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by Rabbi Josh Weinberg
Mark, on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the yield of your land, you shall observe the festival of the Eternal [to last] seven days: a complete rest on the first day, and a complete rest on the eighth day.
Walk around Zion, circle it; count its towers, take note of its ramparts; go through its citadels, that you may recount it to a future age.
In the olden days, Jews from the Galilee or Ashkelon – or maybe even as far as Alexandria – would come on foot, in a caravan of pilgrims, to Jerusalem. Three times a year Jews would embark on this sacred pilgrimage, reminding them of the centrality of Jerusalem, of the need to offer something of themselves in sacrifice, and of the importance of being part of something much larger than themselves or their own small community. In the days when a lit torch provided the bulk of inter-village communication, the pilgrimage was a source of social interaction, a time to share stories of success and failure, and to see those with whom one did not regularly come into contact. I can only imagine the feelings – physical and emotional – as one approached the foot of the Temple Mount, sacrifice in hand, joining the sea of fellow white-robed pilgrims, all ascending to offer a modest portion to God.
The Torah tells us that this journey should be a chag for God. Although it is generally translated as “festival” or “holy day,” chag also can mean “pilgrimage.” The word comes from the Hebrew root ח-ג-ג which means to go around or to circumambulate. Indeed, during many ancient customs, Jews would walk around the altar as part of the ceremony of sacrifice. Islamic culture picked up this motif, too, using the same word -- Hajj (חג') -- to refer to the circumambulations around the Ka’abah in Mecca that is part of a journey known colloquially as a “pilgrimage.”
Tonight begins the holiday of Sukkot, when many of us will shed the comforts of shingled roofs and insulation for our sukkot – temporary outdoor structures where we will eat, socialize, and spend time during the coming week. For many of today's North American Jews, though, the notion of pilgrimage has fallen by the wayside, left solely to the pages of Torah and history.
For many Israelis, the modern State of Israel afforded the opportunity to reinvent Jewish life as it was known in the Diaspora. The early pioneers and founders of the Jewish State aspired to reintroduce ancient customs, promoting the idea that the modern state is the continuation of the biblical kingdom, and actively renewing the experience of Jewish sovereignty and ownership of the Land of Israel. The three pilgrimage holidays – Sukkot, Passover, and Shavuot – took on this altneu (old-new) meaning. Shavuot became a time to bring forth our own bikkurim (first fruits), Passover took on a whole new meaning as a holiday of freedom for the worker, as well as a spring festival, and Sukkot – for some – once again became a chance to make pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
Early in its history, the modern State of Israel reinstated a multi-day march during which military units, youth groups, and citizens from various backgrounds came together and camped in the Judean Hills on the way to Jerusalem. Today, it is a symbolic walk around Jerusalem, largely seen as belonging to the national religious movement, especially those who wish to see the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem and a reinstitution of the sacrificial rite. For the rest of us, it is a day on which to avoid driving in Jerusalem to steer clear of the procession that gridlocks the ancient thoroughfares.
This January, Jews throughout the world will have an opportunity to vote to send modern-day pilgrims to Jerusalem as delegates to the 37th World Zionist Congress, the body that convenes every five years to elect officers and develop policies of the World Zionist Organization (WZO) and the Jewish Agency. A large delegation of Progressive and Reform Jews in the World Zionist Congress will ensure not only that our values – including gender and religious equality – are represented in the work of the body, but also that such organizations in Israel receive a portion of the funds available from the WZO and the Jewish Agency. It is imperative, therefore, that you pledge now to vote for ARZA (which represents Reform Judaism in the World Zionist Congress) and cast your vote in January’s WZO election. Please join us in supporting this important pilgrimage for our own day.
Chag Sukkot Sameach!
Rabbi Josh Weinberg is president of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA), which, in 2008, was part of a coalition comprising the largest faction in the World Zionist Congress.