Thursday, 17 Oct 2019

Written by Elliott Karstadt

My favourite yom tov is Yom Kippur. Don’t get me wrong, Rosh Hashanah is exultant, Purim is fun, I love the prospect of powering my way through a night of studying on Shavuot, and Chanukah – well, need I say more than: doughnuts! But Yom Kippur gives me a feeling that no other festival can achieve: a deep sense of holiness and spirituality – a real tingling of expectation as the scrolls are brought from the ark on Kol Nidre and the solemn chant begins, all the way to Ne’ilah, the darkening of the day, and the urgency of the closing of the gates. It can feel as though every thought on that day is of cosmic moral importance; every action one that can define the rest of the year.

And yet that level of drama is probably why Yom Kippur is so quickly followed by Sukkot – seven days in which we are expected to get our hands dirty and live in a rickety shack. On Yom Kippur, the world is created for us and every moment is laden with meaning; on Sukkot, we remember that we are merely dust, and that our life is but a span.

You could also say that, following the heights of the High Holy Days, Sukkot is the messy, imperfect, continuation of everyday life. The physical Sukkah itself represents those moments in between. As human structures go, the sukkah is among the most temporary we can imagine. The rabbis of the Mishnah tell us that even a sukkah built on the top of a tree is valid. If you’re travelling by sea, and you want to build your sukkah on-board your ship? Valid. If you’re on the road, and you have to build your sukkah on the top of your wagon? Valid. If you’re crossing the desert? The rabbis say even a sukkah built on the back of a camel is valid! The guests – the ushpizin – that we invite into our sukkah do not come for a grand ceremony, but for a simple meal. The sukkah represents everything that is transient and temporary.

As the Psalmist says: Limnot yameinu ken hoda, v’navi l’vav khochmah – ‘teach us to number our days, so that we may obtain a wise heart’ (Ps 90:12). We do not ask God, ultimately, to save us from death. Rather, we ask for an appreciation of our lives, and for the lives of our loved ones. The knowledge of our impermanence is a call to action – to ensure that our lives have an impact on those around us, and that we do something, however small, to make the world a better place in the limited time we have. In the words of John Lennon in a song he wrote for his son: ‘Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.’ And in the words of Ecclesiastes: ‘remember your creator in the days of your youth’ (12:1) – in other words, act now on the things that make you happy and act now on the things that will benefit others. If we had forever, and we did not have to number our days, perhaps we never would.

There is a story (which has been attributed to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel) of a great pianist who was asked by an ardent admirer: ‘How do you handle the notes as well as you do?’ He answered: ‘The notes I handle no better than many pianists, but the pauses between the notes – ah! That is where the art resides.’ ‘In great living, as in great music,’ Heschel says ‘the art may be in the pauses.’ Life cannot be defined just by the exalted moments. In a prayer from the American Reform Siddur, Mishkan T’fillah, Judi Neri writes:

We reached for You [God] down the centuries,

Your light moving before us

as we climbed, fell back and climbed again

Your Sinai of life.

(From: Mishkan Tefillah, p. 63)

The whole of our lives is equivalent to a moment between Moses and God on the mountain, and this is something that applies to all of us. We are all too often caught up in the big moments, and the greatest of us need to be reminded to acknowledge those little moments, which are just as important. So, while Yom Kippur might be my favourite yom tov, I’m always glad to have Sukkot to save me from the obsession with its holiness, and its reminder to number my days and live.

Elliott Karstadt LBC rabbinic student

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.