Has prayer become more difficult in our time? This season of prayer has me thinking of two articles that appeared last year around this time, both of which contain answers to this question in the affirmative.
In one article, The New York Times quoted a rabbi who observed that, “there is no prayer harder than suburban Jewish prayer.” A similar observation was made in a second article, this one written by Rabbi Saul Berman. In a review of the then newly published Koren Sacks Siddur, Rabbi Berman presented a concise and insightful assessment of some of the greatest challenges we face to meaningful prayer, pointing to several reasons why the dialogue between humanity and God has suffered lately. Put briefly, since the industrial revolution the “fruits” of our labor have progressively less and less to do with the natural world and God’s influence in it. Furthermore, with the increasing pace of innovation, we feel more empowered and more inclined to see all of the solutions to our problems as within our own capabilities. And finally, despite the dangers that do exist we still feel relatively more secure in our communities from threats to our lives than we have in the past. In sum, our senses of self-sufficiency and stability inhibit our capacity to feel dependent on God, and this manifests itself most acutely in prayer. Because of this feeling of self-sufficiency, it is difficult for some to engage a God they already cannot sense and make requests of Him or offer praises to Him.
And if Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, with their heavy emphasis on prayer, highlight this challenge, the holiday of Sukkot provides a means to address it. According to a novel explanation of Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna (known as the Gr”a), the holiday of Sukkot can be seen as a member of the cycle of Days of Awe, joining Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur as Sukkot marks the restoration of the relationship between God and the Jewish people. Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna asks that if the holiday of Sukkot commemorates how the Jewish people were sheltered following the redemption from Egypt by the clouds of glory, which represented God’s presence amidst the Jewish people, would it not be more appropriate to celebrate it closer to the holiday of Pesach (instead of with Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur)? Doesn’t the theme of Sukkot relate more to Pesach than to Rosh HaShanah or Yom Kippur? He answers that the reason Sukkot is celebrated after Yom Kippur is that after the sin of the golden calf the clouds of glory left the camp of the Jewish people, representing the fact that the presence of God was no longer with them, as it were. Once the Jewish people were granted atonement for this sin on Yom Kippur (the 10th of Tishrei), the presence of God returned to the camp with the return of the clouds of glory on the 15th of Tishrei – the date of Sukkot – actively demonstrating that God had forgiven the Jewish people and granted them atonement on Yom Kippur. Based on this, we can see the holiday of Sukkot as part of the cycle of the Days of Awe as it marks the culmination of the restoration of the relationship between God and the Jewish people after the atonement of Yom Kippur.
We find another aspect of restoration in the holiday of Sukkot in a comment of Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir (Tosafist and biblical exegete, known by his acronym Rashbam). The Torah describes in Devarim chapter 16 that the holiday of Sukkot occurs at the conclusion of the harvest cycle. Rashbam notes that we leave our homes and enter into the temporary booths of Sukkot specifically at a time when our homes and storage houses are full with the bounty we have reaped by the sweat of our brow. This timing serves to remind us that at one time the Jewish people dwelt in the desert with no harvest or any land from which to glean it. We are supposed to learn from this that we should acknowledge who gave us land and wealth with which to sustain ourselves, and not see our accomplishments as strictly our own achievement. The holiday of Sukkot is directly meant to help us avoid this kind of pitfall, which is also expressed elsewhere in Devarim. In chapter 8, we are warned that when we eat and are satisfied, when we settle securely in our homes, and when we accumulate much property and wealth, our hearts will be lifted up and we will forget God who took us out of Egypt. And in this spirit we will declare that our own strength and handiwork has brought us this fortune. Nevertheless, by sitting in sukkot, by leaving the safety and protection of our homes, we are reminded that any security we enjoy comes directly from God and any wealth we enjoy is a gift from Him.
The contemporary challenges that are highlighted on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, namely the difficulty of prayer in a time of relative security and self-sufficiency, are immediately addressed by the third member of this holiday cycle – Sukkot. This holiday emphasizes our dependence on God by having us physically leave our homes so we can sit in our sukkot sheltered by little else other than the presence of God. By leaving behind all of the possessions we accumulate in our homes that may inhibit our reliance on God, we are able focus more on the only other inhabitant that occupies our sukkot with us – the Holy One, blessed be He who provides all of our needs.