Rabbi's Bulletin October 2017



Yom Kippur is the most ethereal of Jewish observances. On the holiest day of the year, we symbolically shed the trappings of our material selves. The reason for fasting is not so much to afflict ourselves but to elevate ourselves above the earthly plane of existence. As much as humanly possible, we abstain from physical needs and urges. We don’t eat; we don’t bathe; we don’t engage in sexual relations; if we could, we wouldn’t sleep or go to the bathroom, either. On Yom Kippur, we yearn to leave our bodies behind and soar like the angels. It’s the closest we ever come, this side of death, to merging with the Infinite and abiding in God’s presence as pure souls.

Sukkot is exactly the opposite. On Sukkot, we indulge the physical pleasures we denied several days earlier. The Sukkot rituals provide a feast for the five senses: touching the bumpy surface of the Etrog and imbibing deeply its sweet fragrance, running our fingers along the hard fronds of the palm branch and listening to the rustling sound as we wave it, enjoying the breeze in our hair and the sun on our skin as we go outside to the Sukkah for a delicious meal. The sexual imagery of bringing together the Lulav and Etrog could not be clearer—the union of male and female—nor more appropriate to the harvest season, which celebrates the bounty and mystery of creation and procreation.

Rabbi Sue Silberberg points out another dichotomy between the two occasions. The demands of Yom Kippur are individual and internal, including remorse for past misdeeds and the personal pursuit of reconciliation and forgiveness. Sukkot directs us outward, toward one another and all of nature. Like the tent of Abraham and Sarah, the Sukkah welcomes the entire community, and the stranger besides, and its permeable covering admits the surroundings and the sky.

“Vehayita ach same’ach” is Sukkot’s primary directive, “you shall do nothing but rejoice.” What an incredible commandment! As Rabbi Sacks writes: “Joy, not happiness, is a central Jewish value. Whereas happiness may be a state of mind of the individual, joy is something we must share together. ‘For seven days, you shall eat and rejoice’—says the Torah—‘you, your sons and daughters, together with the stranger, the orphan and the widow among you.’ Joy is communal. It is never experienced in solitude.”

As I frequently remind my Introduction to Judaism students, ours is not a monastic religion. We are not meant to dwell on a mountaintop in solitary communion with the Spirit; we have been placed here to engage in the challenges and delights of this life on Earth. If we spend the Day of Atonement purifying our souls, it’s only so that we may re-emerge, cleansed and restored, and re-engage in the work and pleasures of the everyday world. We do not seek ultimate reward in some heavenly realm after death; paradise is to be found here and now.

 It’s a shame that many American Jews short-circuit the festival season by observing Yom Kippur only. In its exposition of the liturgical calendar, however, the Torah makes clear that the one-day holiday of Yom Kippur is a prelude to the weeklong festival of Sukkot. Relieved of regret, embraced despite our human shortcomings, we are invited to rejoice deeply in the richness of being alive, the sheer physicality of it. The real prize is to awaken to others, to the world at large, and to life itself. Or, as Ecclesiastes puts it (the scriptural “Wisdom Book” assigned to Sukkot): “Go eat your bread in gladness, and drink your wine in joy; for your actions have long ago been approved by God.”