Monday, October 6, 2014

Sukkot: Yom Kippur's Counterbalance

Rabbi Michael Cohen for Jewish Reconstructionist Communities

Imagine Yom Kippur, the synagogue packed for the holiest day of the year. The anticipation of the day is upon everyone as they take their seats. But suppose something different occurs: Mahzorim for Sukkot are handed out along with hundreds of pairs of lulav and etrogom. This is one of my rabbinic fantasies -- to switch Yom Kippur with the first day of Sukkot. We often bemoan the fact that our synagogues are never so full as they are on Yom Kippur. Part of the problem with the rest of the year has to do with what happens on Yom Kippur! Known as the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur is the day that we go to shul. That long day in synagogue reinforces the idea that Judaism is heavy and serious, and that we should spend our time inside the synagogue in prayer or study. The problem with this picture is that it does not present a balanced view of what Judaism that takes us beyond the walls of the synagogue.

The worshiper also needs Sukkot which counterbalances Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur takes place inside; Sukkot takes place outside. On Yom Kippur we fast; while on Sukkot we feast. On Yom Kippur we pray and study with our minds; for Sukkot we build with our might. On Yom Kippur we hold a book in our hands; on Sukkot with the lulav and etrog we hold nature. On Yom Kippur we are serious and introspective; on Sukkot we are told to be joyful.

One of the giants of Kabbalah, Isaac Luria (16th century), instructed his disciples that the cultivation of joy is one of the prerequisites for attaining mystical illumination. Having gone through the necessary ten days of teshuvah (return) from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur we are ready to begin our engagement with the new year. That engagement can only take place with joy as one of its elements, the joy of Sukkot sets our bearings on the right course.

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