In his online class How To Cure The High Holiday Hangover, Rabbi Shais Taub speaks about some of the experiences we can have as Jews during the time right after Yom Kippur ends. As a recovering alcoholic who is no stranger to the pursuit of the high of intoxication, Rabbi Taub understands Yom Kippur as a tremendous spiritual high – in its own way the most intoxicating spiritual experience in Jewish tradition. On this day Jewish communities go on spiritual retreat – taking a step away from the outside world – and draw closer to ourselves, to each other, and to God as we engage in the mind-altering and soul-opening practice of abstaining from food and water. I may emerge from this day feeling a bit dehydrated physically, but the sense of spiritual connection I feel the day after Yom Kippur is different from any other time of the year. Rabbi Taub, as an addict, notes his own experience of this sensation – that he doesn’t want it to end; he wants more.
But as Jews – as humans – with refreshed and opened souls, perhaps it is a good thing to want more of this spiritual high, to not want it to end so soon. Rabbi Taub teaches that to avoid that sense of letdown after Yom Kippur, we have to find a way to take pieces of the holiday with us as we make our way through the celebration and move toward the rest of the year. He encourages us to do this through commitment to mitzvot, the particular instructions that Jewish tradition gives us about how to live life. By making a commitment to pray, to light Shabbat candles, to eat kosher food – it doesn’t have to be a drastic change – Rabbi Taub teaches that we can continue to hold on to our renewed sense of spiritual connection.
A different example of the same principle is the practice of beginning to build a sukkah as soon as possible after Yom Kippur ends; this is what we do every year in our Beit T’Shuvah community. We move right from our sense of connection to God as we pray in our sanctuary to a completely different experience of connection to God as we do the mitzvah of preparing for Sukkot. While Rabbi Taub’s practice gives us a path for taking a taste of our Yom Kippur experience with us throughout the year, the Jewish practice of observing Sukkot after Yom Kippur continues our spiritual feast.
It is now the middle of Sukkot, which began Monday night and continues into next week. Our spiritual feast continues; our spiritual feast is abundant. And when it concludes next week, it will conclude like all great feasts: with dessert. Next week brings us three more holidays – Hoshana Rabbah, Shmini Atzeret, and Simchat Torah – which give us a sweet and satisfying ending to the spiritual feast of this season.
Hoshana Rabbah, the first holiday in this sequence, is observed next Monday morning. Like Yom Kippur, it is a holiday primarily focused on prayer, with special melodies and with liturgy that remind us of our High Holiday prayers – especially the moment of Neilah, the end of Yom Kippur, right before the break-fast. We reconnect to our Yom Kippur experience, which already seems so long ago, and we re-live that catharsis of shouting the final prayers of the day, knowing that God is still listening.
With a renewed sense of completion, we move into Shmini Atzeret on Monday night. This holiday is specified in the Torah as a holiday immediately after Sukkot, yet distinct from Sukkot. While the Torah instructs us on Sukkot to bring abundant offerings to the Temple – livestock, grain, and oil – the Torah instructs us on Shmini Atzeret to bring a modest offering. We should eat and rejoice, yet it is clear that the peak of activity has already passed. Shmini Atzeret literally means “The Eighth Day of Ingathering.” It comes after the seven days of joyful Sukkot celebration, and invites us to gather closer, to continue to hold one another even as the season is coming to a close.
Then on Tuesday night, we have perhaps the greatest celebration of the season, the cherry on top of our spiritual feast: Simchat Torah. We gather to sing and dance with our Torah, the foundation of our tradition, and as we read its last chapters we rush back to read its beginning, our telling of the story of the creation of the world. This reminds us that end and beginning are not at all separate, but instead connected. Our holiday season is coming to a close, but the reading of our Torah – the telling of the story of where humans come from and why we are even here – is just beginning.
As we savor this end to our holiday season, this spiritual dessert to our great feast, I invite us all to reflect on the endings and beginnings in our own lives, and to appreciate anew how deeply they are connected. And I invite us – as a community – to a renewed awareness of the ending and beginning we provide to addicts who are still suffering: the opportunity to bring an end to the pain of active addiction, and the opportunity to begin a new way of life and a path of T’Shuvah.