Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander is President and Rosh HaYeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone
Often, we look at the High Holidays as a two-holiday event consisting of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. After all, it is only for these two holidays that we purchase High Holiday seats, adorn High Holiday garb, and sing our beloved High Holiday tunes.
However, the High Holiday period includes a third pillar: the festival of Sukkot. Maimonides highlights the connection between Rosh Hashanah and Sukkot by codifying the laws of shofar, sukkah, and lulav in a single entry in his Mishneh Torah.
Similarly, at the end of Sukkot (on Hoshana Rabbah) we again focus on the themes of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur with the chazzan once again donning a kittel and using the same tunes in the Musaf prayer service as we use on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Some even have the custom to begin building the sukkah immediately after break-fast following Yom Kippur [Orach Chayim 624:5], to highlight the role Sukkot plays as a continuation of the High Holiday period. But where does this week-long festival of merriment and starlit meals fit into the arc of the High Holidays?
On Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur our focus is on coronating God and on repentance, recognizing that our continued existence is contingent upon Divine mercy. God is Avinu Malkeinu, our Father and our King. God decides mi yichye u’mi yamut, who will live and who will perish. The tone and cadence of these prayers reminds us that we are a microscopic presence in the cosmos.
Yet after we conclude Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, we immediately usher in Sukkot.Sukkot, the final leg of the High Holiday season, reminds us that while feelings of awe and fear are essential elements of our religious consciousness, our relationship with God doesn’t end there. As the final act of the High Holiday experience, Sukkot reminds us that God cares about us, desires to be close to us, and is empowered by our relationship with Him.
After all, we are the chariots of God in this world: we carry the Divine presence to and through the world, by living lives that sanctify God’s name, making a home for God within human society.
Sukkot is the ultimate manifestation of our ability to create a place for God in this world. The Talmud tells us [Sukkah 9a, Orach Chayim 638:1] that the walls, the ornaments, the covering, and the schach of the Sukkah have holiness, and thus cannot be moved or in any way violated during the holiday. On Yom Kippur, one Jew, the High Priest, enters the Holy of Holies to commune alone with God. On Sukkot, through the sukkah, we create a house of God in which all of us can dwell together with the Divine in the same abode.
A Kabbalistic tradition teaches that the shade of the sukkah is not intended to protect our physical bodies, but to create a space to enshrine our souls [Zohar Pinchas, 255b]. It is into the sukkah that we invite the ushpizin: personalities like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who represent the multiple paradigms through which we may engage with God; Moshe and Aaron, who shaped our covenantal community; and Joseph and David, who prepare us for the Messianic era. For in the Messianic era, the sukkah will not only serve as a sanctuary that protects us from our enemies; it will also serve as a welcoming center for the nations of the world, inviting them to engage with us in a spirit of coexistence.
It is for this reason that the holiday of Sukkot is called “zman simchateinu”, the holiday of quintessential joy [Mishneh Torah, Shofar, Sukkah and Lulav 8:12], marked by the most festive of all Temple ceremonies, the Simchat Beit HaShoeva. On Sukkot, we rejoice in the closeness of God, in the knowledge that as miniscule as we are in the grand scheme of the universe, we are beloved by God and gifted with the capacity and the responsibility to bring Godliness and sanctity into the world.
The High Holiday season which is now upon us is not only a time of contrition and remorse, but a time that asks of us to create a home for God, by finding ways to upgrade our relationships with God, with our spouses, with our children and grandchildren, and with all those with whom we share community.
These days remind us that God not only loves us; God needs us! Each of us has greatness in the eyes of the Divine, even if we are not always aware of the talents we hold and the treasures we are.
May each and every one of us find the capacity to unlock our full spiritual potential, and to joyfully engage more deeply with ourselves, with those around us, and with God.