourselves is just the same what our cousins aspire to do for themselves, we could all be that much closer to a real and not fantasized peace.

There was one study in 2008 that wrote what was probably obvious for a lot of Muslims: the feeling of openness, euphoria and release from the Hajj carries over into how Hajjis view other people when they return home. There is a hint of something new, a calm to be desired that they see as being implementable throughout the world, that Muslims and non-Muslims can live together in harmony. The stories of a universal Sukkot and global harmony are not a fantasy – they are happening in Mecca. They will happen in Jerusalem. For Jews, the future of Sukkot as a holiday of peace will happen. There will be open arms. We will see it soon through divine action or our own hands to make it happen.

May we merit a Sukkot where we see a bright light ahead, where we see the glory of God’s splendor radiating from Mt. Moriah in Jerusalem for Israel and all peoples. May the aftermath of tragedy at this year’s Hajj not obscure the awakening 2 million Muslims experienced. May we all merit the day we celebrate together, pray for rain together, sing and eat dates together (since, you know, fruit is less complicated than having kosher and hallal meat at the same table). A Happy Sukkot to all. May we all complete our pilgrimages as God has demanded of us, very soon and in our lifetimes.

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