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Sukkot: Yom Kippur's Counterbalance

By: Rabbi Michael Cohen

Imaging Yom Kippur, with the synagogue packed for the holiest day of the year. The anticipation of the day is upon everyone as people take their seats. But suppose something different occurs: Mahzorim for Sukkot are handed out along with hundreds of pairs of lulavs and etrogs. This is one of my rabbinic fantasies - to switch Yom Kippur with the first day of Sukkot.

Jewish leaders often bemoan the fact that our synagogues are never so full as they are on Yom Kippur. Part of the problem with the rest of the year has to do with what happens on Yom Kippur! Known as the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur is the day we go to schul. That long day in synagogue reinforces the idea that Judaism is heavy and serious, and that we should spend our time inside the synagogue in prayer or study. The problem with this picture is that it does not present a balanced view of Judaism that takes us beyond the walls of the synagogue.

The worshiper also needs Sukkot, which counterbalances Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur takes place inside; Sukkot takes place outside. On Yom Kippur we fast, while on Sukkot we feast. On Yom Kippur we pray and study; for Sukkot we build with our physical might. On Yom Kippur we hold a book in our hands; on Sukkot through the lulav and etrog we hold nature. On Yom Kippur we are serious and introspective; on Sukkot we are told to be joyful.

One of the giants of Kabbalah, Isaac Luria (16th century), instructed his disciples that the cultivation of joy is one of the prerequisites for attaining mystical illumination. Having gone through the necessary ten days of teshuvah (return) from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur, we are ready to begin our engagement with the new year. That engagement can only take place successfully if it has joy as one of its elements. The joy of Sukkot sets us on the right course.

Jews who come to services only on Yom Kippur get but a partial picture of what Judaism has to offer. The traditional pounding of the first nail into the sukkah as soon as the fast of Yom Kippur is over both literally and figuratively hammers home the point that these two holidays must be seen as complementary parts of the whole. The insular, cerebral nature of Yom Kippur is balanced by the commandment on Sukkot to go outdoors to build and live in the sukkah. The two holidays need each other. Our internal work is a necessary prerequisite providing us with the spiritual sustenance and energy to walk in the material world. When we separate the two or only do one, we are incomplete.

This idea of connecting Yom Kippur to Sukkot is supported by the traditional understanding that Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the second set of tablets on Yom Kippur and assembled the entire community the next day to instruct them in the building of the mishkan (sanctuary).

Our building of the sukkah is in part a remembrance of our building of the mishkan. The juxtaposition of the instruction to build the mishkan with the laws of Shabbat gave rise to the rabbinic understanding of the definition of work (Mishnah Shabbat 7:2). Actions used in building the mishkan (the 39 major categories) were defined as work and prohibited on Shabbat. This is the traditional understanding of the text. But there is a more subtle message taught here as well.

While the 39 categories tell us what not to do on Shabbat, they also inform us what we should do the other six days of the week. And what is that? Build a mishkan, a dwelling place for God in the world. This is our charge - to understand that no matter what work we do in our lives, we must see the purpose of that work as creating a place for God to dwell among us. We must see whatever work we do as contributing importantly to the tapestry of our world. That work becomes holy when we act with truth, compassion, love, and humility. We must release the sparks of holiness contained in what we do.

Holiness may be found in the synagogue on Yom Kippur, the Sabbath of Sabbaths (Shabbat Shabbaton), but holiness should also infuse our actions on the other days of the year. Sukkot comes along to remind us that the goal of Judaism is not that we should only sit in the synagogue, but that we must build a joyful and holy world with "the labor of our hands". (Psalms 90:17).

Rabbi Michael Cohen is rabbi of the Israel Congregation in Manchester Center, Vermont, and the Immediate Past President of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association. This commentary was distributed by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.

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