Former Shaliach in Montreal (2003-2004)
In Parashat Emor (Vayikra 23), the Torah describes in considerable detail five festivals. After first mentioning Shabbat, which is also considered a “moed” (festival), the Torah begins surveying the various chagim in calendar sequence, from Pesach (“Chag Ha’matzot”), through the counting of the omer and Shavuot, to Rosh Hashanah (“Yom Ha’zikaron”), Yom Kippur, and, finally, Sukkot.
We also find that in several instances, the Torah classifies Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot as the three “regalim,” or pilgrimage festivals. On these festivals there is a mitzva to travel to the Mikdash and bring special offerings. The mishna in Masechet Rosh Hashanah mentions that the month of Nissan marks “the new year for regalim.” Meaning, Pesach is the holiday that begins the regalim cycle, and so it is Sukkot that concludes the cycle, which ends another successful year of the Mikdash service.
To the other two festivals, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we normally refer as “Yamim Noraim,” or “Days of Awe.” These holidays occur during the month of Tishrei, the seventh month according to the Torah’s system of counting months. These are days of remembrance and forgiveness, days that mark the beginning of the year with regard to introspection and purification. As mentioned, these days fall in the seventh month, in accordance with the pattern by which every seventh within a time cycle is deemed sacred. The number seven indeed bears unique significance. Shabbat, the seventh day, is holy, a day on which one must cease his normal activity and sanctify the day. The seventh year, the shemita, is a “year of rest” for the land. It would thus appear that the seventh month, too, is sacred by virtue of the fact that the Torah turned it into the month of remembrance, the month in which God reveals Himself most directly and is crowned king over the entire earth. As a result of God’s appearance throughout the earth (a phenomenon often referred to as “the king in the fields”), we are, on the one hand, overjoyed, and we therefore observe a Yom Tov. On the other hand, however, we are frightened by His revelation and therefore perform teshuva, asking for His forgiveness. The festival of Sukkot is clearly connected to the system of the three regalim, but it, too, occurs in the seventh month, immediately following Yom Kippur, and thus relates fundamentally to these holidays. Sukkot thus concludes not only the three regalim, but also the festivals of the month of Tishrei.
What, then, is the connection between the festival of Sukkot, which is characterized by joy and celebration, and the month of Tishrei? What does Sukkot have to do with the sacred, seventh month, in which we observe the “Yamim Noraim”?
Sukkot, which follows Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, comes to teach us a critical lesson concerning the entire concept of teshuva, the underlying theme of the Days of Awe. Teshuva is not intended to lead a person to depression. To the contrary, its purpose is to purify the individual and cleanse him from his spiritual filth. It comes to give the person the possibility to turn his life around, to improve that which needs improvement. This process is accompanied by difficult challenges and hurdles – the person must change the habits to which he had grown accustomed, and at times even the entire world that he previously knew. He also experiences the pain of remorse over the course of the teshuva process. In short, teshuva is far from easy. Nevertheless, one must remember that it is merely a process that he must undergo, and it does not represent the final destination. It is the means, rather than the end. The ultimate goal is the joy and exhilaration of purity. Therefore, the festival of Sukkot, which is entirely about simcha (joy), comes immediately following Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah. Sukkot, too, is part of this system, as it marks the culmination of the teshuva process. After a person makes the effort of cleansing himself, after tormenting himself through the process of teshuva, he must rejoice and celebrate, confident in the power of teshuva to atone, and in its ability to raise the individual to new and greater heights.
It thus turns out that Sukkot is the festival that belongs to both systems of festivals, and it in effect marks the conclusion of both. It concludes the three regalim, the pilgrimage cycle which corresponds to the agricultural year, which ends with the gathering of the crops in Tishrei, and it also concludes the festivals of the seventh month, in that it marks the culmination of the teshuva process, the essence of this month, the month which begins with hardship – “Forgive us, pardon us” – and ends with joy – “You shall be only joyful.”