The month of Tishrei is a period of remarkable dualities combining multiple emotions, traditions and services into one 30-day period unlike any other in the Jewish calendar. What begins with the festivities and prayers of Rosh Hashana, continues on to Yom Kippur, the day which is typically viewed as the climax in terms of holiness and spirituality – when we become close to our Creator and ask for forgiveness.
Indeed, while Yom Kippur is a day of spirituality without any real parallel on the calendar, the day in fact feeds us into Sukkot, and the two holidays – ever different from one another in observance and character – in fact are heavily dependent upon each other. It is in this dependence that we learn an essential lesson about who we are as a Jewish people and nation, for this period is not simply a time of year – it is the beginning of the year and thus designed to set a spiritual, moral and practical tone for the months that lie ahead.
Beyond all its other defining elements, Yom Kippur is a day of abstinence – from food and drink and other bodily pleasures. There is no doubt that steeping oneself in spirituality by temporarily avoiding material pleasures is an important avenue to becoming closer to God. Yet abstinence and deprivation are not the essence of who we are as a Jewish people. We therefore cannot allow Tishrei to be solely defined by Yom Kippur and we are quickly ushered into Sukkot.
Sukkot, with its myriad of traditions is in many ways the penultimate Jewish holiday in its symbolisms and we would even argue that our identity as Jews can in many ways be described within “The Sukkot Identity.”
Often forgotten in modern times by those of us for whom produce seems to just “magically” appear on the supermarket shelves, Sukkot is an ancient celebration of praise and prayer that the coming months should produce rains and a bountiful harvest that will sustain us for the year. The Four Species remind us of our attachment to that land and how our ultimate destiny is linked to it.
Similarly, the sukka is a symbol for who we are as a people. We are commanded to set up a living space that in some ways sets us off from the greater world and focuses on humility and resourcefulness. For one week of the year, we live a very “limited” lifestyle. But we are not commanded to completely set ourselves off from the world. There is no obligation to remain confined in the sukka. Rather, we are reflecting on the duality of our existence as Jews to both be inspired by our personal spirituality in the private confines of the sukka, yet also know how to integrate that personal existence in facing the challenges of the outside world and enjoying its remarkable benefits.
Yet, perhaps the most important lesson that we can take from Sukkot and its juxtaposition to the other holidays of Tishrei is that we cannot really appreciate Sukkot without first having experienced the heights of holiness reflected in Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. As we mentioned, Sukkot is a reflection of many of the realities of life, both material and spiritual. But to best confront those realities, and appreciate them in a way that will keep us on the proper path, we are first inspired by the power of those initial days of awe.
This is the true identity of the committed Jew, inspired by the spiritual, yet prepared to confront the material in a way that brings us closer to our tradition and Creator. This time of year affords us that opportunity better than any other.
Let us seize the chance to use this time to prepare for the months ahead, recognize the enormous good that is in our lives, and in so doing look forward to a new year of health, happiness and prosperity for ourselves, our families and all the people of Israel and the Jewish world.
The writer is a founder of the Tzohar Rabbinical Organization.