Q&A : Post Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur – September 2009 – “Jewish Life”
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is a time of change and renewal, but what happens afterwards?
There is a trap that we can all fall into which I call the ‘exam syndrome’ – after we have finished writing the exam, we pack away our books and never look at them again. And people can fall into this syndrome after Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We put in all this effort, beginning with Elul, and as the shofar is blown on Yom Kippur we not only break our fasts but we start to break all our resolutions. The pressure is off, everything is sealed, and now we can relax again for another year.
How do we avoid that trap?
One of the ways is actually the festival of Sukkot. Sukkot has many different meanings, but one of them is that it is the festival of continuity and sustainability.
We don’t go out from Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur into nothing – we go straight into Sukkot four days later. As Yom Kippur ends, there is a mitzvah to start building the sukkah. We don’t wait a day or two before beginning. It is not necessary to build it in its entirety; we just have to start building it, and in so doing the sources say that we must go “from strength to strength”. Then when Sukkot begins, we live in the Sukkah for 8 days. Some commentaries explain that the sukkah is the protection for all the repentance that we have done until now, because we go out into the sukkah to seek solace – that the changes that we have made can become integrated and stabilised into our lives. We can also focus more attention to our davening , which is all about our spiritual and emotional connection to G-d. And also, let’s try to do as many acts of kindness as possible.
Why do we look at Sukkot this way?
Sukkot could have been at any time of the year. It is the one festival, whilst linked to experiences we had as the Jewish people, it is not linked to any specific day. Pesach is celebrated the day we left Egypt. Shavuot is celebrated the day we received the Torah. Sukkot remembers the miracles Hashem did for us when we were in the desert for 40 years. So it could have been celebrated at any time of the year. Therefore, the fact that it comes just after Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur is significant. Sukkot gives us the opportunity to consolidate the mitzvah gains of Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur.
But how do we do that, over Sukkot?
Sukkot keeps us focused on Hashem and what we need to do in the world. There are many messages of the sukkah and the four species, and one of the messages is that all of our life experiences are contained in the sukkah – we eat, sleep, and socialise in the sukkah. And all of that becomes holy and sanctified. All of life is enveloped by the sukkah, by holiness. There is a verse from Tehillim that says, “Who can go up the mountain of G-d, and who can remain in the place of His holiness”. One dimension is going up the mountain, but another one is staying there. Sustaining what we have achieved.
To remain in the High Holy Day mindset?
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and Elul is a time of great seriousness. The stakes are high – there is judgement, repentance, asking for forgiveness, trying to change. It is a time of trepidation and awe. Sukkot is a time of love and joy, a life-affirming festival. The sukkah represents shelter, protection, and love after the day of judgement. Judaism teaches that we should serve G-d both with awe and with love. There are four species, and the common denominator, says the Talmud, is that they are all ‘wet’ species – fresh, well-watered. They represent the freshness of life. Over Rosh Hashanah ad Yom Kippur, we face death, a traumatic experience. But we come through that and then reaffirm our commitment to life.
But how do we take this forward?
One of the major teachings of Judaism is that holiness is to be found in a sustainable, everyday commitment to doing the right thing. Life is what happens every day, not only on the big occasions – rather we must use them as a catalyst for everyday holiness.
So where should we begin?
It says in Pirkei Avot that there are three pillars – Torah (learning), Avodah (Davening), and Gemillut Chassidim (kindness). This is vital to who we are, accessible to everyone, no matter their level, and can open the gates for everything else.
Can we give specific examples?
One practical way is very simply to learn more Torah, and there are many ways to do this – different shiurim with diverse topics, books, tapes, cds, dvds, websites. Just that little bit of inspiration can keep us uplifted. If you don’t learn at all, start learning ten minutes a day. If you do, increase your learning. Judaism has been given the most awesome intellectual system that exists in the world, but the learning is not just about the intellectual. The more we learn Torah, the more we are processing it and are able to integrate it into our lives.
So that next year, we can actually chart our growth outside of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur?
Yes, and to take the high of this time and turn it into an engine for growth for the rest of the year. People need to apply their minds strategically. To set realistic goals and plan how to live up to them. So that next year, come Rosh HaShana, we don’t find ourselves in the same place.
Does it matter how small these initial steps are?
No. But they shouldn’t be too small. We should be ambitious and push ourselves a little bit, but not make unrealistic commitments. The Talmud says, “The righteous say little and do much”. We need to find balance.
What if halfway through the year we wake up to realise that we have already failed?
That is looking at it in such absolute terms. If we look at it in those terms then failure will lead to despondency, and success will lead to complacency. If a person has taken too many negative steps, they need to make some positive ones. As long as we keep on pushing forward. Man is described by the Talmudic sages as ‘the walker’. Who keeps walking, keep moving. Stagnation is the worst thing, because it leads to retreat. And even if we have setbacks and disappointments, we need to get up and start moving forward again. The year has to be a year of movement.