“There are just too many Jewish Holidays this month,” is a complaint that I hear from many people. “There are so many Jewish holidays this month,” is a joyous exclamation that I hear from many people.
There is some truth to both these statements as was understood by our ancients who explained that these days make up for the fact that the three summer months do not have holidays. We have Rosh Hoshanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot to make up for that fact, and Shemini Atzeret is the holiday for Tishri.
We hear a great deal about the Days of Awe, and they are recognized in the public media and are well known.
The Festival of Sukkot is not as well known nor is it observed by the majority of Jews. In fact, many of the rituals, customs, and traditions are not part of the lives of many Jews.
However, those who read publications such as this one are aware of the many wonderful aspects of Sukkot. We have advertisements for Sukkot, for help in building, decorating, and the recipes and menus for the food that we will consume in them. There are endless descriptions of the qualities to look for when we purchase an etrog, lulav, willow, and myrtle branches. We have many different traditions in the way and different directions we shake the four species. When you attend services on Sukkot, there is a great deal of shaking going on. You sit, then stand, and shake, and do it some more. You march around the Synagogue in a procession of waving palm fonds. One woman who was experiencing traditional services for the first time exclaimed that now she was aware of Jewish Aerobics.
Please don’t forget the special guests, the “Ushpizim,” who we invite to join as our guests in the Sukkah. Each day another spiritual guest is featured. There are the traditional lists, there are lists of male and female guests from ancient and modern history, there are also families who request that when you are invited to their Sukkah you bring along a “spiritual guest”, a person or personality who had a great influence on your life. Indeed we can find agricultural echoes in the observance of Sukkot as well as historical, and spiritual aspects in the many traditions.
For me, the seventh day of Sukkot has special meanings. It is called Hoshanah Rabbah. Some wear white, as on Yom Kippur, some sound the Shofar as on Rosh Hashanah. The melodies of the prayer service follow those of the weekday, festival and High Holy Days prayers. As a reminder of the Water Service in our ancient Holy Temple, we circle the bimah, or the synagogue, in procession, seven times with our etrog and lulav and then we take a bundle of 5 willow branches and beat them 3 times. Some say this is to emulate the sound of rain and rushing water. Others connect this activity to the belief that this is the end of the period of repentance; and by stripping off willow leaves, we can strip away virtual sins. On Rosh Hashanah our decree is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed, on Hoshanah Rabbah it is made ready and it is delivered
The Zohar calls Hoshanah Rabbah the Day of the Willow, the day of the simple person. Just as the willow that is beaten on that day is valid if it has even one leaf, so is a Jew with only one good deed, one positive attribute, is sufficient to stand before the Lord.
Please do not neglect Shemini Atzeret, the eighth day that is a holiday unto itself, but is treated as the last day of Sukkot, with Simchat Torah an added festival.
For this year, I am advocating for Hoshanah Rabbah. We all need a connection to our agricultural heritage and our environmental awareness. When we chant the appropriate readings, as we march around the synagogue seven times with our etrog and lulav sets, we hear the connection between prayer and the physical world in which we live. When the seasons of the year are not kind to humans, crops, and the environment, we realize how perilous is our existence. It is important that we understand the need to connect morally and ethically with others to help those in crises and to help ward off further degradation of our environment. Ancient prayers for water, in its season, echo in our lives today and help us to feel connected to the past, the future, and the present.
Spiritually, it is important for us to understand the concept – that even when the Gates are closing at Neilah on Yom Kippur, we have more opportunities to influence the decree. The Kabalistic tradition also tells us that if we dance with real spiritual gusto, and our world is filled with positive joy, we can confuse the messengers who might be bringing a negative decree and convince them that all is well with us.
Indeed, we know that each of us should live every day as if it were our last. Hopefully we can find a way to “clear our record” each day. Remember, the season of repentance concludes with Hoshana Rabbah, but the “Gates” are always open.
Attending a Hoshanah Rabbah Service is a guarantee that you will have an opportunity to awaken important parts of your neshamah. It is an intensive, involving experience that may help you make a difference in your world.
May we, our families, our communities, and all of God’s children be able to receive only good qvittles, divine print-outs, for this year and for years to come.