By this time of year, many Jews are holidayed out. We’ve sat through Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and used our personal days at work for the privilege. Perhaps we managed to celebrate Sukkot. But hold on, there’s still Hoshanna Rabbah, Shemini Atzeret, and Simchat Torah–all this week! That’s right, the Jewish month of Tishrei is chock full of enough holidays to exhaust any rabbi and wear out all but the most devoted congregants. What gives?
Obviously, this time of year was very important for the ancient Israelites as they celebrated the fall harvest and then prayed for rain for a good spring harvest the following year, and most of these holidays are agricultural in origin. But there’s an important spiritual message here as well–one that shouldn’t be overlooked as we finish one holiday and immediately prepare for the next. The New Year, after all, is about recognizing that we do not control what happens to us. In the words of the Unetaneh Tokef prayer, “Who will live and who will die” is in God’s hands. This message could be paralyzing or induce a certain fatalism, but instead, we are told to move trustfully and joyfully into the New Year by taking our tables and our plates and meals out to the sukkah (a temporary structure usually consisting of three walls and covered by tree branches) and celebrate there. It may be cold, it may rain (when I served a congregation in Minneapolis they spoke of sitting in their sukkah in the snow!)–and yet we leave the usual shelter of our warm homes and dine al fresco for a week. The message? Even if we can’t control the elements (let alone our fates for the coming year) we don’t shut ourselves up in our homes, scared to leave, counting on the false sense of security four strong walls and a solid roof bring, should we be fortunate enough to have them. Instead, we dwell in the uncertainty, but do it mindfully and joyfully taking with us the true sources of our security–our families, our faith, and our traditions.
At the end of the holiday we celebrate Simchat Torah by completing the annual cycle of Torah reading with song and joyous dancing and beginning the cycle immediately anew. This reinforces the message that now we have truly begun again – that we can resume the cycle of our lives following the New Year, having assimilated the messages both of our ultimate lack of control and the joy that can come in stripping away illusions and moving forward with confidence and rejoicing. It is a message that can infuse our lives and choices for the remaining 11 months of the year.