From Soul Searching to Holy Joy: the Festivals of Tishrei in the Shadow of COVID-19

Rabbanit Devorah Evron, Director of the Susi Bradfield Women’s Institute for Halakhic Leadership

One of the magical moments in the month of Tishrei is immediately following Yom Kippur, when we begin building the sukkah. The Holy Day is behind us, we are tired after the fast and the long day of prayers. Yet instead of resting, we gather ourselves, take a ladder and begin piecing together the sukkah, the temporary structure in which we will dwell for the seven days of the holiday.

This year, too, once Yom Kippur ends, we will build a sukkah. In a time of so much uncertainty, one thing we can be relatively sure of is that on Motza’ei Yom Kippur the Jewish people will begin building sukkot.

In Olat Re’iyah, his commentary on the siddur, Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook writes about the days between Yom Kippur and Sukkot. These days are important as they serve to protect us as we return from the elevating experience of Yom Kippur to the everyday life of this world. Our actions during these days — building a sukkah and gathering the four species, buying and cooking for the holiday meals — contribute to a significant process in which “the affairs of this world take hold and we grasp on to holiness.”

Throughout the preparations for the holiday we carry out many tasks aimed at making sure we have everything necessary to fulfill the holiday’s commandments — sitting in a sukkah, shaking the lulav, and being joyful. In this way, we sanctify everyday life, connect between the holy and the mundane, and aspire for this connection to guide us throughout the year.

Rav Kook views the holiday of Sukkot as the crucial and final stage in the process of teshuvah. “This is a stage of reinforcing the soul, which is very necessary after the month of Elul and the High Holy Days, during which we focused on soul searching and repenting for our sins:

[Teshuvah] has ingrained within it some weakness, which not even the mightiest can escape. When you contract the power of will, when you bend the life force, by inner aversion, and the tendency to repent from all sin, then, too, all desire for good is contracted, the holy life force is also weakened. We find in one who suffers such a weakness from his moral purity, as suffers a patient who is cured by electric currents, that although it has driven out the poison of his disease, it has also weakened the living, healthy force within him. Therefore the days of holy joy, of happiness of the soul, return to raise the internal positive will and the pure life force. Then teshuvah will be complete.”

Rav Kook compares the process of atonement to the process of fighting a disease. He says that just as medication is helpful and necessary to fight illness, yet simultaneously weakens the body, so, too, the process of atonement, which includes deep introspection — which is necessary for the soul to do teshuvah — also weakens the strong desire for life. The function of the holiday of Sukkot, with the help of its holy joy, is to renew and reinforce our internal positive will and joy of life.

This year we approach the month of Elul and the High Holy Days at a time when our spiritual resilience, our positive will, and the life force of which Rav Kook speaks are in very short supply.

For many months we have been contending with a worldwide crisis that is taking a toll on human life and on the human spirit. The lack of certainty about the future of our finances and our health, and the difficulty in providing proper answers to the everyday questions with which we are grappling: Should we send our children to school? Should we leave our synagogues closed or should we open them? Should we visit our grandparents to wish them a Shana Tova? And so on. All of these questions gnaw at the spiritual, family, and community resilience of us all.

Each year, the month of Tishrei ushers in a time of soul searching, of directing our gaze inward, of repentance. It is also a time of festivity and joy. We usually tend to pay more attention and effort to the soul searching, trusting that the joy will come on its own.

It seems to me that this year, more than ever, it is actually the soul searching that will come on its own. For several months now we’ve been asking ourselves what we could have done differently, what we should correct, what changes we should make to our lives. This year we should focus our efforts on generating happiness. Let us pay attention to the good things in our lives, and share them with our families and friends.

Let us continue to be generous and to thank God for His generosity. The Rambam teaches us that the commandment of being joyful during the holiday is fulfilled when we open our homes, our sukkot, to others. This year, social distancing will not allow us to open our homes and sukkot as in the past, but we have other ways to connect and generate a form of togetherness. Let’s be more in touch during the entire month of Tishrei, and especially during the festival of Sukkot, so that the days of holy joy will strengthen us and help us strengthen others.


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