From one broken house to another

Following the road toward repentance and self-reflection that runs from Tisha Be’av to Succot.

By RABBI BARRY LEFF
September 30, 2012 09:26
Soccut prayers at the Western Wall.

Soccut Western Wall 370. (photo credit: Ronen Zvulun/Reuters)

 
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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 broken.

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.

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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.

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During 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.

But on 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 righteous.

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 just finished.

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 later.

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 there.

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.

Chag sameach!

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