Thursday, September 24, 2015

Remembering What Matters- Why does Succot follow Yom Kippur?

Although it’s to be expected, the first mindless mitzvah I do after Yom Kippur always leaves me feeling very disappointed. Having spent weeks building up to Yom Kippur, with its conclusion where each word of  Neilah is said with passion, care and intent, the inevitable descent always seems to happen so quickly. What has happened to the commitments we made while doing teshuva? Is there anything that can be done to help us internalize the gains we’ve made on Yom Kippur? How do we avoid simply going back to the life we lived before?

According to the Torah (Vayikrah 23:43) the mitzvah of Succot is to help us recall that God caused us to dwell in Succot when we left Egypt. Famously, the Tur asks why we recall something connected to the exodus from Egypt in Tishrei, rather than in Nissan when it occurred. While the Tur suggests one well-known reason, I’d like to suggest another one.

If asked to group Succot with other holidays, we might suggest Pesach and Shavuot, as they, along with Succot, make up the Shalosh Regalim. The Vilna Gaon suggests another grouping, based on proximity on the calendar. It is hard to imagine that it is simply by chance that Succot falls out right after Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Surely there must be a connection, but what might it be?

In both the gemara, as well as in the Rambam, an emphasis is made on the idea that we are supposed to leave our homes, described as a “dirat keva” (permanent dwelling), and live in a sukkah, which is called a “dirat arai” (temporary dwelling). For seven days, or eight for those outside of Israel, we leave the comfort of our comfortable homes and live in a flimsy hut. There must be a message in making this change so soon after the Yamim Noraim. In fact, the Rema, Rav Moshe Isserles, suggests that one should start building his sukkah right after the conclusion of Yom Kippur, leading one to conclude that two holidays are connected.

On Yom Kippur, we emphasize our spiritual side to the exclusion of our physical reality. We avoid common physical pleasures, acting for one day, as if we are angels. We search deep inside and discover spiritual strengths we might not have known we possess. We set new goals, and make the decision to be more than we’ve been. Still, this purely spiritual state is ephemeral. As physical beings it must be so.

Despite the inevitable return to ordinary human life, the mitzvah of sukkah offers us something to take with us. Do not forget, it calls to us, that there are two sides to you. One is permanent and eternal, and one is temporary. We enter the month of Elul with things having gotten out of balance. We have taken the side of ourselves that we have on loan for a relatively short amount of time, and made it the focus of our lives. As we experience the Yamim Noraim, we get back in touch with the spiritual aspects of our existence.  The Sukkah calls out to us, sounding like Shlomo Hamelech in Kohelet. Life is not about accruing wealth. No material pleasures last forever. Remember, calls the Sukkah, which part of your existence is permanent and which is temporary. Return to life, but do not return to normal. Remember what truly matters. Remember who you are and who you wish to be.


Thursday, September 17, 2015

Speechless Before the Judge- Some thoughts on teshuva

I was lucky. Being the one giving the shiur, I got to choose the subject. I picked a topic that I could speak about with confidence. I chose the topic that doesn’t scare me, the one that doesn’t keep me from sleeping comfortably. I stayed away from the topic where I would have sounded less rabbinic, the one where I can hardly serve as an example.

There is a story that is told about a non-observant professor who had a conversation with the saintly Rav Aryeh Levine. The professor suggested that those who are religious are lucky, as they can do teshuva, as they have the religious texts which show them how to do so. The rabbi responded that for that very reason, it is difficult to do teshuva. I think I understand the story. I’ve opened the sefarim, read the words, and tried to apply them. Still, I am not sure I have done teshuva, at least not in the way I want to. No, the way that I need to.

So I chose to speak about teshuva, and how it relates to God. I spoke about moving from an approach of fear, to one of joy. Of seeing teshuva not as a way to avoid punishment, but as a way to become the person we wish to be, and the person we were created to be. I spoke about this because I could. It’s a message I’ve mostly eternalized in my own life. This year, I’ve worked on the religious side of things in my life. I am no longer as scared as I once was of Divine punishment. I see a deeper aspect to religion. Unsaid in all of this was how I think about teshuva as it connects to my relationship with others, and with myself.

I couldn’t and can’t speak about those things because I just don’t know what to say. When the things I’ve done wrong to others go from disconnected mistakes to expected patterns, what does teshuva even mean? How does one continue to apologize for wrongdoings that have become habits, and seemingly taken on a life of their own? How do I stand before God and say that this year will be different, when I have no reason to believe that to be true?

There was a moment this past Rosh Hashanah where this thought hit me, and I’ve been reeling ever since. It was a moment of recognition where I realized that so much that troubles me about who I am when I’m not in front of a classroom teaching Torah, or away from the public eye, did not just happen, but came about through choice. At that moment, all of the excuses simply faded away. As I let that thought settle over me, there was no fear of punishment, and no thought about how God might judge me. There was something worse. I sat not before the proverbial beis din shel ma’alah (the Heavenly court), but before a much harsher judge and jury. I sat facing myself, having no idea what I could possibly say.