How Sukkot, the United States Capitol and Abe Lincoln are related – J.
The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.
One of the most impressive sites in Washington, DC is the United States Capitol. One hundred and fifty years ago, however, most of the nation was opposed to its completion.
In 1861, at the start of the Civil War, the Capitol dome was a half-built horror. Then the capital became the headquarters of the Union army, and the parks became campgrounds, while schools and federal buildings, including the Capitol, were turned into hospitals.
Washington, DC’s population grew from 60,000 to 200,000, and the streets were filled with the dying and injured. In view of the turmoil, the conventional wisdom was that the dome should therefore be left unfinished until the end of the war; at that lowest point in the republic’s history, planning a dome seemed like a luxury no one could afford.
But President Abraham Lincoln said, “If people see the Capitol continuing, it is a sign that we intend the Union to continue.” It was the bent for the future that would inspire people in the present.
So despite the terrible conflict that engulfed the nation, the dome continued to rise. And over time, from the depths, something beautifully uplifted has emerged.
More than 2,500 years before the Civil War, the Jewish capital, Jerusalem, was besieged by Babylonian armies. The destruction of the city and the exile of its inhabitants were imminent. Everyone knew it.
Amid these perilous conditions, the Prophet Jeremiah undertook one of the riskiest real estate transactions in history. Conventional wisdom was that for Jews, the real estate market in Israel was dead.
But Jeremiah bought a field in Jerusalem, publicly expressing his confidence that the Jews would return from exile. As he did so, he said: “For this is what God said… that after the exile there will be a return, and the houses, fields and vineyards will again be considered property. ” (Jeremiah 32)
His words turned out to be true.
Today Israel is a prosperous land filled with beautiful houses, fields, vineyards and shuls. Somewhere, Jeremy is smiling.
Lincoln studied the Hebrew Bible and was able to quote much of it by heart (see note below).
He knew the story of Jeremiah’s purchase and how he expressed his faith in the future. I suspect Lincoln was moved by this example when he decided to go ahead with the construction of the Capitol Dome.
Where we put our money indicates how we see the future. No matter how bleak the future looked, our ancestors had faith that we would prosper. They were ready to bet on it.
Nowhere is this faith more beautifully expressed than in the feast of Sukkot.
The Torah calls Sukkot the “season of our rejoicing.” But it is strange. For a week, we leave the comforts of our homes and live in open-air huts and in the cold and rain, with only a blanket of leaves as our roof. This is how we remember the experience of the Jews as they wandered through the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land. But why is sitting in the cold called the feast of joy?
Isn’t it more a question of survival and endurance?
This question becomes more pressing when one considers that there is no more compelling symbol of Jewish history than the sukkah, the temporary abode. For thousands of years, this is where the Jews lived. Exiled, scattered, scattered across the world, they seldom knew if next year they would still be where they were. What seemed like a home often turned out to be just a temporary abode, a sukkah.
Yet, in its depth, Judaism has declared that Sukkot was not a time of sorrow, but the “time of our rejoicing.”
What that meant was not that there was nothing to fear. There would always be a lot to fear, but the Jewish response is not paralyzed by fear but mobilized by faith.
We celebrate with eyes wide open to challenge. The Jews always knew that God was with them in the sukkah. It wasn’t that they expected God to protect them from all hardship, but rather that God would give them the resources and creativity to move forward. This is what Jérémie’s real estate transaction represented. Protected by nothing more than a sense of divine presence, our ancestors experienced difficult times, their sense of humor intact and their appetite for life intact.
Knowing that life is full of risk and still being able to celebrate knowing that God is with us, giving us the strength to take on any challenge – this is the truth that we live in Sukkot.
It is the courage to celebrate in the midst of uncertainty. To be able to sit in the sukkah, exposed to the wind and the rain, and yet sing. This is the powerful message of the feast of our joy.
To note: As historian Michael Nelson wrote: “Lincoln was consumed with the Bible, a book all of his biographers agree he had read and studied diligently since his youth. William Wolf wrote: “Lincoln’s knowledge of the Bible was so extensive that his political opponents generally found themselves on dangerous ground when they cited it against him. And Lincoln’s biographer, William Barton, wrote: Mr. Lincoln “read the Bible, honored it, quoted it freely, and it became as visible and permanent a part of him as giving shape to his literary style and his habits of thought ”.