From Yom Kippur to Sukkot: The Joy of Living
One of my favorite images of Yom Kippur is the beginning of Kol Nidre. All the Torah scrolls are removed from the ark – which is left empty – and the entire community, dressed in white garb, gather together to begin a 25-hour ritual of fasting and self-reflection.
We seek forgiveness. We seek to improve. To make new promises and actually fulfill them. To be the better versions of ourselves that we unfortunately didn’t necessarily accomplish this past year.
The ritual is intended to remind us of our own deaths, where the ark represents an empty coffin and the holiday functions to help us rehearse our own funeral.
Maybe the reason I love this image so much is that for many years I’ve been obsessed with my own death. The seemingly constant imagining what my death would be like. How it would impact others? Or how I would react if someone dear to me was lost. Many of these thoughts, or even fantasies, were the fuel for countless sleepless nights. Tossing and turning, allowing my mind to wander down the endless rabbit hole, wondering…
what if… what if… what if…
This Yom Kippur, just around the time we were reciting Yizkor, my wife’s grandmother died. After four years of battling Alzheimer’s disease, she could bear it no further.
And no matter how many times we have rehearsed our deaths or how well we think we are prepared for the loss of another, the finality of death and burial brings about tremendous sadness and grief.
My default is to want to wallow in that sadness and strife and refrain from any action, and this past week it has been extremely difficult not to let my mind race with thoughts of my own misfortune. But the stories my mind wants to create are endless and the reality is, I have but one life to live.
As the poet Mary Oliver writes,
…When death comes, I want to say all my life I was a bride married to amazement. I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms. When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder if I have made of my life something particular, and real. I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened, or full of argument. I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world. (“When Death Comes”)
I don’t want to be a visitor! As Rabbi Mark reminds us repeatedly, “Lo taturu! Don’t be a tourist!” I want my tombstone to read: “He truly lived.”
I hope that the limited time I have in this body and in this world are filled with meaningful experiences. Filled with joy. Filled with accomplishment. Love. Travel. And everything in between.
From this mindset, death becomes the greatest reminder to live the lives we are meant to live. Death is intended for us to sanctify and appreciate life. To be immersed in this world and revel in the mundane things in life that we take for granted: the simple acts of eating, drinking, taking a walk, a hug from a loved one, or even washing dishes.
As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes: “Each breath of fresh air is an inhalation of grace.”
Can we be grateful for the miracles that are present at every moment? Can we be grateful for the air we breathe? Can we be grateful for all the bounty we have received?
While my default may be to wallow or obsess about death and Yom Kippur, neither our minds nor our bodies can stay there forever.
Which is why I love how the Jewish calendar is set up. Immediately following Yom Kippur, we are thrust into another festival: Sukkot, a seven-day festival where we dwell in booths, shake lulavs, and are commanded to be joyous.
One of the goals the rabbis had to commemorate this festival was for us to leave our permanent homes and literally dwell in the sukkah, a temporary structure intended to mimic the booths the Israelites lived in as they traveled through the wilderness after escaping from slavery in Egypt.
If the symbolism of Yom Kippur was death,
the symbolism of Sukkot is insecurity.
The sukkot are there to remind us of the fragile nature of life and that at any moment, everything can come crashing down. We set up illusions of safety all around us but at the end of the day, life can be stripped from us at any moment.
Yet in that insecurity, we are commanded to be joyous.
How can this be?
Rabbi Sampson Raphael Hirsch explains why Sukkot is a seven-day festival:
“Rosh Hashanah, which is a day of supplications and breaking of one’s heart, is fixed for one day. Similarly, for Yom Kippur which is a day of fasting, asking forgiveness and compassion, is only one day long. However, Sukkot which is Zman Simchateinu (Time of our Joy), the Torah says it should be a festival for seven days. For the will of the Creator is for Israel to continue to be joyous, as it is written: ‘Worship Hashem in Joy’ (Psalm 100:2)”
God wants us to be happy! Yom Kippur can only be one day; we must transition into Sukkot and into joy for a full week. If we are honest with our accounting and do the work of the High Holidays, then there is potential for a huge spiritual uplift that comes with the end of Yom Kippur. What better way to celebrate life than to have a festival specifically dedicated to joy and gratitude!
Therefore, our song during Sukkot is crowned with this refrain:
I am joyous because I am alive.
And because I am alive,
how do I serve my Creator with joy?
Chag Sameach and Shabbat Shalom!
Rabbi Joseph Shamash
(This teaching is dedicated to the memory
of Lucy Joan Sytman,
may her memory be a blessing)