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Home » Sukkot

Sukkot: A Time for Unity

Submitted by on October 4, 2014 – 11:55 pmNo Comment | 530 views

Alone In Our Thoughts

I sit at my desk late at night and reflect on the day that just passed. It was Yom Kippur today, a day filled with prayer, song, meditation and study. My mind turns to the last few moments of the holy day and I remember standing at the front of the Shull gazing out upon rows and rows of worshippers.

I was struck that though everyone was together, each was in a separate world. We were all following the words intoned by the cantor, we were all on the same page, but each was wrapped in personal thoughts. The relevance and resonance of the words was different for each of us.

At one point, some of the younger congregants began to chat and they were quickly shushed. The sound of their chatter during this solemn sacred moment was grating, it made me realize that though we are all together, we are immersed in our own little world.

Communal Celebration

Fast forward four days and we will all sit in the Sukkah. Our experience in the Sukkah is exactly the opposite. There we will chat, sing and even dance. Whatever we will do, we will do together. We will dine, we will celebrate and we will unite.

It appears that ten days of solemn prayer and introspection demands some kind of release. We are tired of being alone and we want to converse. We want to bond with each other, not just with G-d. The timing of the holiday could not have been better. It is as if we emerge from a cocoon of repentance to embrace life and community with gusto.

It is not only in the Sukkah that this unity is reflected, it is also in the Lulav. You, dear reader, are likely familiar with the teaching that the four kinds that we shake during Sukkot is emblematic of the four Jewish types.

The Etrog, citron fruit, which has a lovely aroma and is also delicious, symbolizes the Jew that excels in both Torah study and Mitzvot. The willow, which is neither pleasing in taste nor fragrance, represents the Jew that doesn’t excel in either Torah or Mitzvot. The myrtle, which pleases us aromatically, but has no flavor represents the Jew that observes Mitzvot, but fails to study Torah. The date palm, which tastes good, but lacks a pleasing fragrance, represents the Jew who observes Mitzvot but does not study Torah.

These four kinds are held together as a single unit when we recite the blessing and wave them. The blessing can only be chanted and the Mitzvah can only be valid if all four kinds, different as they are, come together as a single unit.

Thus in many ways, through the Sukkah and through the four kinds, Sukkot is a holiday of unity. In orientation, it is the polar opposite from the days of awe that precede it. The Jewish calendar becomes a natural reflection of our desire to coalesce after the intensely personal nature of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Special Attention

But the truth is much deeper. Our togetherness during this holiday is not only a product of our desire for unity, it is a necessary ingredient in our service of G-d.

You see, the Talmud proclaims that during the ten days between Rosh Hashana till Yom Kippur, G-d is especially present and particularly attentive. During the year G-d pledges to listen to the prayers of a group, but not necessarily to the prayers of a private individual. During these ten days G-d listens to the individual with the same attentiveness that He usually reserves for a group.

This explains why the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur prayers are so intensely private. Even when we come together, we are wrapped up in our own little worlds, more so than when we come together in prayer the rest of the year. We do this because we can. We know that even when we pray alone, G-d will listen to our prayers with the same attentiveness that he reserves for public prayers all year long. Thus, on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we gravitate to our own thoughts even when we are together.

After Yom Kippur it becomes necessary to merge in groups again because G-d changes His posture and ceases to pay close attention to individual prayer. He now pays especially close attention to prayer only when it is performed in groups, which is why it becomes necessary to reconnect and form group activities.

No Time For Sin

Now, it isn’t necessary to emphasize our unity during the days immediately after Yom Kippur because we have no time to sin during these days. There are so many Mitzvot to prepare for, building a Sukkah, preparing the guest list, cooking the food, purchasing the four kinds, these each take time and there is almost no time left for sin. Without sin, we don’t have a desperate need to be heard by G-d. To be sure, we want to be with G-d at all times, but we aren’t desperate for it. It is when we sin that we desperately desire time with G-d to beg His forgiveness.

But on the first day of Sukkot, with our preparations completely behind us and with time on our hands, we are once again exposed to the temptations of sin.[1] Now, when we are relaxed, we find time to gossip, to mock, to criticize etc. Now there is time to break a law or two. It is therefore a good time to join with others in group mode because this protects us against sin. The benefits of group forming are numerous.

Firstly, when we are alone we wrestle with temptation, when we are in public we are usually on our best behavior. Secondly, when we are among family and friends, we encourage and inspire each other to goodness. Thirdly, the venue in which we join others during these days, is one of Mitzvah, be it Sukkah or Lulav. This places us in a holy head-space, which further discourages thoughts of sin. Finally, even in the unlikely eventuality that we find a quiet moment to commit a sin, our connection to others places us in a group, thus when we pray, we know that G-d will listen attentively and forgive us.

It is no accident that the first holiday after Yom Kippur contains such a strong unifying component. It forms a bridge from the holiest day of the year into the rest of the year, when wrestling with sin is part of our reality and we need to forefend it as much as possible.

 

[1] This is why the Midrash (Tanchuma Emor 23 and Rabbah Vayikra 30: 7) Calls the first day of Sukkot a beginning for the calculation of sin. See also Kli Yakar on Leviticus 23: 40.

 

 

[1] This is why the Midrash (Tanchuma Emor 23 and Rabbah Vayikra 30: 7) Calls the first day of Sukkot a beginning for the calculation of sin. See also Kli Yakar on Leviticus 23: 40.

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