I sit at my desk late at night and reflect on the day that just passed. It was Yom Kippur, 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 synagogue 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 one.
At one point, some of the younger congregants began to chat and they were quickly shushed. The sound of their chatter in this solemn sacred moment was grating and it made me realize that though we are all together, we are each as alone as we can possibly be. No one is talking to each other, no one is even exchanging a glance, let alone a greeting. We were each wrapped up in our own little world.
Fast forward four days and we will all sit in the Sukka. 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 Sukka 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 neither Torah nor 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 does not have 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 mitzva can only be valid if all four kinds, different as they are, come together as a single unit.
Thus in many ways, through the Sukka 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 Hashana and Yom Kippur.
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 10 days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, G-d is especially present among Jews 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 10 days G-d listens to the individual with the same attentiveness that He usually reserves for a group.
This explains why the Rosh Hashana 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 Hashana 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.
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 Sukka, 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, when our preparations are completely behind us and we have time on our hands, we are once again exposed to the temptations of sin. Now there is time to gossip, to mock, to criticize etc. Now there is time to break a law or two. It is therefore now that we have a desperate need to be heard by G-d and during the year G-d listens to us best when we pray in groups.
It is thus no accident that the first holiday after Yom Kippur contains such a strong unifying component. We are trying to form groups so that our prayer will be heard by G-d and our repentance will be complete.
May it be a holiday of unity, of forgiveness and of blessing.
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow, a respected writer, scholar and speaker, is the spiritual leader of Beth Tefilah congregation in London, Ontario. He is the author of
Reaching for God: A Jewish Book on Self Help, and his new book,
Mission Possible: Living With Higher Purpose will be released this spring and can be pre-ordered by emailing [email protected]