1. The close of Yom Kippur and the sense of Hashem’s departure
Immediately after the completion of Yom Kippur we recite the weekday Maariv/Aravit service – the evening service. The service includes the Amidah which is composed of nineteen berachot – benedictions. The sixth benediction is a petition to Hashem for forgiveness. This blessing is the basis of an amusing witticism. How is it possible that a few moments after the completion of Yom Kippur, which hopefully secured Hashem’s forgiveness, we are again asking for His forbearance? What sin could we have committed in these few moments? The answer is that in our eagerness to rush home and break our fast, we barely pay attention to the prayers we are reciting. The very manner in which we are praying is the sin that requires forgiveness.
Of course, the question is only asked for the purpose of introducing the answer. The true answer to the question is very simple. The Amidah has a specific design and the weekday version is composed of its nineteen benedictions. Whenever the weekday version is recited all of the blessings are included. However, although the question is not serious, the answer does capture a disturbing paradox. Yom Kippur is a day of solemn majesty. We stand before Hashem and we are being judged. Our actions are being reviewed and our destiny decided. We are overcome with awe. We sense the presence of the Divine influence. Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik Zt”l compared the Shofar blast sounded at the end of the Yom Kippur service to the blast heard by Bnai Yisrael after the Sinai Revelation. That blast communicated that Revelation had ended and that Divine influence had “ascended” back to the heavens. The Shofar blast at the close of the Yom Kippur service communicates that our encounter with Hashem has ended. Our sense of intimacy with Him is lost.
How do we translate the Yom Kippur experience into an ongoing awareness of Hashem’s presence or influence? How do we extend the intimacy of Yom Kippur into the whole year?
You are sacred and Your name inspires awe. There is no other G-d like unto you, as it is written, “And Hashem the Lord of Hosts will be exalted in judgment and the sacred G-d will be sanctified in justice.” (Amidah of High Holidays)
2. The High Holidays and Hashem’s reign over the universe
The first step in answering this question is to more carefully consider the capacity of the Yamim Noraim – the High Holidays to inspire us. There are two inter-related elements of the Yamim Noraim that endow these days with their inspirational power. The first is that these days celebrate Hashem’s kingship over the entire universe. Repeatedly we describe Him as master of all. We recognize that every event that occurs and every process that takes place is an expression of His will. He is revealed in the blowing of the wind and the shining sun. The spider inexorably spinning its web is responding to the nature that the Creator implanted within it. The branch reaching up to the rays of the sun is acting according to a set of commandments decreed by the ruler of all natural phenomena.
We come to understand that during the Yamim Noraim we are participating in an inexplicable drama. This omnipotent ruler of all that exists eagerly beckons us – mortal, powerless, flawed creations – to return to Him and renew our relationship with Him.
Blessed are You, Hashem, the King Who pardons and forgives our iniquities and the iniquities of His people, the Family of Israel and removes our sins every year, King over all the world, Who sanctifies Israel and the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur Amidah)
3. The High Holidays and judgement
Second, we recognize that the King has ascended His throne and is judging His subjects. No one can escape His judgment and His decree cannot be ameliorated. We recognize that our destiny is being decided by Hashem – who knows all and whose judgment is absolute.
These perceptions overcome the illusions we foster regarding our destiny. Generally, we consistently assure ourselves that we control our fates. We believe in the power of our own wisdom, the efficacy of our efforts, and our capacity to overcome all obstacles by dint of our determination. The Yamim Noraim strip away this self-indulgent illusion. They break through the barriers of conceit that we have erected around us and impose upon us the realization that we are actually puny, impotent creatures. We lack the capacity to protect ourselves from a virus carried by a tiny insect – one the most insignificant creatures in our environment. How can we delude ourselves into believing that we are the masters of our destiny? Within us emerges the realization that we are completely dependent upon Hashem. Our destiny is determined by His decree and we are powerless to defy His will.
And You gave us, Hashem our G-d, with love, this day of Yom Kippur for pardon and forgiveness, and to pardon on it all of our sins, a sacred occasion, a memorial to the exodus from Egypt. (Yom Kippur Amidah)
I am for my beloved and my beloved is for me… (Shir HaShirim 6:3)
4. The High Holidays as a rendezvous with Hashem
This overwhelming sense of awe is accompanied by a sense of intimacy. Hashem beckons unto us to return to Him. He invites us to come before Him. He calls unto us to restore the relationship that we have weakened through our trespasses, our willfulness, and even our rebellion. Awe and intimacy combine to create an overpowering force that inspires us. We feel the presence of the Creator and we renew our commitment to serve Him and to be faithful to His commandments.
In short, the intensity of the Yamim Noraim experience derives from the replacement of our self-imposed delusions of strength and independence with the reality of our frailty, our absolute dependence upon Hashem, and His ever-present invitation to approach Him – His beckoning call that we return to Him.
If we can resist our innate tendency to delude ourselves with fantasies of our own omnipotence and retain our perception of both our dependence upon Hashem and His accessibility, then we can extend the inspiration of the Yamim Noraim beyond its boundaries and endow our entire year with the inspiration of these special days. But how can we overcome our natural tendency to succumb to our illusions?
Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; let the sea roar, and the fullness thereof; Let the field exult; and all that is therein; then shall all the trees of the wood sing for joy; (Psalms 96:11-12)
5. The four species of Succot and their message
The festival of Succot centers around two mitzvot. One is the mitzvah of the four species. These are the palm branch, the citron, the myrtle, and the willow. The four species are elements of the natural world that is Hashem’s obedient servant. The species and the universe they represent perfectly obey the master Who commands the laws that govern all natural phenomena. Every element of the universe from the angels in the heavens to the sub-atomic particle in unison extols Him. Their unflagging obedience to His irresistible will expresses the most beautiful and sublime praise.
However, He challenges humanity to choose to reflect His will. This exalted state is not imposed upon humankind. Instead, humankind must come to this state through election. Humanity can elect to reflect His will. This election completes the tapestry of the universe and a work of breathtaking beauty and wonder emerges. Alternatively, humanity can reject Hashem and deny His will. This election mars the tapestry with discord and confusion.
On Succot we grasp these species. We hold them and wave them as we praise our Creator. We express our earnest desire to join the universe in its exalted praise of Hashem. We acknowledge the natural world is but a reflection of the wisdom and omnipotence of Hashem. It is His servant and messenger responding obediently to his irresistible will. In the quiet passing of the breeze and the soft flutter of the wings of a tiny bird, we hear the thunder of nature’s praise for its Creator. As we grasp these species we express our deep desire to join this chorus and to blend our praise into the song of the universe.
You shall dwell in booths seven days. All that are home-born in Israel shall dwell in booths, so that your generations may know that I caused the children of Israel to dwell in booths, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt. I am Hashem your G-d. (Sefer VaYikra 23:42-43)
6. The message of the succah
The second commandment that is unique to the celebration of Succot is dwelling in the succah – a booth. The Torah directs us to leave our homes and to live in these temporary booths for the duration of the festival. According to the Torah, the mitzvah recalls the booths or the covering of clouds that protected Bnai Yisrael during its sojourn in the wilderness. The commentators note that the sole intent of the mitzvah is not to recall this historical event. Instead, the mitzvah directs us to leave the security of our homes and to establish these flimsy booths as our residencies. Through this experience we are reminded of our dependence upon Hashem and we recall that in the hostile environment of the wilderness, He provided us with complete protection and security.
However, the mitzvah has an even greater significance in the context of its season. The Yamim Noraim emphasized our dependence upon Hashem. With the passing of the Yamim Noraim, we are challenged to cling to this cognizance of our helplessness and our dependence upon Hashem. In order to succeed, we must confront the elaborate measures we take to convince ourselves that we are the masters of our destinies and that we have the power to secure favorable futures and to ward-off disaster.
Our homes are one of the most powerful components of our delusion. Within our home we feel a sense of security. We feel that we are protected from those who would harm us. The elements are held at bay. For many of us, our homes project our sense of authority, our pride, and our feelings of accomplishment and triumph. Of course, this is an illusion. Our homes provide little protection against an adversary who truly wishes to harm us. In our homes we are sheltered from mild variations in the elements. We are protected from common winds and rain. However, our homes provide no protection against a true onslaught of the terrible forces of nature – a hurricane or earthquake. We may delude ourselves into believing that the grandeur of our homes reflects our own greatness. However, how many great fortunes have been lost overnight? How many vibrant, healthy lives have been taken by sudden inexplicable illness or tragic accident?
Hark! My beloved! Behold, he cometh, leaping upon the mountains, skipping upon the hills. (Shir HaShirim 2:8)
7. Rediscovering Hashem in the succah and synagogue
Forced to abandon our homes for the duration of the festival we feel exposed, vulnerable, and almost helpless. Suddenly, we reencounter Hashem! Stripped of the delusion of power and control, we rediscover the Creator of the Yamim Noraim. Again, as we listen intently, we hear Him beckon unto us. He awaits us in the succah. He anticipates us at the synagogue. He is eager to hear our voices added to the chorus of creation that extols His praises.
Through Succot, we renew and extend our encounter with Hashem. We confront the complex delusions that we construct around us to ward away our insecurities. With the deconstruction of these delusions, we rediscover that the only true security is provided by Hashem. Again, we realize that He awaits us.
1. Rav Herschel Schachter, Recorded lecture, YUTorah.org.
2. This explanation of the message of the four species is suggested by various sources that associate the mitzvah with Tehilim 96:12. In this chapter King David asserts that the heavens, earth and their component parts give praise unto Hashem. Among the texts that associate the mitzvah with this chapter are Yalkut Shimoni, VaYikra, 23:651; Midrash Tanchumah, Emor, chapter 18; Shaarei Teshuvah, 660:1. The association of the mitzvah with this chapter indicates that the mitzvah makes reference of the praise to Hashem that is reflected in the universe of natural phenomena. This association does not explain the selection of specifically these four species for the purpose of communicating this idea. The selection of specifically these species is discussed extensively in the midrash and among the commentaries.
3. See for example, Rashbam VaYikra 23:43.