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Home » Sukkot

Sukkot: Earthquake in Jerusalem

Submitted by on September 17, 2013 – 4:56 pmNo Comment | 7,417 views

Mount of Olives

On the first day of Sukkot, the Haftorah reading is from Zacharia, chapter 14. In verse four the prophet tells us that in the Messianic age, “the Mount of Olives will split at its center eastward and westward, making a huge ravine, half the mountain will move northward and half southward.”

What is the purpose of this earthquake and why do we read about this during Sukkot? Most commentaries understood the sudden explosion of a stable mountain far removed from active fault lines as a grand display of G-d’s might. The connection to Sukkot is that in the Messianic age all nations will join Israel in the Sukkah.[1]

However, a central tenet of our understanding is that Torah speaks to us in the language of man, but alludes to matters of heaven.[2] Prophecies, especially Messianic prophecies, were often written in deep code; mysterious and wondrous teachings hidden in enigmatic riddles. This particular prophecy was decoded by Jewish mystics giving us a brief glimpse into a world of enlightened insight.[3]

Water and Wine
A regular feature of the sacrificial rite in the ancient Temple was the wine libation. The only time a liquid other than wine was used was during Sukkot, when in addition to wine, water was poured over the altar.

The difference between water and wine is that wine has a bouquet whereas water does not. Wine is an enjoyable drink and different bouquets appeal to different palates. Some wines go well with fish others with meat and yet others with poultry. Water is always the same. It is refreshing, perhaps the most refreshing drink in existence, the elixir of life, but it is not flavorful or delicious.

In the culinary arena flavor creates an enjoyable experience. In the conceptual arena, it is understanding that results in an enjoyable experience. Flavor and understanding are related, in Hebrew they share the same word. The word taam, means both taste and understanding. When we understand the reasons behind a ritual, we enjoy the ritual experience. When we are given understanding, we enjoy the learning experience. Wine, the flavorful and tasty experience represents the enhanced enjoyment one has when serving G-d from a standpoint of knowledge and understanding.

It now makes sense that sacrifices on the Altar were accompanied by libations of wine. The sacrificial rite was a tasteful and understandable form of worship. Adding wine to the rite was a logical proposition. The question is why water was added to the mix. What does water represent?

As mentioned earlier, water might not be flavorful, but it is the elixir of life. When we are parched and dry, a glass of cold water is restorative. In the spiritual / conceptual sense this refers to a deeper experience of the ritual than the one occasioned by understanding.

This is the experience of innocence. Ignorance is bliss, goes the aphorism, because there is something to be said for the wholesome unreserved embrace of the ritual that results from ignorance. Knowledge enhances our enjoyment of the ritual experience, but the joy is tailored to our knowledge. One with greater knowledge enjoys the Mitzvah more than one with lesser knowledge. Yet, the simplistic enthusiasm with which the ignoramus embraces the ritual surpasses even the highest level of understanding.

One might form the impression that we celebrate ignorance, but this is not the case. We don’t seek the absence of knowledge, but the transcendence of knowledge. The water over the altar proclaimed that after Yom Kippur, when G-d is encountered in the Holy of Holies, we are capable of transcending our personal understanding of G-d and embrace Him in wholesome and simplistic purity.

Olives and Oil
If wine is knowledge and water is the transcendence of knowledge, oil is the essence of our bond with G-d. The intensity of this bond is experienced only in tribulation. When the occasion arises to die for G-d, our essential bond with G-d emerges driving us to prefer death over severing ties with G-d. Life is precious, but without G-d, it is of no value. When we are made to choose, it is our essential bond with G-d that enables us to die for Him.

Just as oil emerges only when the olive is pressed so does the clarity of our bond with G-d emerge only when oppressed. Our wine connection with G-d can be self-stimulated through study. Our water connection with G-d is stimulated by the holy aura of the holiday. Our oil connection with G-d is rare and occasioned only by oppression. When our bond with G-d is threatened, our essence rises and prevails.

This explains why oil emerges from olives. Though olives are sour and oil is pleasant, one comes from the other because it is only the sour experience of oppression that stimulates our desperate desire for G-d even at the price of life.

It would be wonderful if we could stimulate this deep bond with G-d at will, but this is not possible. As a mother’s superhuman abilities emerge only when her child is in crisis so does our essential bond with G-d lurk in the background only to emerge in crisis.[4]

Earthquake on the Mount of Olives
We would like to experience this bond and be completely suffused with holiness at all times. The spirituality that Rabbi Akiva experienced when he was executed in sanctification of G-d’s name must have been sublime. We would like to live this way, rather than experience it only in the throes of death. In other words we want to live for G-d with the same intensity that we die for G-d.

This will occur in the Messianic age. At that time G-d’s presence will be as obvious and manifest to us as the earth, sun and the sky is today. We will see G-d just as we see each other today. It will be just as palpable and just as real. At that time we will have the oil without the olive, the essential bond with G-d without the sour experience of oppression.

This is the hidden meaning behind the prophecy of the earthquake. The Mount of Olives was once an olive grove. In today’s world olives only produce oil when they are pressed, but by opening a wide chasm in the Mount of Olives the prophet signals that on that day the path to our absolute and intense bond with G-d will be accessible at all times. The earthquake with crack the mountain open and we will be able to access the (symbolic) oil within the olive without needing to press it.

That will be a glorious time. It will transcend wine, water and even the current version of oil. It would be constant and eternal; G-d and humanity will veritably fuse into one. G-d will be as real to us as the physical world is today and we will live and breathe the Torah. On Sukkot when we rise to the level of water we pine for oil. We know it can come only in oppression, which is why we pray for the Messianic time, when the mountain will open wide and the source of oil will be available to all.

[1] See commentaries to Zachariah 14:4 and the footnote in the Stone Edition of the Artscrol Chumash p. 1241.

[2] See Nachmanidies’ introduction to his Torah commentary.

[3] For the following explanation see Sefer Mamarim 5718, essay on Sukkot and Kabbalistic sources cited there.

[4] This is why physical oil is not consumed as a drink the way wine and water is. It infuses flavor or fuels a flame from its quiet position in the background.