The High Holy Days season starts with Tisha Be’av: we mourn for a broken house –
the destroyed Temple – praying and fasting, reminded that the world is also
The holidays end with Succot. We sit in a broken house, but it’s
filled with joy, laughter, guests, good food and wine. We do our best to fulfill
the commandment of the day: to be happy.
The spiritual meaning of Succot
goes far beyond the joy associated with an agriculturally based harvest
festival. Succot must be understood as the end point of a spiritual journey that
began two months earlier with the mourning of Tisha Be’Av.
As Rabbi Alan
Lew, may his memory be for a blessing, taught, it is very appropriate to begin
the process of spiritual transformation with the broken house of Tisha Be’av. On
that day, we face the fact that not only is the house – meaning the Temple –
broken, but we too are broken. It’s been another year and we haven’t healed the
world and brought the Messiah.
The rabbis say our ancestors caused the
destruction of the Temple through sinat hinam¸ gratuitous hatred, and we are all
too aware of the gratuitous hatred that continues to exist today. On a personal
level, we often find that we have become estranged – distant from God, distant
from each other, distant from ourselves.
You can’t fix anything until you
acknowledge it’s broken. On Tisha Be’av, we recognize the brokenness of our
souls in the brokenness of the Temple and the world around us. And then we start
again the process of rebuilding ourselves and healing our souls.
the month of Elul, we examine our hearts and deeds. It’s not enough to say,
“Wow, this is really broken.” If you want to fix something, you have to know
specifically what’s wrong and what needs work. The spiritual accounting
we do during Elul gives us the blueprint for what we need to fix.
Rosh Hashana, as we stand in judgment and recite the prayer Unatana Tokef –
which includes the well known refrain beginning “Who will live? Who will die?”–
we know we’re still lacking. We know our efforts at teshuva, repentance, have
been inadequate. We know we’re not in that book reserved for the completely
So during the Ten Days of Repentance between Rosh Hashana and
Yom Kippur, we make a last-ditch effort. We reach out to friends or family we
may have hurt, and we ask for their forgiveness. We work to heal our damaged
relationships with both God and other people. We resolve to do better next year,
if God will only be so gracious as to give us another year – even though we
don’t deserve it.
And on Yom Kippur, we know we’ve done all that we can –
and we know it’s still inadequate – so we throw ourselves on the mercy of the
court. Rosh Hashana may be the Day of Judgment, but Yom Kippur is the Day of
Atonement, the Day of Forgiveness. We plead with God to be merciful and
forgive us – to give us another year even though we largely wasted the one we
And as the day concludes with the Ne’ila service, and we
hear the sounding of the shofar marking the close of the holiday, we feel
lighter – and not just from not eating! We know we've been forgiven, know that
God loves us.
And traditionally we go straight out and start building our
succa, another broken house, for the holiday that comes just five days
On Tisha Be’av, we mourn because the house is broken. Yet come
Succot, we’re sitting in another broken house, a house that by definition
doesn’t provide much shelter or protection, and yet we’re happy to be
In fact, we’re commanded to be happy: “You shall rejoice in your
holiday… not just you, but your wife, sons, daughters, servants, neighbors –
everyone shall rejoice.”
We rejoice because after all that
self-reflection, judging, and forgiving, we know that our souls are still
“broken.” We know we’re not perfect. But we accept our imperfections. God has
forgiven us, and we have forgiven ourselves, and if that’s not a cause for
celebration, what is? So we sit in our flimsy, broken house, but we feel
confident because we know God is with us. Sitting in the succa is the only
mitzva where the mitzva itself completely surrounds you, a symbolic
representation of God’s surrounding and sheltering presence. We see the sun,
moon, and stars above us through the flimsy roof and feel more connected with
God than when we sit in our solid man-made homes.
About ten years ago, my
family and I were living in a suburb of Vancouver, Canada. We had a house that
looked out across the Straits of Georgia to Vancouver Island. One evening we
were sitting in the succa and a large owl swooped in and landed on the roof of
the house next door, just as a flock of geese was flying south over the water,
and a brilliant multicolored sunset lit up the sky over the island. The
“broken house” of our succa made it possible for us to appreciate that magical
moment. Sometimes we not only don’t need a house, but a house can prevent us
from appreciating what’s really important.
And as soon as we’re done with
the last of the high holidays, we start building more spiritual “walls” and
impediments – so we’ll need to do the whole process again next year, starting
with tearing the walls down on Tisha Be’av.
But that will come soon
enough. For now, let us go out and rejoice in our holiday.