Fear and trembling.
Those have been our primary religious emotions during the past several weeks.
Although Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are referred to nowadays as the High Holidays, traditionally they were known as the Days of Awe, Yamim Noraim. Frightful days, fearful days.
During this recent time none of us escaped a sense of insecurity. Recognizing that these days are days of divine judgment, we could not help but wonder as to how we were being judged. We felt vulnerable, insecure, and anxious about what the coming year has in store for us.
And this was as it should be. After all, the central theme of the prayers has been fear and trembling. We actually have asked of the Almighty that he “cast His fear over all of His handiwork, and His awe over all of His creatures.”
The great Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard entitled his book about Abraham’s binding of Isaac “Fear and Trembling”. With his great spiritual acumen, he was able to discern that the central theme of the passage in Genesis which Jews read on Rosh Hashanah was man’s vulnerability in the face of God’s demands.
But now we have emerged from this literally awesome period. Judaism does not want us to remain stuck in these overwhelming emotions of anxiety and uncertainty. And so, our Torah has provided us with the festival of Sukkot, a time not for fear and trembling, not even for a contemplation and soul-searching, but a time for serenity and joy.
We emerge from what mystics have termed the “dark night of the soul” into the bright light of simcha, of happiness.
But this happiness is not necessarily one of song and dance, and gala celebration. It is a deeper happiness, a feeling of contentment. It is a happiness which derives from a sense of safety and security, a basic sense of trust.
The central symbol of the holiday of Sukkot is the sukkah, the makeshift and often ramshackle hut in which we dwell, or at least take our meals during the holiday.
What is the meaning of this simple symbol? And how does it inspire this spiritual attitude of trust?
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch said it best when he wrote:
“The building of the sukkah teaches you trust in God. You know that whether men live in huts or in palaces, it is only as pilgrims that they dwell. You know that in this pilgrimage God is our protection. The sukkah is a transitory hut that one day will leave us or we will leave it. The walls may fall, the leafy covering may wither in this storm, but the sheltering love of God is everywhere. You dwell in the most fleeting and transitory dwelling as calmly and securely as if it were your house forever.”
And so this week, we undergo what scientists call a paradigm shift. We experience a different set of religious emotions, emerging from a deeply felt solemnity into a sense of calm security.
And we also redirect our orientation to God. He is no longer the harsh and exacting judge. He is not even the forgiving and compassionate judge. He is now our shelter and protector, the permanent “Rock of Israel”, in the transitory experience we call life.
We are able to effect this shift, and this redirection, by using the symbols that the holiday provides us, chief among them the sukkah.
What is the secret of the sukkah? How does it work its wonders?
The secret is to enter it respectfully and reflectively, spend as much time as possible enveloped in its shade, and invite into it two types of guests.
For starters flesh and blood friends and family, with special hospitality for those who may never have enjoyed a sukkah experience.
But we also symbolically summon the “ghost guests”, the ushpizin, our ancestors going back to Abraham and Sarah, whom we invite to join us.
Like no other mitzvah, we immerse ourselves in the sukkah. As Chassidim say, we enter the sukkah with “our boots on”, totally, holding nothing back. We dwell in it to the fullest extent possible, for an entire week.
And we encounter there twin blessings: the companionship of others, and the cherished memories of those who sat in other Sukkot before us, ancestors recent and long gone, who all participated as we do in that protracted pilgrimage known as Jewish history.
Chag Sameach. A happy, secure, and peaceful holiday to all!