Sukkot: Coming down to earth

If Yom Kippur takes you up to heaven, Sukkot brings you down to earth.

‘SODASTREAM IS proof that honesty in everyday affairs need not be a hindrance to success’: SodaStream label, Iceland, 2018. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
‘SODASTREAM IS proof that honesty in everyday affairs need not be a hindrance to success’: SodaStream label, Iceland, 2018.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
This has been a very busy season for observant Jews. One holiday follows another, Rosh Hashanah with its mixture of joy and trembling at the beginning of another year, Yom Kippur, a day of abstinence, of distancing oneself from worldly and bodily concerns to reach a time of spiritual cleansing and renewal followed by the complete opposite – Sukkot, which is very much concerned with normal activities of life. It involves building a structure, temporary though it may be, holding symbols of all that grows from the ground, eating and rejoicing – “and you shall be completely happy.” If Yom Kippur takes you up to heaven, Sukkot brings you down to earth.
I have often wondered if there is an orderly sequence to these days or if each one is simply a different phase of human experience. As celebrated today, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are indeed tied together in the package known as “Ten Days of Repentance.” Judgment begins on the one and ends on the other. But what about Sukkot? Is it a let-down from the spiritual peak of Yom Kippur, or is this another instance of the principle that “we ascend in holiness and do not descend”?
Originally, in biblical times, Yom Kippur was the day set aside for purifying the sanctuary and ourselves so that we could celebrate Sukkot there in a state of ritual purity. Therefore five days before Sukkot we have these rites of purification. But even today it seems to me that we do “ascend in holiness” when we come to Sukkot following Yom Kippur. After all, it is not so difficult to live a life of purity and holiness when you are cut off from this world and all its concerns on Yom Kippur, but how can one attain holiness when living immersed in this physical world of everyday life? Building, eating, drinking – are they not distractions from the holy? Yes – but that is exactly the point. It is easy to be a tzadik in an ivory tower. Not so easy in everyday life when decisions have to be made constantly about what is right and wrong, how to deal with making a living, how to treat other people, what to say and what not to say. Yet mainstream Judaism, unlike some other religions, never encouraged people to divorce themselves from society and from the difficulties of everyday life. The closest we ever came to that was with the Essenes and the Dead Sea sect, but they ceased to exist. I think the very message of Sukkot is that one must learn to remain connected to God and to the values that Judaism teaches while doing ordinary things as well. In that sense Yom Kippur is a step on the way to Sukkot – leading us toward the ultimate goal, which is holiness in down-to-earth living.
It must always be remembered that holiness in Judaism is not merely a matter of observing certain rituals, but of loving one’s fellow, loving the stranger, living honestly, caring for others, not lying, not hurting others in speech or deed, facing temptation and not giving in to it. We observe one day of spiritual isolation like Yom Kippur not for its own sake but for the purpose of strengthening us to be able to live the life of holiness, of decency, all the rest of the time.
The commandments of the Torah are very much concerned with dealing with the everyday challenges of life. The Torah is not an otherworldly book but a code that deals with everyday problems. The “holiness code” in Leviticus 19, for example, discusses not only such ritual matters as sacrifices, but instructs us not to steal, not to be deceitful, to pay wages on time, not to defraud, not to insult the deaf, not to hate or take vengeance, to rise before the aged and not to wrong the stranger or have dishonest weights. A similar collection of laws in Deuteronomy 22-24 deals not only with rituals such as tassels on our garments but with helping a person whose animal has fallen – the equivalent today of stopping to help someone who has a flat tire – with building a parapet on your roof so no one will fall and be injured, not returning a fugitive slave, leaving parts of your crop for the poor, not taking in pawn something a person depends upon for his livelihood. We should never forget that the purpose of God’s singling out Abraham, according to Genesis 18:19, was so “that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the ways of the Lord by doing what is just and right...” That is what Judaism is all about. In view of the many instances we have had of businessmen who were accused of violating the law and ethical norms in order to manipulate their profits and of government officials, including those in high office, accepting bribes and otherwise breaking their oaths of office, it was heartwarming recently to hear about the success of the CEO of SodaStream, Daniel Birnbaum. (Full disclosure – our families are close friends.) He was able to build a successful enterprise while adhering to the ethical codes of Judaism, employing, for example, Jews, Palestinian Arabs and Bedouin workers paid on a fair and equal basis, enjoying full religious observances according to their needs. This was proof that honesty in everyday affairs need not be a hindrance to success and that it is possible to resist the temptations that are constantly present to sacrifice “what is just and right” in order to get ahead.
These holidays then follow a progression. We begin by 10 days of recognizing our failings and confessing our faults, moving up from Rosh Hashanah to the pure spirituality of Yom Kippur and then progressing to Sukkot, which brings us back to earth but in a higher degree of holiness, ready to live according to ethical standards, every day under ordinary circumstances, following “the ways of the Lord by doing what is just and right.”
The writer is a former president of the Rabbinical Assembly and a member of its Committee on Jewish Law and Standards. Two of his books received the National Jewish Book Award. His most recent book is
Akiva: Life, Legend, Legacy, available both in English (JPS) and Hebrew (Yediyot Books). His most recent volume, A Year With the Sages (JPS), will appear in the spring.