Thursday, October 05, 2006

Sukkot (General)

“You Shall Dwell in Booths for Seven Days”

Sukkot, more than any other Jewish holiday, is defined by its symbolic mitzvot and the enterprise of their interpretation. Pesah or Shavuot commemorate definite historical events, to which their characteristic observances connect quite directly. Likewise Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, Hanukkah and Purim, all have more-or-less definite, universally accepted meanings. But with Sukkot we seem to start from the concrete acts—building and living in a sukkah, a temporary booth; taking four species of branches and fruit, shaking them during the reading of the festive psalms, and parading around the synagogue with them —whose meaning is open to dozens of possible interpretations. Yet, on a certain level, religious symbolism is meant to explain itself. Or, more precisely, to be felt; to speak directly to the soul (or the subconscious) on a pre-verbal level. Thus, our Sages consistently insist (albeit in a somewhat different context) that ta’amei hamitzvot, the reasons or justifications for the commandments, are in a sense secondary and even superfluous to their simple doing.

Sukkot, then, is rich in symbols: not only the sukkah and the lulav and etrog, but also the aravot, the bunch of willow branches taken independently on the seventh day of the festival; and the special rites observed in the Temple in ancient times: the libation of water upon the altar; the all-night celebrations of Simhat Beit ha-Sho’eva in connection with the drawing of that selfsame water; the processions around the altar. Many interpretations have been offered for these, and this holiday was a particularly favorite subject for mystical interpretations by the masters of Kabbalah. The number seven repeats itself constantly: the seven days of the festival; the seven “shepherds” or “supernal guests” (Ushpizin) who are invited into the Sukkah during each of the seven nights; the seven processions around the Bimah (Reader’s Desk) with lulav and etrog on Hoshana Rabba, and thereafter, on Simhat Torah, with Torah scrolls; even the four species, which really consist of seven individual items (3 + 2 + 1 + 1).

Thus, the festival of Sukkot does not commemorate any historical event. True, the Sukkah is described by the Torah as intended for future generations to know that God caused our ancestors to dwell on booths when He took them out of Egypt (Lev 23:43). But the sukkah corresponds to the period of wandering in the desert in general, painted by the prophets in retrospect as a kind of romantic idyll between God and Israel (see Jer 2:2; but compare the reality described in Numbers, as we discussed there at length), and not to any specific event. Indeed, the Rabbis debate whether the sukkot referred to were real, corporeal booths (sukkot mamash) or “clouds of glory” (an’nei kavod). The latter suggests the Divine, fatherly protection enjoyed by the Israelites while living in the desert, in a childlike state of trusting dependence.

My own interpretation of Sukkot begins with its name: “the time of our joy.” Simha is understood, not as wild ecstasy (although there is place for that as well), but as a kind of quiet contentment and tranquility, coupled with gratitude to God, of people simply living in the world. Ideally, this is also a celebration of living in Eretz Yisrael, the natural sequel to Exodus and Revelation, experienced as menuha venahala (“peace and inheritance”). It is also the last festival of the year. After all the great and dramatic processes, national, spiritual, and developmental: from Egypt, to Sinai, to Crowning God on Rosh Hashana, to Judgment, contrition, repentance, and atonement, we turn to simply being in the world.

The Sukkah is, quite simply, a place where one is at home: a symbolic locus of domesticity, as is appropriate to a holiday dedicated to the theme of being and contentment. The central mitzvot of Sukkot all involve natural materials, things that grow from the earth, a fact that perhaps augments its mood of quietness and simple being, and of harmony with the world. The Sukkah is covered with skhakh, a term referring specifically to branches or other forms of vegetation. The four species are also taken from the natural world: a palm frond, two willow branches, thee myrtle branches, and an etrog—a special citrus fruit grown which is, I suspect, cultivated largely by Jews for this purpose.

But the sukkah may also be thought of as sacred space: it is the only mitzvah in the Torah whose fulfillment merely requires presence in a particular place. The Kabbalists described it as tzila dimhemnuta, “the shadow of faith.” There is a sense of enjoying direct Divine protection; or, perhaps, mere presence within the sukkah conveys, in a certain pre-conscious sense, a certain kind of spiritual awareness. Interestingly, the sukkah as metaphor for peace and Divine compassion appears in the Shabbat liturgy for the entire year: “and stretch over us the Sukkah of your peace. Blessed You, O Lord, who stretches the sukkah of peace over us, and over all Israel, and over Jerusalem.”

But there is also a deep tension here: it is celebratory, but also a symbol of human mortality and the transitory nature of our lives. The sukkah is defined halakhically as a dirat ara’i, a temporary dwelling, but the manner in which we dwell in it as yeshivat keva, treating it during that week as our fixed dwelling place. True, one is minimally required to enter the sukka only to eat, and even then only for “fixed meals” (and to sleep there if feasible), but the ideal is for one to spend all ones time there: eat, sleep, chat with ones friends, study, etc. The notion of dwelling in a permanent manner in a temporary dwelling seems pregnant with existential insights. What can encapsulate more succinctly our being on this earth?

My grandfather, Rabbi A. N. Gallant, wrote of the three pilgrimage festivals as corresponding to the three ages of man: youth, maturity, old age (which also match the seasons in which they fall: spring, early summer, and summer’s end with winter just over the horizon). Thus, Sukkot contains more than an intimation of mortality. This is likewise the reason for the choice of Kohelet, the Book of Ecclesiastes, as the scroll read during this festival.

Turning to the four species: here, we go from simply “being” to certain active gestures: to “take to yourselves” the four kinds enumerated and to “rejoice before the Lord” (Lev 23:40). There are numerous midrashim on the significance of the four kinds; in particular, Leviticus Rabbah Ch. 30 is filled with a whole series of them. The one in which the four species are seen as corresponding to four human types, with varying degrees combinations of good deeds and learning, is repeated almost ad nauseum. But there are others as well: that they correspond to the Sanhedrin, seated together with the senior scholars, disciples and functionaries; or they are the patriarchs and Joseph; etc. My two favorites include the midrash in which they are seen as equivalent to four parts of body—the spine, the heart, the eyes, and the lips—so that their ritual use is an acting out of “all my bones say: Who, O Lord, is like unto You?” (Lev Rab 30.14). But most intriguing of all is the one which sees each of them as alluding to the Holy One blessed be He Himself, citing a series of somewhat far-fetched proof texts, such as that in which God is “he who stands among the myrtles”; or “he who rides upon the Aravot (which can be read either as ‘heavens’ or as ‘willows’; Lev. Rab. 30.9). Perhaps it was this which inspired the Kabbalistic interpretation in which the four species correspond to the four letters of the Divine name, brought together in an act of mystical unification, followed in turn by the na’anu’im, the shaking of the lulav to all six cardinal points, suggesting the spread of this unity throughout the cosmos.

Yom Kippur: A Postscript

Some further thoughts on Yom Kippur, and my reflections on the polarity of teshuva and kapara, of repentance and atonement. In terms of geographical imagery, this is the day on which the Temple worship is focused on the two most extreme possible poles. On the one hand, the High Priest goes lifnai velifnim, to the innermost sanctum, to the Holy of Holies, to sprinkle the purging blood on the curtain of the ark. On the other hand, the scapegoat is led far away into the wilderness, rather than being offered on the altar like all other sacrifices. Perhaps, symbolically, the high priest’s journey to the holiest place symbolizes teshuva, the longing for human perfection, the wish to approach the ineffable, mysterious God, perhaps even for mystical unity. On the other hand, the goat symbolizes kapara, the purging of sin that is the necessary concomitant of the human condition, the acceptance of the inherent impossibility of men to fully realize their spiritual ambitions, their hopes for moral and cognitive perfection. A symbolic casting out of these negative forces, in an almost violent way, in the opposite direction from the focus of Holiness.

Both of these motifs intermix in the Yom Kippur liturgy. The idea of essentially gratuitous forgiveness is reflected in the middle blessing of the Amidah, which quotes such verses as “I have wiped out your sins like a cloud… return to Me, for I have redeemed you” (from the burden of sin itself?). The Rav speaks of seliha, of the gift of forgiveness, as the birkat hahag—the unique subject of blessing of this festival. Hence, the blessing of Sheheheyanu is associated with the verses of forgiveness recited after Kol Nidrei. On the other hand, the moral aspect of teshuva predominates in the concluding paragraph of Neilah: “Return to me, O house of Israel… For He does not desire the death of the one who dies, but that he return and live.”

* * * * *

I’d like to comment further on the interesting transition from Yom Kippur—the solemn, even grave atmosphere of the Day of Atonement and the Ten Days of Penitence—to the unrestrained joy of the Festival of Sukkot, which reaches a peak at Simhat Torah. In point of fact, Yom Kippur itself encompasses these opposites: on the one hand, it is a day devoted to Vidduy, the confession of sin, with the sense of sadness and melancholy which ensues from contemplating, nay, from taking a concentrated, focused look at our own failings and inadequacies for a full 24 hours; on the other hand, it as a day of supreme holiness and, ultimately, of joy. (Interestingly, there are two Ashkenazic musical traditions in for the Days of Awe: one, dominated by solemn and rather melancholy melodies; the other, mostly among Hasidim, of rousing, even martial tunes, appropriate to the “coronation of the King.” Habad Hasidim sing what they call “Napoleon’s March” at the end of Neilah, while Bratslav Hasidism clap their hands in applause after the words Hamelekh Hakadosh, “the Holy King”).

But Litvaks, too, know of this sublime, spiritual joy. Rav Soloveitchik, in speaking once about the Holocaust and the importance of understanding the spiritual life of Eastern European Jewry to understand the magnitude of the catastrophe, gave the following example of Yom Kippur: “One who did not see the faces of the Jews leaving the synagogues in Vilna after Neilah cannot fully comprehend what was destroyed!”

Although I have already discussed this idea in my page for Shabbat Shuvah, I’d like to elaborate somewhat. In the Jerusalem nusah (prayer rite), established by the disciples of the Gaon of Vilna who founded the Ashkenazic community here nearly two centuries ago, each festival day has its own special psalm, recited instead of the usual psalm for the particular day of the week. The psalm read on Yom Kippur, Psalm 32, is a penitential psalm. Following an introductory verse that anticipates the ultimate feeling of relief and happiness at having his sin “covered up,” it opens with a description of the pain felt by the speaker as a result of keeping silent, of holding within himself a secret which wears away at his very bones, implying a deep sense of being burdened, nay, consumed by guilt. He moves from there to acknowledging his sin, confessing to God and turning to Him for help; and, ultimately, to a sense of relief and catharsis upon restoring the relationship with God. Only after doing teshuvah does he feel whole again.

A similar process is described in Psalm 51, the psalm relating to David’s contrition after he sinned with Bathsheba. Here, he begins with a fervent plea to God to cleanse and purge him of his sin, to aid him to achieve purity. This combines with confession of his wrongdoing before God: “My sin is ever before me; to You alone have I sinned, and done that which is evil in Your sight….” (v. 4-5). His deepest wish is for a kind of inner renewal: “A pure heart create within me, O God, and a straight spirit renew within me” (v. 11).

The last three or four verses of this psalm are particularly interesting, On the one hand, he states that God does not desire burnt-offerings or sacrifices, but that the true sacrifice desired by God is “a broken and contrite heart” (vv. 17-18). But then, having completed the catharsis of teshuvah, the final verse states that, ”Then shall sacrifices of righteousness… be offered upon Your altar” (v. 20). In other words, animal sacrifices are an acceptable form of worship—but only after moral purification and purgation, and not as a quasi-magical substitute for decent ethical behavior.

There are those who would have us bypass the detailed examination of our own sins, searching out the dark places within our soul, with the argument that “one who involves himself in filth becomes filthy.” In this view, Yom Kippur is a day of longing for closeness to God, of spiritual elevation, of directly realizing our soul potential for ecstatic love of God, without all the painful in-between steps.

The problem is that guilt, failure, shortcomings, are essential human concerns—spiritually, emotionally, and psychologically. To my mind, it is impossible to bypass the process of self-examination, repentance, admission of failure, with its ultimate sense of catharsis and renewal. True, at times the clarion call to teshuvah may come from without; there are some preachers and religious leaders who mistakenly think that this is the season to cultivate unnecessary guilt and feelings of worthlessness, and Mussar works that exaggerate the need for remorse over minor peccadilloes. There are also misguided souls who are lacking in minimum sense of self-acceptance and of their own innate goodness, and may even derive a perverse pleasure from wallowing in the sense of their own guilt. But the possible abuse of the process does not negate its basic legitimacy and vital importance for the moral and religious life. (Interestingly, Richard Rubenstein, in an essay on “Atonement and Sacrifice in Contemporary Jewish Liturgy” [After Auschwitz, pp. 93-111; see my summary in HY I: Yom Kippur], discusses, largely from a psychoanalytic perspective, the sense of catharsis and the importance of shared admission of failure, calling upon the liberal movements in Judaism to revive, for example, Seder Avodah, the rehearsing of the priestly atonement ritual on Yom Kippur.)

It seems to me that, read properly, Maimonides’ Laws of Teshuvah displays a similar understanding of the cathartic function of teshuvah as do the two above-mentioned psalms. The two opening chapters give a formal legal description of teshuvah, particularly of what I once described as “occasional teshuvah” (i.e., that elicited by a specific occasion). He then turns to lists of those things that place an individual outside of the pale, and those that inhibit teshuvah (Chs. 3-4), followed by a rather lengthy theological-philosophical digression on the nature of free-will and certain problems it entails (Chs. 5-6). But all this is a necessary prelude to Chapter 7, really the heart of the treatise, which describes the logical conclusion to the process. He makes clear in 7.1 that “since free will is given… a person should always attempt to engage in teshuvah,” invoking the verse in Ecclesiastes, “your garments should always be white” (9:8)—that is, there is a universal, constant obligation for teshuvah. He goes on to stipulate that there is need to do teshuvah for negative character traits, and not merely for specific, sharply defined acts (7.3). This passage is no mere afterthought, but is in fact the culmination of the whole book. From there he turns to a description of the penitent’s great sense of being loved by God, the profound turnabout it affects, etc.—not unlike the mood in Psalm 51. The final three chapters, concerning the nature of “The Life of the World to Come” and the pure, intense love of God, are a kind of denouement, a lengthy coda, if you will, in which he plays out the consequences of these themes.

Thus, the joy that comes at the end of Yom Kippur is ultimately that of selihah u-mehilah—of being forgiven ones sins. (Incidentally, halakhists also speak of Yom Kippur as a day of simhah, precisely because of the presence of this element. Note also the celebration made by the High Priest after he emerged from the Holy of Holies without harm—it is not clear whether on the day of Yom Kippur itself or after nightfall. One might also speculate that the widespread custom in Western Jewish communities of having large dinner parties at the end of Yom Kippur, whether among groups of friends or at the community, also reflects this same intuition.)

The Beginning of the Year

On the afternoon of Yom Kippur, I had the good fortune to come upon a short article by Rabbi Yoel Bin-Nun, in a recently published book entitled Berosh hashanah yikatevun, which addressed several issues that have been bothering me for some time. Essentially, he addresses the question: why is not Rosh Hashanah called that in the Bible? Is it in fact the first day of the year? He marshals a series of facts, all of which suggest that the “beginning of the year” extends throughout the festivals of Tishrei:

First and perhaps foremost, Sukkot is the festival of ingathering, the conclusion of the agricultural year: several phrases in the Torah make this point explicitly, such as “… when the year goes out” in Exod 23:16, or “the turning of the year” in Exod 34:22; as well as the reference in Deut 31:10 to Sukkot as signaling the end of the seventh year, when the Hakhel ceremony was held. Second, that Yom Kippur itself, as the day when the Divine judgment is sealed and sins of the previous year are erased, also marks a kind of end for the accounting of one year and the beginning of a new one. Third, Simhat Torah, when the annual cycle of reading the Torah is concluded and begun anew, is surely a kind of New Year for study of the Torah. Fourth, the various customs of this period—dipping the bread in honey through the end of Sukkot, or of reciting Psalm 27 twice daily, all suggest that the period of beginning the new and ending the old extends throughout the month of Tishrei, or at least through its festivals. Fifth, the concept of Hoshana Rabbah as a kind of mini-Yom Kippur. Sixth, Yom Kippur is the day around which the preparation of the ketoret, the incense used in the Temple, was calculated: the old supply of incense is completed, and the new one is made up (Keritut 6a; interestingly, this is based, not on the Hebrew calendar of twelve months, but on the solar year of 365 days—plus three extra portions for the special use made of it on Yom Kippur).

Bin-Nun suggests that, underlying all this, is a concept of time is continuous rather than as discrete or even atomistic. In the Western conception, the new year begins at a particular arbitrary instant, at the precise instant of midnight following December 31 (like the crowd in Times Square waiting for the ball to fall). In Judaism, time is conceived in a more organic, flowing manner.

This approach is doubly significant in light of the dual, lunar-solar calendar used in Judaism: one based simultaneously upon the phases of the moon and the natural cycle of the seasons and the movements of the sun. Interestingly, he points out, while a non-intercalated lunar year of twelve months is approximately 354 days in length, the time between Rosh Hashanah of one year and Yom Kippur of the next is ± 365 days—that is, one solar year.

There is thus no discrete moment when one year goes out and the other comes in; the entire month of Tishrei celebrates this transition. What we call Rosh Hashanah is known in the Torah simply as yom teru’ah, that is, that day on which the ram’s horn is blown to signify the new moon of this transitional month. Thus, the entire month of Tishrei is in fact “the beginning of the year”—רשית השנה, in the language of Deut 11:12, written without the letter aleph, forms a perfect anagram of the title of this month—Tishrei!


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