Sukkot And The Great Unification
Tue, 09/17/2013
Special To The Jewish Week
Rabbi Neil Fleischmann
Rabbi Neil Fleischmann

Candlelighting, Readings:
Candlelighting: 6:40 p.m. (Wed.);
7:39 p.m. (Thu.); 6:36 p.m. (Fri.)
Torah readings: Exodus 33:12-34:26; Numbers 29:17-25
Haftarah: Ezekiel 38:18-39:16
Havdalah. 7:35 p.m.

“And you shall take on the first day the fruit of a splendid tree, branches of palm trees and boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook” [Leviticus 23:40].

Normally we’re told to celebrate a holiday on a specific date of the month. Here Sukkot is called for the first day, but it is not the first day of the month. The Rabbis say that what’s being referred to here is the fact that Sukkot is the first day of sins. The Medrash says that some people start returning to God at the start of the month of Elul, others wait till Rosh Hashanah. By the time Yom Kippur has come and gone everyone has come forward and achieved a clean slate. People are still on a high during the brief segue between Yom Kippur and Sukkot and barely even have time or energy to sin. So the first day of Sukkot, when everyone gathers together with their lulav and etrog in synagogue, is opening day for sins.

Why are the four species, rather than the sukkah, mentioned in connection with our having achieved atonement? The answer to this question (as explained by the great scholar Rabbi Shlomo Efrayim Luntschitz) relates to another popular Medrash: The etrog (citron), having a taste and an odor, represents those people who have both Torah wisdom and Torah deeds under their belts. The lulav has taste (it comes from a date-palm tree) but no smell, representing those who study Torah but do not perform other mitzvot. The myrtle branches (hadassim) smell pleasant but produce no fruit, representing those who do good deeds but lack Torah knowledge. The willows (aravot) have neither smell nor taste, symbolizing those who lack both knowledge and action.

The species that we raise up on Sukkot, and the order in which they are listed in the Torah, represent our community and parallel the teaching of the Rabbis about the order in which people seek repentance. First the most righteous people (represented by the etrog) return, then come the regular people (represented by the aravot and the lulav) and finally the people who are lacking in both their behaviors and actions come around. This is all completed shortly before Sukkot and then on Sukkot we gather together and start real life all over again. We acknowledge that we all unite to form a community. Together we err and together we correct our mistakes. A cross section of the three categories of people is needed to have a true community. This is alluded to by the fact that the very word for community in Hebrew is an acronym for the people who constitute a congregation: tzadikim, beinonim and resha’im (the pious, the intermediates and the wicked).

There is a little known yet striking statement of the rabbis regarding repentance. They say that the ability to repent as an individual is unique to the High Holy Days. Perhaps this can be taken literally or perhaps it is saying anecdotally that this is the time that it is most likely for an individual to focus on his or her own spirituality and religiosity. On the other hand, it is said that during the year teshuvah (repentance) can only be achieved as part of the community. This is why we come together on Sukkot, the functional start of the communal new year, and commit to fixing our sins as a community.

We all know that the Jewish holidays never come on time, but early or late. This year they seem to have come earlier than ever. Summer has faded away and the school year has started. The days are getting shorter and darker. Now is the time to unite as a community and grow together in thought and deed.

May we be so blessed.

Rabbi Neil Fleischmann is director of Torah guidance at The Frisch School as well as a writer and poet whose work can be found at http://rabbifleischmann.blogspot.com.

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