People often ask me if Judaism is a universalist or particularist religion, seeking the betterment of humankind or only of Jews.
On the universalist side, virtually every concept of equality, human rights, personal freedom and global responsibility are from the Torah. On the other hand, the Torah seems to constantly direct Jews to take an interest in other Jews – to love them, to support them, to live together with them. We ask the Almighty to bestow peace, freedom, success and health to other Jews.
The relationship between the recent holidays of Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret may provide an answer to this fundamental question.
Sukkot teaches us the importance of universalism – the need for Jews to play a role in the greater community. Over the course of the holiday, we offer 70 sacrifices, each symbolizing a nation of the world. It is thus on Sukkot that we look outward and see how we can make the world a better place.
Meanwhile, only one sacrifice is offered on Shemini Atzeret, symbolizing the Jewish people. This lone sacrifice exhibits the need to be particularist if we want to survive. We cannot be effective in improving the world if our families are in pain. We cannot convey a message of equality and human rights if our fellow Jews are not cared for.
If we spend all of our time fighting world injustice, who will care for the Jews? Who will see that our families and communities are safe, supported and well? We need to make sure that we do not forget those closest to us in our efforts to be good neighbours to the rest of the world.
The connection between these holidays shows us that Judaism cannot be universalist or particularist, but one tempered with the other. Judaism sees particularism as the foundation of our ability to be universalist.