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October 12, 2011 By:
Sukkot Has a Message That May Be Surprising
Autumn brings with it many transitions -- from the heat of the sun to the coolness of falling leaves, from vacation to the familiar rhythms of school and work, from regular days to festival days and back again. Through it all, we return again and again to central questions:
What endures and what fades? What is truly lasting in our lives and what is only transient? What parts of our lives remain constant through storms of change, and what parts are like grass that withers or flowers that wilt with the onset of cooler weather?
The days of introspection, song and prayer that make up the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur remind us of what is truly lasting, truly important in our lives.
On Rosh Hashanah, we sing of how the threefold path of teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah determines our destiny in the coming year; and on Yom Kippur, we commit ourselves to trying to incorporate these three touchstones into our everyday lives.
Teshuvah -- we will try to turn inward, to continually, rigorously examine and edit our patterns of thought and action throughout our lives. Tefillah -- we will try to turn upward, toward God, toward the divine attributes of mercy, justice and compassion that we hope to embody in our lives. Tzedakah -- we will try to turn outward, toward our fellow human beings, transcending the narrow boundaries of our own lives by enriching the lives of others.
A Reminder About What's Eternal
Teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah constantly point us toward thoughts, words and actions that embody our highest selves, the parts of us that will endure long after the details of our material lives fade. The Days of Awe remind us of what is eternal in our all too brief journey on this earth.
And then comes Sukkot, the holiday of harvest and feasting, of prayer and rejoicing, to remind us of the other side of the coin, to show us what is truly ephemeral about our lives. Sukkot's message is perhaps surprising.
We tend to think of material objects as the most stable, constant and dependable parts of our lives. Houses, buildings, possessions -- we cling to them, seeking shelter not only from the vagaries of rain and snow but also from our sorrows and grievances, from our fears of aging, illness and death. In our homes, surrounded by our possessions, we feel a sense of peace and contentment.
Sukkot comes to shake our security. Like our ancestors, we are taken out of the protection of civilized society, out of the cocoon of our homes, out into the unpredictable wilderness of the outside world.
Sitting in huts, sheltered only by branches, we are removed from the material world on which we have come to rely.
Sukkot teaches us a central paradox: The things that seem the most solid -- the material facts of our lives -- are in fact the most ephemeral, while the things that seem the most transient --our feelings, words and actions -- are the most lasting contributions we can make to our world.
May we all keep our hearts open to what endures and what fades as we return to the safety and security of our houses, as we fortify ourselves against the coming of winter, and as we dream of the rebirth that comes with spring.
Rabbi Adam Zeff is the religious leader of Germantown Jewish Centre. Email him at: [email protected].