The Beginning of the End
The Beginning of the End
Rav Maor Azar
It is perhaps the most dramatic moment of the entire year. As we complete the Ne’ilah prayer the realization sinks in that the gates are closed and our fates have been sealed for the year ahead. The process beginning with Rosh Chodesh Elul, through Rosh Hashana, Asseret Yemei Teshuva and Yom Kippur has reached its climax and has come to an end.
Or has it?
Many sources indicate that the festival of Sukkot does not stand alone but rather completes the cycle of the festivals which precede it. In fact, Sukkot marks the completion of two separate cycles – the shalosh regalim (Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot) as well as the cycle of Chagei Tishrei (Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Sukkot).
What is the connection between Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Sukkot? How does this third festival of the month relate to and complement the days which preceded it? Only by understanding it in its broader context can we gain a true appreciation of the meaning of Chag Sukkot.
The Anniversary of Creation
The month of Tishrei begins with Rosh Hashana, a day which we are accustomed to thinking of as the anniversary of creation. However the gemara cites a machloket as to whether this is actually the case. According to R’ Eliezer the world was indeed created in Tishrei, however according to R’ Yehoshua the world was created in Nissan!
What then is the seminal event that took place on Rosh Hashana according to R’ Yehoshua? The gemara explains that in his view, while the world was created in Nissan, Rosh Hashana was the day on which the slavery of our ancestors ended in Egypt. Although the exodus itself took place on Pesach according to all opinions, in the months prior to leaving (beginning in Tishrei) the Jewish people were no longer bound by the conditions of slavery.
This idea can help explain a number of Halachot related to Rosh Hashana. Why do we mention Zecher leyetziat Mitzrayim (a remembrance to leaving Egypt) in the Kiddush of Rosh Hashana night? If Rosh Hashana marks the day on which the process of liberation from slavery began, it makes perfect sense.
Another central aspect of the day – the coronation of Hashem as King – can also be understood in a new light based on R’ Yehoshua’s view. R’ Yehuda HaLevi writes that only an eved Hashem is truly free, but we can suggest the opposite is true as well – only one who is free can truly be an eved Hashem. Only once the shackles of slavery begin to be broken, does it become truly relevant and appropriate to declare Hashem as our King. Thus the process of liberation from slavery began on Rosh Hashana and culminated a year and ten days later – when Moshe Rabbeinu descended Har Sinai on Yom Kippur with the second set of luchot. Chazal teach us that the word charut (meaning “engraved”) used to describe the tablets should also be read cheirut – meaning freedom. Only when we have received the Torah is our freedom truly complete.
The Teshuva of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur
Many have asked – if Rosh Hashana is the day on which we are judged regarding our fate and Yom Kippur is the day on which we are cleansed for past transgressions – surely it would have made sense for the order to be reversed?
According to our explanation above we can answer that there is a clear chronology in the events of these two days. The seminal event of Rosh Hashana took place before that of Yom Kippur.
However on a deeper level we can suggest that there are two stages in the process of liberation. The first is to cease being a slave from now on. The second is to be released from the remnants of slavery that continue to affect one’s inner essence. So too when it comes to teshuva, in order to release ourselves from the bonds of past sins – a person needs to recommit oneself beginning from the present and only then look back and correct the past. After this process of realigning oneself for the future and removing the yoke of the past, can one truly accept the Kingship of Heaven.
The Place of Sukkot
Following this beginning comes the festival of Sukkot.
One of the central characteristics of the laws of Sukkot is the concept of hiddur mitzvah (beautifying the mitzvah). There is an entire chapter in Shulchan Aruch dedicated to the decorations of the sukkah, and much time and effort is invested in selecting the most beautiful specimens to fulfill the mitzvah of the arba minim. The concept of hiddur and beauty plays a far more prominent role in Sukkot than it does in other festivals.
Here is the place to ask whether this does not contradict that which we sing every Friday night as part of Eishet Chayil –
שקר החן והבל היופי
Grace is deceptive, beauty is illusory;
Is beauty something to be admired and sought after from a Torah perspective? Aside from the references to hiddur mitzvah mentioned above, we seem to find many sources in the Torah extolling the virtues of beauty and grace.
Rav Tzvi Yehuda Kook explains based on the words of the Vilna Gaon who said that the verse should be read as follows: Grace and beauty are meaningless when they are unaccompanied by fear of Heaven, however as the verse continues – a woman who has fear of Heaven shall be praised. Explains the Gaon – in that case her beauty and her grace will become praiseworthy too.
Beauty becomes a Torah value in conjunction with yirat Shamayim – and this is the deep connection between hiddur mitzvah and Sukkot.
The hiddur that we seek on Sukkot is appropriate precisely because it comes as a result of the cleansing of Yom Kippur. The Tur (and many others) famously asked why Sukkot takes place in Tishrei rather than Nissan. If the point of the sukkah is to commemorate the miracles in the wilderness then Pesach seems a far more appropriate time.
The Vilna Gaon explained that as a result of the sin of the golden calf, the ananei hakavod – clouds of glory were taken away, and only returned after the building of the Mishkan. The Gaon makes a calculation based on the pesukim that the day on which the clouds returned was the 15th of Tishrei – Chag Hasukkot.
In other words, Sukkot marks the culmination of the process of liberation which began on Rosh Hashana, continued through Yom Kippur and only truly reached its climax on Sukkot – with the return of the clouds and the dwelling of the Shechinah amongst the people once again.
So it is with us each year. On Rosh Hashana we accept upon ourselves to be avdei Hashem for the coming year, on Yom Kippur we are cleansed from the sins of the past – and on Sukkot the cycle is completed as Hashem’s presence returns to dwell with us. Only having undergone the process of the Yamim Noraim are we now on the level whereby all the physicality and beauty be incorporated as an aspect of Avodat Hashem.
Each year on Sukkot we achieve this spiritual completion. Thus writes the Aruch Hashulchan:
“Since Hashem wanted to show that even though we have sinned – nonetheless His protection does not leave us, and we sit in His shadow… just as after the giving of the Torah they made the calf, yet nonetheless Hashem was appeased and gave the second luchot on Yom Kippur. And after Yom Kippur He commanded us to build the Mishkan so that His presence should dwell amongst us… so too He gave us this command for all generations – even when we sin, Yom Kippur atones when we return in teshuvah.”
On the Yamim Noraim we approach Hashem in fear, however after the end of Yom Kippur we are taught:
“When Yisrael leave their batei Knesset and batei midrash after Yom Kippur, a bat kol (Heavenly voice) says go and eat in joy for your prayers have been accepted”.
If so, why does Sukkot not follow immediately after Yom Kippur? Why do we need to wait the days in between? As the Gra wrote above, when Bnei Yisrael sinned the ananei hakavod did not return immediately… it was only after they began to build the Mishkan. Only after we take the first step can the Shechina return. However, once we open our hearts from below, then Heaven will do the rest.
Shabbat Shalom Umevorach and Chag Sameach!
Rav Maor Azar
On behalf of
The Selwyn and Ros Smith & Family
MANHIGUT TORANIT PROGRAM