I have always been intrigued by the Tishrei holidays and interested in understanding them. This yearly time period, which runs the emotional gamut, sets the tone for the entire year. The somber and solemn atmosphere of Rosh HaShanah, the Day of Judgment and God’s coronation, is followed by days of forgiveness, repentance and atonement. These reach their peak with the Day – Yom Kippur, the exalted Day of Atonement. Immediately afterwards, without even pausing for breath, we enter the sukkah – which the Zohar calls the shade of the Divine – with “the mud on our shoes” (Reb Simcha Bunim of Peshischa). We draw water from the “wells of deliverance” (see Yishayahu 12:3), and our celebrations increase (as the sacrifices decrease), until we reach Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. This emotional journey is full of, and fills us with, awe and love for God.
Tishrei is described as “the month of the strong” (Melakhim Alef 8:2). The Gemara1 explains that the month derives its strength from the many commandments performed during its many holidays. Despite the large variations in the character of the different Tishrei holidays, we are doing ourselves a disservice if we do not try to find the link between the holidays.2 In this framework, I would like to suggest an approach which will reveal that there is a cyclical element among the Tishrei holidays. First we will examine each holiday independently, and gradually the cyclical nature will become apparent. I hope that this idea will find favor in the readers’ eyes, and will improve the flavor of our understanding of the holidays.
Two aspects characterize Rosh HaShanah: the coronation of God, and judgment. As is generally known, allinhabitants of the earth are judged, as it says, “Who forms their hearts together and understands all their deeds” (Tehillim 33:15). Even though God creates all hearts together, nevertheless He understands and examines each individual, “to repay each person according to his ways and with the fruit of his deeds” (Yirmiyahu 17:10 and 32:19). This fits well with what we mention in our prayers: “All people are remembered on [Rosh HaShanah] for life or death” (Mussaf of Rosh HaShanah, zikhronotsection). Let us again emphasize that this is not just a Jewish holiday,3 but a worldwide event for all of humanity. Of course, we the Jewish people play a central role in this, for “You have chosen us from among all the nations.” However, the position of the rest of the nations must not be ignored; on the contrary, we aspire to a time when “all inhabitants of the earth will recognize” and “all created beings will know that You created them” (Mussaf of Rosh HaShanah). We see that Rosh HaShanah is a holiday which is outer-directed.
The Rambam describes Yom Kippur as “a final opportunity for forgiveness and pardon for Israel.”4The essence of the holiday is not universalistic but particularistic. “For on this day He will atone for you and purify you” (Vayikra 16:30). Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, in his book On Repentance, elaborates upon the distinction between atonement and purification. However, whether we focus on atonement or delve deeply into the power of purification, Yom Kippur is a gift to the Jewish nation. The essence of the day is the marshalling of our inner resources for prayer, which culminates with God’s declaration, “I have forgiven in accordance with your words” (Bamidbar 14:20).
However, this special day is about more than just purification and atonement. Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook zt”lexplains that the primary worship on Yom Kippur is arriving at the declaration of Sh’ma at the end of Ne’ilah – the moment when we accept the Divine yoke. In order to reach this point, one must first accept upon himself wholeheartedly the love of the Jewish people. That is the primary worship of the day. 5 It is true that “two prophets do not prophesy in the same style” (Sanhedrin 89a), but Rav Soloveitchik also explains at length the importance of each individual’s recognition that he is a part of the Jewish people. Doing so enables him to fully understand and utilize the process of repentance.6 We see that this great day is a day which belongs to the Jewish community alone.
“On Sukkot we are judged regarding rainfall.” So our Rabbis teach us in Tractate Rosh HaShanah (Mishnah 1:2 and Talmud16a). This judgment is relevant to allinhabitants of the earth. However, it is not just that the judgment regarding water is universal, but rather the entire essence of the holiday is outer-directed. The sukkah is built outdoors, and the four species are often shaken outside, to show that “we won” (Vayikra Rabba 24:3) – we have been found innocent. Consonant with this idea, there were prominent figures in Jerusalem who would keep their lulavim with them all day while they prayed, visited the sick, etc.7 In addition, while the Temple stood, the sacrifices of Sukkot gave irrefutable, winning testimony to this idea: “Seventy bulls representing the seventy nations of the world” (Sukkah 54b). We see that we face outward on this holiday and we aim to influence the entire world. But that’s not all. The Book of Kohelet, which Jewish communities read on Shabbat Chol HaMoed, is very much connected to all inhabitants of the earth. We could add many other examples, but we will conclude with a fascinating dialogue in the Talmud between the nations of the world and God, which takes place at the End of Days and which relates to Sukkot.
They will say before Him: “Master of the Universe, give us [the Torah] and we will follow it.”
God will reply to them, “Most foolish ones! If one troubles himself [to prepare] before Shabbat, he will eat on Shabbat. If one did not trouble himself before Shabbat, where will his Shabbat food come from? Nevertheless, I have an easy mitzvah, and its name is Sukkah. Go and do it . . . .”
Why does He call it an easy mitzvah? Because it does not involve monetary sacrifice.
Immediately, each one will go and build a sukkah on his roof. God will then cause the sun to burn very brightly, as if it were the height of the summer. Each one of them will kick the sukkah and leave it, as it says, “Let us break their bonds, and let us cast off their cords from us” (Tehillim 2:3).8
If Yom Kippur is characterized by being solely Jewish, Sukkot is characterized by its universalism – like Rosh HaShanah. Sukkot does nothing to blur our unique identity; it supplies a strong heartbeat which gives life to all the limbs, i.e., the other nations.9
R. Elazar stated: To what do those seventy bulls [that were sacrificed during the seven days of Sukkot] correspond? To the seventy nations. To what does the single bull [of Shemini Atzeret] correspond? To the unique nation. This may be compared to a mortal king who said to his servants, “Prepare a great banquet for me.” Then on the last day he said to his beloved friend, “Prepare a simple meal for me so that I may derive benefit from you.”
R. Yochanan observed: Woe to the idolaters, for they have suffered a loss and do not even know what they have lost. While the Temple stood, the altar atoned for them; but now who shall atone for them?10
This is the secret and the splendor of Shemini Atzeret. Commenting on the Talmud’s words, “He said to his beloved friend . . . so that I may derive benefit from you,” Rav Kook writes: “The unique Jewish luminosity is expressed then. Foreigners have no part of it. It is completely beyond nature.”11
Chazal invested Shemini Atzeret with unique content – namely, Simchat Torah. This designation provides a treasurehouse of happiness. On Yom Kippur we feel purity, but at the same time we also feel anguish, because we no longer have priests, sacrifices, tzitz (the High Priest’s atoning headplate), incense, or the red string (which would turn white to indicate forgiveness). “True, the appearance of the High Priest was glorious” (Mussaf of Yom Kippur, avodah section) – but to our shame, the glory has faded. On Simchat Torah, which is a holiday unique to the Jews, we emphasize what we still have (despite the lack of the Temple, may it be rebuilt speedily in our day) – namely, the Torah of truth. On Simchat Torah, we emphasize and celebrate the happiness of what exists, “for we have nothing left except for this Torah.”12 So too, “Blessed is God who created us for His honor and separated us from the erring ones and gave us a Torah of truth and implanted within us eternal life” (Siddur).
As we have demonstrated, the Tishrei holidays are characterized by, among other things, the differences between inner-directedness and outer-directedness. To my way of thinking, this month serves as preparation for the whole year. Over the course of the year, our nation is revealed as “the heart” which supplies blood to “the limbs,” the other nations. Sometimes we emphasize the importance of the heart, and sometimes we emphasize the importance of the limbs. But in order to arrive at a correct understanding of the essential nature of our nation, we must take an all-inclusive look. We are truly a one-of-a-kind heart. Lacking this heart, the existence of the rest of the limbs would be undeserved and untenable.