For most Jews, the words “High Holidays” immediately conjure up Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and that is perfectly understandable. After all, they are the three days in the Jewish year when even the most alienated Jews find their way into synagogue, and the holidays most Jews are likely to be familiar with. The existential import of their sacred moments resonates with Jews for a whole host of reasons, no matter how distant they may feel themselves from any prayerful posture.
But the truth, of course, is more complicated. The high holidays are better understood as a season than a specific set of days. They are a state of mind and being, framed by sacred days but not limited by them.
Those who regularly attend a morning minyan have no doubt at all about when the high holiday season begins. It happens on the morning of Rosh Chodesh Elul, the first day of the Hebrew month of Elul, when the service is punctuated at its conclusion by the blast of the shofar. The practice is repeated every day of Elul and ceases only on the day before Rosh Hashanah in order to differentiate between the optional sounding of the shofar and that mandated by the Torah (on the days of the holiday itself).
No one can argue that the essential tone of the high holiday season is a solemn one. It is a time of cheshbon hanefesh, literally, a reckoning of the soul. We are tasked with looking inward as we prepare to stand in judgment before God, who knows our inner selves. God knows us, as it were, at a glance. It is we who often don’t know – or pretend not to know – ourselves. That is the difficult work of the month of Elul. As Maimonides pointed out, one cannot do penance for a sin that one is unaware of having committed. You can’t fix what you don’t know is broken. Elul is the time for figuring that out, and the Aseret Y’mei T’shuvah (Ten Days of Repentence), from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur, are our time to act on that newfound awareness of our imperfections.
But no sooner is Yom Kippur over and the fast broken than we are obliged to turn our attention to Sukkot, the fall pilgrimage festival that follows quickly on its heels. In fact, tradition suggests that we begin the construction of the Sukkah on the evening that Yom Kippur concludes. No rest for the weary!
The juxtaposition of the solemn high holidays with the joyous festival of Sukkot is more than a little jarring. Conventional wisdom has it that this seemingly awkward positioning is best understood as a prescriptive behavioral reaction to the high holidays’ relentless emphasis on mortality. After more than a month of being reminded of how fragile life is, the most spiritually constructive response is to celebrate: V’samachta b’chagecha… v’hayita ach sameach (And you shall rejoice in your holidays… and you shall be exceedingly joyous) Deuteronomy 16:14- 15. Both the historical dimension of God’s kindness to us in the desert after the Exodus (by sheltering us in sukkot) and the agricultural dimension of the fall harvest provide the impetus for the celebration. Let the sobriety of the Yamim Nora’im (Days of Awe) end and the various sensory delights of Sukkot begin.
This all makes perfect sense. The flow is logical and it positions us to enter the new year in a spiritual posture of joy and gratitude. But nothing is ever that simple.
Think for a moment of the flow of Sukkot. The sixth day of the holiday – the fourth and last day of chol hamoed in the Diaspora – is Hoshanah Rabbah, when the metaphorical Books of Life and Other are finally sealed. The preliminary sealing, as it were, is on Yom Kippur, but the final sealing is on Hoshanah Rabbah. It is the moment of ultimate justice, reflected in the reversion to high holiday melodies in the lengthy synagogue service, and the fact that the hazzan wears a white kittel, as on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. One might ask, what happened to v’samachta b’chagecha? What about embracing celebration in the aftermath of all that talk of mortality?
The question only becomes more acute the next day, on Shemini Atzeret. Once again, the joy of Sukkot is mitigated by the recitation of the Yizkor memorial service and the dramatic prayer for rain in its proper time and amount in the land of Israel. The ark is opened, and again the hazzan wears a kittel and uses a melody reminiscent of the high holidays.
And just to complicate the mood shift even further, later that evening we revert back to joyous mode with the advent of Simchat Torah, singing and dancing in celebration of completing the cycle of annual Torah readings.
What’s happening here?
The answer, I believe, is to be found in the fact that the festival of Sukkot is not after the high holiday season. It is very much part and parcel of it. And all of it together is one great, grand metaphor about life and its ebb and flow. Fragility yields to intuitions of mortality, which yield to celebration, which yields to intuitions of mortality, which yield yet again to celebration… this is the rhythm by which we live our lives. What makes it so complicated is the irregular, almost spasmodic rhythm, often jerking us from one extreme to the other, without warning, rhyme or reason.
I cannot count how many times I have watched people wait for the chance to spend quality time with a beloved spouse only to see that partner or they themselves become seriously ill. Parents dare to dream about the life they want their child to live, only to see events unfold and take all of them in unanticipated and sometimes unwelcome directions. And then there are those moments when it appears that nothing is going as we want. All appears lost, until for reasons that we can neither discern nor understand, things turn out better than we anticipated. And we just don’t know why or how it happened.
The reality is that there is precious little of life about which we can be sure. And what we all learn eventually – some more painfully than others – is that the things that matter the most to us are the things we have the least control over. We have to nurture them. Like the transition from Yom Kippur to Sukkot, to Hoshanah Rabbah and Shemini Atzeret, and then to Simchat Torah, we lurch from the good to the bad, from the easy to the difficult, most often without warning, holding on for dear life.
For the past three decades, I have tried hard to help the members of my community understand that intuiting the fragility of life and the imperative of celebration is not a seasonal issue in Judaism but rather a daily one. The swirling currents of the high holiday season are, indeed, the currents of our lives, and learning to navigate them is an essential life skill. It is the difference between living a meaningful life in a difficult world, and merely surviving.
To my mind, one of Judaism’s most important and timeless teachings was offered by Rabbi Meir in the Babylonian Talmud (Menachot 43b): “One is obligated to recite one hundred blessings each day.” We might be tempted to read this as a reflection of a narcissistic God who requires incessant flattery, but I read it much more simply. It is not God who requires the blessings to assuage a needy ego, but rather we humans who require the recitation of blessings to remind us of how fragile our blessings really are, and how quickly they can disappear.
This is the fundamental message of the high holiday season, and it reflects, if in higher definition, the fundamental message of Judaism itself. You are blessed. Be grateful. Celebrate life! In that spirit, may I wish you all a k’tivah vachatimah tovah. May we all enjoy a year rich in blessing, with peace, prosperity and good health!