This week’s column has been dedicated in memory of Simon and Rachel Nunberg; Sam and Sara Citron
The climax of Yom Kippurim is its closing Ne’ilah prayer when the sun is beginning to set, when the day is beginning to wane and when we are nearing our last chance for the opportunity to receive God’s loving forgiveness for the year. The excitement of these last moments is palpable within the synagogue. The prayers are at a much higher pitch and the voices are filled with intensity.
During the periods of our national sovereignty, with the closing of the day, the holy Temple doors would close as well. Post Temple, with the setting sun, the very heavens, the pathway to the Divine Throne, and the gateway to God seems to be closing. “Don’t lock me out” says the Jew during Ne’ilah. Don’t close the doors or the gates in my face as long as there is still time, let me come in.
But there is another way of looking at this, a very opposite way. “Don’t lock me in!” cries the Jew during Ne’ilah. Yes, I’ve been in the Temple, or I’ve been in the synagogue almost the entire day. I’ve truly felt God’s presence and I’ve truly been warmed by His loving embrace. I feel God’s divine and gracious acceptance and His total forgiveness. I’ve spent an entire twenty-five hours in His house, in which I’ve seen the sweetness of the Lord and visited in His tent.
But now, as the doors to His house are closing, I don’t want to be locked in. After all, I began this penitential period with Rosh Hashanah, the day of God’s kingship. The prayers on Rosh Hashanah taught me that God did not choose Israel to live with Him in splendid and glorious isolation; He chose Israel to be a “kingdom of priest-teachers and a holy nation” to bring the message of compassionate righteousness and moral justice as a blessing for all the families of the earth. We are meant to be a light unto the nations, a banner for all peoples.
It goes without saying that we need our moments of quiet contemplation, of anguished repentance and of personal outpouring to the God who gave us life and Torah. But the ultimate purpose of this day of divine fellowship is for us to be recharged to bring God’s message to the world, a world crying out for God’s Word of love, morality and peace. We must leave the ivory tower of Yom Kippur and descend into the madding and maddening crowd in the world all around us.
And so, just four days after Yom Kippur we go out into the Sukkah; indeed, walking home from the synagogue, one will be able to hear many people already beginning to build their family Sukkah. And the Sukkah is the next best thing to living within the bosom of nature, feeling at one with the world around you. The walls are usually flimsy and even see-through, and the vegetation- roof must enable you to see through the greens up above to the sky. We pray together with the four species- the citron, the palm branch, the myrtle and the willow which all grow near the refreshing waters of the earth- and we pray during this week not only for ourselves or for Israel, but for all seventy nations of the world. Indeed, we are Biblically mandated in Temple times to bring seventy bullocks during the week of Sukkot on behalf of all the nations of the world.
The Sukkah teaches us one more lesson, perhaps the most important of all. The major place for us to feel God and His divine presence – after the heavy dose of Yom Kippur – is not in a Temple or a synagogue, but is rather in our familial homes. In order to go out into the world, we must first go out into our family.
The homes we build need not be that large, that spacious, or that fancy. You don’t need chandeliers in the bathroom in order to feel the warmth of your home. It can be an exceedingly simple dwelling place but it must have two critical ingredients. First and foremost it must be suffused with love, love of God, love of family and love of Torah. The meals must be permeated with gratitude and thanksgiving to the God who gave us food, with words of Torah and with the realization that it is ultimately not the walls of the home which provide our protection, but it is rather the grace of the God who gives us life. And the major guests in our home are not to be Hollywood idols or sports heroes. We should invite into our home the special Ushpizin guests: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph and David, Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, Rachel, Miriam, Devorah and Rut (as you can see, in my Sukkah we add Ushpizot!).
And you will remember that the Biblical reading for Rosh Hashanah, the anniversary of the creation of the world was not the story of the Creation; it was rather the story of the first Hebrew family, the family of Abraham. Yes, we have a mandate to teach and perfect the world. But at the same time, we must remember that the first and most real world for each of us is our own individual family. We must begin the new year of reaching out to the world with a renewed reaching out to our life’s partners, our children and grandchildren- and then to our neighbors and larger community and then to include the other and the stranger as well.