Wednesday, 22 Sep 2010

Written by Rabbi Larry Tabick

Every year I ask myself the same question: Why does Sukkot have to come so soon after Yom Kippur? There are only four days in-between, and frankly, after leading services throughout most of that most holy of days and fasting, I’m exhausted! And then I have to start building and decorating the sukkah! It doesn’t seem fair.

One of the many answers our tradition offers to this comes from an anonymous 16th century work of kabbalah and ethics entitled Chemdat Yamim (‘Most Precious of Days’). Our author says: ‘[Sukkot] is entirely filled with forces of kindness, intended to conquer the forces of judgment that have been dominant from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur’ (v. 3, p. 354).

Kabbalists use the terms chasadim (‘forces of kindness’) and dinim (‘forces of judgment’) to describe what they see as divinely influenced emotional states that we all regularly go through. We may experience a feeling of well-being, happiness, and this is the result of the forces of kindness, while sadness, depression, and so forth are the result of the forces of judgment. These are not just individual or group feelings; the festivals tend to induce these feelings in us. The Ten Days of Repentance are days of judgment, when we consider the highest moral and spiritual goals Judaism sets for us, and how far short of them we have fallen. Sukkot, on the other hand, is a week long festival that celebrates God’s kind acts, specifically, the autumn harvest and Israel’s successful passage through the wilderness between Sinai and the Promised Land.

Sukkot is an occasion that is totally different from Yom Kippur. Where Yom Kippur is sombre, Sukkot is happy. Where Yom Kippur is largely cerebral, spiritual and intellectual, Sukkot is sensuous and active. Where the real work of Yom Kippur is internal and personal, the real work of Sukkot is physical and communal. Contrast standing and sitting in shul for hours on end with waving the lulav and eating in the sukkah. And where the dominant colour of Yom Kippur is white – the Torah covers, the bimah, the kittel; the predominant colour of Sukkot is green… and yellow – the Four Species… plus all the colours of the autumn fruit and veg and flowers that decorate the sukkah. What a pity that more of our members do not come to Sukkot! Without it, they get such a lop-sided view of Judaism.

And this points to a deeper message that the Chemdat Yamim is alluding to. The two types of forces that the author refers to are not confined to the Tishri festivals. We experience each of them from time to time, but they all stem from the same divine Source, and although their relative strengths constantly fluctuate, they tend towards balance. And balance is a key goal of the kabbalistic approach to Jewish practice, if not of Judaism itself.

Yes, we know that we will all face set-backs of one kind or another: ill health, economic, social or psychological hardship, personal or communal tragedy, anxiety, depression, etc. But we all enjoy the good things of life too: good food, good company, life’s simple pleasures. The ‘trick’ is to keep them in balance, to try to see the good when we are down, and not to imagine that the good will go on forever when we are up. Both good and bad, both the forces of kindness and the forces of judgment, stem from God. When we realise this, when we internalise this message, it becomes easier to achieve balance within ourselves , so that the good stuff doesn’t make us arrogant nor the bad depressed.

So, according to this view, why does Sukkot come so soon after Yom Kippur? To teach us that life seeks balance, that we need to be happy every bit as much as we need to judge ourselves, and that time must be given for both, for our psychological and spiritual health, and to teach us that all things, whether we judge them good or bad, come from God.

Rabbi Larry Tabick
Shir Hayim – Hampstead Reform Jewish Community

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