Bert, Yom Kippur, Ernie, and Sukkot

It doesn’t trouble anyone that Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are only ten days away from each other on the calendar.  We understand that the two days in which our fate and destiny are in the balance, although each has its own message and emphasis, both fit perfectly into the category of holidays that is referred to as the Days of Awe.  An aspect of our calendar that may trouble us, however, is what the holiday of Sukkot is doing immediately after the conclusion of Yom Kippur.  These two holidays seem to be like Ernie and Bert, the popular Sesame Street characters – two polar opposites that happen to share an apartment and somehow have to get along.  The Days of Awe are all about not taking life for granted, radiating solemnity, and standing in prayer.  The basic ideas of Sukkot, in stark contrast, include exuding confidence in our security, rejoicing with the fruits of our harvest, and just plain celebrating our holiday.  Their juxtaposition demands an explanation of their connection.

R. S.R. Hirsch (1808 – 1888) understands Sukkot as a natural result of a successfully observed Yom Kippur.  The fasting of Yom Kippur, which deprives us of a need that is necessary for our survival, shows that we realize that strictly speaking our sinfulness forfeits our right to live.  This makes us deserving of the Almighty’s mercy and forgiveness, and a new lease on life.  The renewal of our right to live is symbolized by Sukkot.  The Torah specifies that on the first day of the festival we take the Lulav, Etrog, and the other species “lachem – for you,” which can also mean “for yourselves.”  The four species represent the good fruits of His creation, and the Torah tells us to take them for ourselves because we regained our right to live and enjoy them. The very affliction of Yom Kippur is what unlocks the joy of Sukkot.

A fundamental principle of Jewish life is the constant need to find balance between two extremes.  One example is the tension between overindulging in the world on the one hand and committing excessive abstinence that denies the Almighty’s gifts on the other.  Sukkot, according to R. Hirsch, is a time that this tension temporarily subsides to some degree.  It is a time to rejoice in the gifts that we have received while we keep the idea that we can potentially easily forfeit these gifts in the background of our minds.

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