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The Hidden Meaning of the Fall Holy Days

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.

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laura t mushkat

posted October 3, 2007 at 3:25 pm

Gotta admit it is an interesting time of year. As a school kid I loved it for all the days off-my gentile friends talked of converting!
When you work it makes it hard and sometimes you pick and choose. Then as a parrent you do it all over again. For the working couple with kids this can sometimes be a problem but again you pick and choose. At times like this, if observant, lucky are the kids whose parrent or parrents can share the holidays with them and not work.
Some Jews use up their personal days or vacation time. Then you become an empty nester, the couple is retired. If health allows you go to services all over again. Then you become a widow or widower and you need more choices to make as to go or not go and with whom.
Next you may have grandchildren who hopefully you can share much or all of the holidays at this time with.
Within only a few weeks you can see the circle of life.

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Linda M Bemis

posted October 5, 2007 at 11:36 am

Think of the many who lost their home and belongings in a disaster. Be grateful for what you do have. Shelter, food and clothing. Security won’t keep you safe from the wolf and it is how each one view it. Fear and danger are gripping people who worry. You may not see the truck that hit you while crossing the street.
The creator knows what each one needs in a different way so anyone can help with the material items. Faith is a different matter and prayer is another issue. Planning, action and problem solving can be done by anyone with some efficiency.

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