It begins with the month of Elul, a time we set aside to begin preparing for the High Holy Days. We are invited to hear the blast of the shofar every day leading to Rosh Hashanah, allowing its sound the opportunity to begin centering ourselves on what’s to come.
On Rosh Hashanah we gather with family, eat round challah, and consider repentance. Then, during the Ten Days, once again, we consider our lives, our hopes, our dreams, while at the same time we consider how we might awaken our better angels and become the best person we can. What wakes us up? What makes us a better man or woman? How can we make restitution with our neighbor?
And in particular, I’ve been thinking a lot about the genius of Yom Kippur lately, trying to drill down into its deeper meaning, wondering what it says about human nature, and how Yom Kippur guides our thoughts and actions.
And here’s my current thought. The observance of Yom Kippur is a recognition, perhaps even a celebration of, our frailty as human beings, the acknowledgement that we humans are by nature an imperfect lot. Yom Kippur say to us, you know, it’s okay not to be perfect. Imperfection’s the wheel we ride on, and to face that fact of our existence, and to perhaps even manage to do something about it, we have these days to focus on. When, after Neilah, the service that ends Yom Kippur, we walk out the door, perhaps we’ve come to some resolutions, but those resolutions do not include the means to find our perfection, only our acknowledgement of our imperfection, and our willingness to strive with it, perhaps to move incrementally as, perhaps we help move the world incrementally.
And then five days after Neilah Sukkot comes, another time we face ourselves and our God. Only this time we sit in a booth that by its nature is not a shelter from any storm. We wave some leaves along with a thing that looks like an overgrown lemon in six directions. In an act of vulnerability, we’re exposed to the elements as we dwell in this hut which by its very definition has to be open to the stars as well as the rain, sleet, snow, and hail, and gloom of night. Thing is, this exposure is a religious act, as if to say to the immanent aspect of God, here I sit, God. I’m open to you. Are you open to me? If so, I’m yours to teach. C’mon inside.
We invite people long gone into our Sukkah to commune with their souls. Abraham and Sarah? Abraham Lincoln? My grandfather Avram? Anyone you’d like to commune with for a few moments is fair game. And, too, we share a meal with anyone in an act of generosity, of hachnasat orchim. But we might choose to dwell alone in the sukkah, communing with the elements, with God, with our own nature. After all, it was just a few days before that we left Neilah, and all it implies, behind.
And that, friends, is our annual summer-fall dustup, our withdrawal from and re-entry into the world, in hopes of personal and communal betterment, of openness and meeting with our God, our neighbor, and ourselves.
Rabbi Phil Cohen