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The High Holy Days and Succos

ROSH HASHANAH September 25-26, 2014.

     ON THE FIRST ROSH HASHANAH in history, God created Adam and Eve. Creation had begun five days before, but it was only when man had been brought into existence that God's creative labor was done. Heaven and earth, light and darkness, day and night, continents and oceans, angels and heavenly bodies, trees and vegetation, animal, fish and fowl — the entire universe was needed to set the stage for man, its principal player.

     Only if we accept man as the primary star in the firmament of creation can we understand the familiar verse from the Rosh Hashanah Mussaf liturgy: "This day is the anniversary of the start of Your handiwork, a remembrance of the first day." Why is Rosh hashanah called the ''start of God's handiwork,'' when creation began five days earlier, on the twenty-fifth of Elul? And why is it called the ''first day'' when the Torah states clearly that Adam was created on the sixth day?

    Clearly, the prominence given Rosh Hashanah provides perspective in how to view the universe and man's role in it. If a building is important mainly as an architectural specimen, then its construction will be studied and its anniversaries reckoned from the pouring of its foundation, the completion of its facade, the emplacement of its ornamentation, and its ribbon cuting ceremony. But if the building's purpose is to be a habitat or a headquarters, then the important anniversaries will involve the human use of the structure. So, too, the world's anniversary is not reckoned from the creation of the galaxies, angels, or canyons. The purpose of the universe is man's inner struggle to choose between good and evil, so the day he was created is the anniversary of the start of Your handiwork. And the day Adam and Eve first laid eyes ofn the world in which they were to decide whether to serve God or defy Him was the first day — not the first day of physical creation, but the first day of its purpose.

    This historic nature of Rosh Hashanah explains why it is the Day of Judgment. Any ongoing project must be evaluated from time to time to see whether it is achieving its goal, and whether the individual actors have carried out their assigned roles. Since Rosh Hashanah was the day when man began to put the Divine plan into action, God chose that day for an annual evaluation of the state of His universe and of man's success in bringing it to perfection.

YOM KIPPUR is October 4, 2014.

The Day for Coming Close to Hashem

    Yom Kippur is perhaps one of the most misunderstood days in the Jewish calendar. It is not a sad day nor a day of mourning. Just the reverse. The restrictions of eating and drinking which are Biblically prohibited, and the other four restrictions of washing one's body, anointing oneself with lotions and cosmetics, wearing leather shoes and engaging in marital relations — which to most authorities are Rabbinic prohibitions — are not for the purpose of inflicting pain and suffering on man. To the contrary, Meshech Chochmah opines that the reason for the mitzvah to eat on the day before Yom Kippur is to make sure that one will be ready and able to fast. At all times concerned for our welfare, the Torah insists that we adequately prepare for the fast by eating well the day before.

    Why then the commandment to fast? Sefer HaChinuch (Mitzvah 313) suggests that it would be insensitive and inappropriate for one to eat on the day when he exerts all his capacities to be with his Maker; on such a day there is no place for yielding to physical urges of the body. We make ourselves more worthy of God's mercy. Others suggest that it is reflective of man's capacity to raise himself to the level of the angels, who are devoid of these five physical needs.

    The Talmud informs us that Yom Kippur was one of the most festive days of the year. The Talmud (Taanis 30b) suggests two reasons for the special festive nature of Yom Kippur. Firstly, it is a day of forgiveness and pardon. Rashi explains that after the sin of the Golden Calf, Moses ascended Mount Sinai twice, for forty days each time. He descended on the tenth of Tishrei with the Second Tablets of the Law and the Divine response (Exodus 32:14) that "Hashem reconsidered regarding the evil that He declared He would do to His people." Since Hashem forgave the Jewish nation, that date itself was permanently etched with this capacity for forgiving. It became the annual Yom Kippur. Thus, Rambam writes: While one should scrutinize one's behavior and repent throughout the year, during the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur it is especially important to introspect and repent, as the time is more propitious and our repentance is received immediately, as the prophet Isaiah (55:6) teaches: "Seek Hashem when He can be found; call upon Him when He is near" (Laws of Repentance 2:6). On Yom Kippur Hashem is closest to man. Moreover, the Sefer HaChinuch (Mitzvah 185) teaches that the institution of Yom Kippur, the day designated for atonement of sins, is a reflection of Hashem's great love and kindness toward His beings; He does not allow man's sins to accumulate, lest they become so numerous that the natural world could not endure. Thus, in His infinite wisdom, to insure the continuity of this world He designated one day fo the atonement and forgiveness of sins for those who repent. Moreover, this day — the tenth of Tishrei — was designated as such from the time of Creation, as the Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 3:10) understands the verse, "and there was evening and there was morning, one day"' the one day says Rav Yannai, refers to Yom Kippur.

SUCCOS October 9-17, 2014.

Message of Succos

    In the wilderness God enveloped and sheltered Israel in His Clouds of Glory. The clouds were a sign that Israel had risen to the spiritual plateau that made it worthy of God's all-enveloping protection. Israel had completed the cycle. The promise of its springtime and the challenge of its harvest had been fulfilled as the nation was gathered into God's exalting, protecting, inspiring clouds. As the Torah says, for in succah-booths did I settle the Children of Israel (Leviticus 23:43).

    As Sfas Emes and others point out, whenever an individual or nation scales a spiritual height, it becomes easier to regain it, even after it has been lost. Like something that has been learned once and then forgotten, it is far easier to relearn it than to acquire new knowledge. Having once become worthy of God's protection and of being gathered into His spiritual bosom, as it were, Israel bequeathed to its posterity the potential to do so again. That means that we — all of us — can rise to the spiritual heights attained by our ancestors in the Wilderness. So the events of that year became the goal of every future year, every future historical cycle, because it could be done again.

    Thus Succos concludes the cycle. In the world of nature, it represents the joy of successfully completing the agricultural cycle. In the world of the spirit, it represents the successful completion of the mission for which God created man and gave the Torah to Israel.

    The commandment of succah tells Jew, leave the permanent dwelling and settle in a temporary dwelling (Succah 2a). In the context of the desert experience, even a succah offered little security. Makeshift walls and a thatched shade could not have provided true comfort in the vast, baked, sandy wilderness where there was neither food nor water, where snakes and scorpions were a constant danger (see Deuteronomy 8:15). Israel's comfortable survival for forty years in the wilderness was possible only because of God's constant mercy. Thus, when a Jew leaves him home in favor of his succah, he realizes that his own personal survival, like that of his forefathers, ultimately depends on God's protection. Even in modern times, the threats of human destructiveness and natural disaster make plain that man has no safer refuge than his fragile succah, and the Heavenly protection it represents.

    R' Samson Raphael Hirsch (in his Horeb) finds this aspect of succah to be both sobering and encouraging. To the powerful and wealthy, the succah says, 'Do not rely on your fortune; it is transitory and can leave you more quickly than it came. Even your castle is no more secure than a succah. If you are safe, it is because God shelters you as He did your ancestors when they had but a booth to protect them against one of earth's harshest environments. Let the starry sky you see through your s'chach teach you to build your castle upon a firm foundation of faith in God and see the benevolent gaze of God even when you look at its sturdy, insulated roof. If you can do that, opulence will not blind you to the glow of God's beneficence.

    To the poor and downtrodden, the succah says, 'Are you more helpless than millions of your ancestors in the Wilderness, without food, water, or permanent shelter? What sustained them? Who provided for them? Whose benevolent hand wiped their brow and soothed their worry? Look around you at your succah's frail walls and at the stars you see through its rustling roof. Let it remind you that Israel became a nation living in such "mansions." Those were the palaces of the kingdom of priests and holy nation (Exodus 19:6), the homes where they became a great and Godly nation, where they developed the faith that overcame fear, and the knowledge that God's word was their guarantor for tomorrow — every tomorrow.'