There are two common approaches to viewing time, and particularly to viewing the yearly cycle of Jewish events and the festivals. One approach consults the calendar, takes note of the important dates, and tries to best coordinate these important events with one’s already demanding schedule. Indeed the past few weeks stand out as one of the biggest challenges of the year. The other approach takes a more investigative viewpoint, attempting to track the movement between the many festivals and uncover an underlying pattern within this pulsation of auspicious events, seeking out the ways in which they can enhance our life. The Talmud phrases it elegantly by saying that people worry a lot about finances and do not worry about time. Really, it should be the opposite for money is retrievable, time is not.
Seen in this light, each Jewish holiday possesses its unique charm and offers an opportunity not found within the rest of the year. King Solomon originally declared the famous words “For everything there is an appointed season, and there is a time for every matter under the heavens… a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time of wailing and a time of dancing…” And this month seems to have it all. While Chanukah, Purim, Pesach and Shavuot are conveniently spread out, this month of Tishrei is an exception.
Appropriately termed the “satiated month” in the Jewish calendar, Tishrei is packed with a stream of festivals, customs, and events that provide a wide array of colorful images, melodies, emotional vibrations and moods. What began a week ago with the Jewish New Year, a more serious encounter as we entered the mystifying atmosphere of the “Days of Awe” will soon end with an entirely different flavor- the “time of our happiness”- during Sukkot and Simchat Torah. While all the festivals carry a certain amount of joy- “you shall rejoice in your festivals”- it is the festival of Sukkot that merits the title “the time of our rejoicing.” Customarily, there has always been an extra dose of happiness associated with these days.
As we currently stand in the middle of this month overflowing with festivities, many of us have not yet managed to catch our breath. Before we emerge from this whirlwind of experiences, it may be appropriate to take a step back and reflect on what has taken place over the past few weeks: On Rosh Hashanah- “the Day of Judgment”- families and friends gathered together in prayer and witnessed the resounding call of the Shofar that sought to stir that deeper voice inside us. Leaving the Synagogue, we arrived home to a table full of close family and guests, a table glowing with fresh round loaves of raisin bread and the sweet welcoming taste of apples dipped in honey and all looked forward to a new beginning- a “sweet new year.”
Shortly afterwards, came the more solemn experience of the “Day of Atonement,” that all too important day that we also can’t wait to end. We entered the synagogue dressed in white garb to symbolizing the cleansing, a transformation of the “scarlet sins” into the untainted purity of white. With weak bodies and dry mouths we called on the little remaining strength we had to utter a final appeal for the blessings of the New Year. After standing for long hours in a packed room, the famous Neilah service finally arrived and we suddenly gained our second wind as the gates of Heaven began to close.
And just when it might seem that the hard work is done for the year, with little time to think we will rush into the busied joy of Sukkot, leaving the comfort of our houses to take refuge in the more wholesome hues of the browns and oranges in the Sukkah, the shades of green in the willow branches of the Lulav, and the bright yellow Etrog. The festivity will then culminate as we take to the streets in celebration, dancing, and holding firmly to the “Tree of Life”- the decorated Torah scrolls. It is certainly a full month.
What’s behind this array of special days in the Jewish calendar? When looking at the progression of these events, an obvious question comes to mind: the connection between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur is somewhat clear (“On Rosh Hashana we are written, on Yom Kippur we are sealed…”) but when it comes to the timing of Sukkot one might wonder- couldn’t G-d find a better date in the calendar to insert this eight day festival? Wouldn’t it be more effective to provide a week or two- to let us recover from the previous two holidays- before thrusting us into a marathon of celebration?
The answer lies in the deeper meaning of and relationship between these holidays and moods. Outwardly these festivals reflect distinct events. Yom Kippur marks the day when Moses came down from the mountain with the second tablets. We relive this as the “day of atonement.” Sukkot is the last of the harvest festivals when the produce was finally brought into to homes to enjoy. Yom Kippur is a time to cry. Sukkot is a time to rejoice. But inwardly, these two holidays and their emotions are very much connected- both historically and as we relive them today.
As discussed the past few weeks, the period leading up to Sukkot is permeated with a temper of introspection and renewal. We are prompted to review our lives, our decisions, and to make appropriate resolutions. When looking back at many of our previous decisions, we often encounter memories of youth or misjudgment, moments that we wish we could take back; moments when reminded about, we cringe and say “I’m so embarrassed that I did that!” But as the laws of nature have it, we cannot go back in time and erase their occurrence. All we can hope is that others don’t remember it as well as we do, that these memories get forgotten or buried somewhere deep in people’s minds or in existence.
Then comes the remarkable message and insight of Yom Kippur- a day that we are granted “atonement.” The Jewish concept of “atonement” includes more than forgiveness. It is an accomplishment that does more than just “get us off the hook.” While people may be more selective in what they choose to dismiss or less forgiving in their collection of our past, the power of this day offers a type of metaphysical miracle in which any trace of our negative actions are not only forgotten, but erased from history. To get there we must first do our part to review our actions, we must pray, and we must fast. But the promise of this day is, in many ways, a cause for celebration.
As we stand on this day of awe, on the one hand are weak, we are tired, and we are serious. On the other hand, we sense that we will emerge from this marathon a new and better person. Unlike a more trivial or superficial exuberance, this emotion is more silent within us- perhaps choosing to behave more respectfully. It is a joy that needs time to be digested before rushing to advertise itself. And its transformation into the mode of a more overt celebration depends on its absorption into our psyche, just as the happiness of the bride and groom on their wedding day begins as a contained emotion under the Chupah before exploding into a more visible elation as they enter the banquet hall. In our present occupation with the task at hand, we pull back and save our outward expression of joy for the holiday that will follow- for Sukkot.
Thus, the joy that we feel on Sukkot is the outward expression of the inner emotion of Yom Kippur. It is a unique form of happiness, one that we have earned through our effort and our tears. In the past Sukkot marked the harvest festival when one brought the produce home. While we no longer identify with the enjoyment of agricultural harvesting, we reap the benefits of the internal plowing and harvesting that has taken place.
This emotional cycle stems from a long history, one that began with the famous scene in which Moses, after descending the mountain to find the people he had led just a short while ago out of slavery worshipping the Golden Calf. Upon witnessing this most dreadful sight, he then displayed a dramatic response- smashing the tablets that just a short while before stood as the crown of a new nation. With this failure of the Jewish people began a new period of uncertainty at their future; a once cherished nation was now at risk of reaching the point of no return in their relationship with G-d.
A slow and deliberate process of repair came to a close on that unforgettable day when Moses descended once again with a new set of tablets, a sign of G-d’s ultimate forgiveness. These second set of tablets then were a symbol of, not only of the Jewish peoples triumph in recovering after a such great spiritual fall, but of G-d’s enduring testimony to the existence of a deeper relationship with humanity, a connection that could bear the worst rift and nevertheless emerge unscathed.
The enormous innovation introduced on that day is the same process that occurs every year. “The day of atonement” carries within it a profound sense of fulfillment and inner happiness at the underlying recognition both of what is being commemorated and achieved. The inner voice of the Day of Atonement which eternalizes our celebration of the second tablets- finds its full expression in the “Time of our Happiness” known as Sukkot that peaks with the rejoicing with the Torah on the eighth day. It is for this reason that Sukkot immediately follows the “Days of Awe.” And for the same reason, the conclusion of this festival was specifically chosen as the day to complete the yearly cycle of the parshas.
The broader message for us is clear: the greatest happiness does not come for free. It comes after a period of struggle. To the extent that one can recognize and engage the “time to weep” one will genuinely find the “time to laugh” and “a time of dancing.” The upcoming festival of Sukkot is an event which underscores the stream of festivals and pervading theme of the entire month: that (in hindsight) even the worst mistakes or seeming calamities can potentially pave the way for the path to return, opening the door to an achieve a closer relationship and for one to reach an even greater heights. Indeed the Festivals were not instituted as self contained events but upon closer examination reveal a precise buildup of energy that can spread toward every corner of the calendar and into all details of our lives. Rosh Hashanah is all about renewal. Yom Kippur is about repairing the past. Sukkos is about being happy with our lot.