Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The (over the top, exuberant, wonderful) Joy of Sukkot (and Simchat Torah)!

At our Sukkot Lunch-and-Learn today, we looked at a fantastic text from Kedushat Levi. He quotes Lev 23:40 which, when talking about the mitzvah of the lulav, starts off by saying, "On the first day, take the fruit of the lovely tree..."

Midrash Tanhuma notices a problem: it says "On the first day," but this is the 15th day of the 7th month. How can you call this the first day?* What this is, the midrash teaches, is the first day on which God counts our sins. Great! Conundrum solved! Except, we have no idea what that means…

* It actually means "On the first day of Sukkot," but Rabbis never let a simple answer get in the way of a good teaching.

What it means, the author (Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev) tells us is that in between Yom Kippur and the beginning of Sukkot, God doesn't pay attention when we sin.

Okay – don't take this too literally. It isn't saying that we have a four day window during which God ignores all of our sins, and we can therefore do anything that we want. There are, of course, limits. Think of it as a parent who gives a child permission to hang out in their room for a few hours, promising that they won't come and check on them. Of course there are things they still can't do, and things that will get them in trouble. But, as long as you don't go too far, you've got some time to yourself, without being watched over.

The real question, then, is why would God do this? Well, it's all about the two reasons people might repent.

The High Holy Days are focused on "repentance out of fear." Essentially, God is saying to us that we have to start being better, or we're in for it. Divine punishment, the Book Life and Death, etc. This kind of repentance is good — it is, after all, repentance. But, it's not great. It's not ideal.

But, as soon as Yom Kippur is over, we're supposed to turn our attention to Sukkot. And, unlike Yom Kippur, Sukkot is a holiday of joy. We are commanded to rejoice, and the holiday makes it pretty easy to do that – you get to go outside and play (which, if you don't live in Florida, is a real treat this time of year). You get to create a fun little hut, and decorate it. You get to take some plants and wave them all around. I'm not really capturing it very well here, I think, but Sukkot is a time of real fun. Even a bit of silliness, maybe.

This, Levi Yitzhak teaches, is an example of "repentance out of joy." We do what we're supposed to do not because we're afraid of punishment, but because we love what we're supposed to do! And, God much prefers that. God wants us to do the right thing (and, "the right thing" has a lot of room for interpretation) not because we're afraid of punishment, because we really, really want to.

In the end, the ideal is not just to act a certain way. the deal is to feel a certain way, too. Don't just act like a good Jew*. Love Judaism, too.

* whatever that means

And, that led us to a truly important side discussion. Sukkot has to be a joyous holiday. And, the truth is, we don't always get that right. Don't get me wrong – we have fun on Sukkot. But, not enough. Sukkot should be at least as much fun as Yom Kippur is difficult. And, if you ask me, that's a whole lot of fun.

Well, as Sukkot ends, we have one last chance to have FUN! Simchat Torah is a bit of an extra holiday, tacked onto the end of Sukkot. We celebrate the ending of a Torah reading cycle as we start the next one. We dance around with the Torah scrolls, sing songs and have a bit of fun in the synagogue.

And, this year, I'm excited to say that we're going to have more fun than ever before here at Beth Am, because we're also debuting our new band (name to be decided soon revealed that night)! We've got some amazingly talented musicians who are going to fill our sanctuary with music, as we fill it with joy.

And, I hope you don't mind me saying this, but that sounds a whole lot better than a day of fasting...

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