The meanings of the Tishrei holidays can be elusive. The High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are appropriately called Hayamim Hanoraim in Hebrew; the “Days of Awe.” The prayers are full of images of God as a king before Whom we stand, trembling and pleading for mercy and forgiveness, awaiting God’s judgment. 

Only five days afterwards, we come back to the realm of yom tov, of holy day observance, only this time, it is Zman Simchateynu, the “Time of our Joy.” Sukkot is a celebration. The arba minim, the branches of date palm, myrtle, and willow that we wave with the etrog, are green, yellow, and sweetly fragrant. The meals that we eat in the sukkah have the atmosphere of a picnic. We breathe the outside air and see bits of sky through the roof. This joyful holiday comes to a climactic end as we dance with the Torah scrolls, singing and celebrating, on Simchat Torah, and we begin the year’s Torah reading cycle again from the beginning. 

Even if we soak up the emotions and attitudes that full-bodied immersion in these holiday observances can generate, the connections between the awe and trembling of the Yamim Hanoraim and the happiness of Sukkot/Simchat Torah can seem elusive. Why are we being asked to go from one emotional and spiritual mood to its polar opposite, and why in such a short time? 

I think that an answer can be found in the Creation story. After all, that story is part of this month’s holidays, a series of bass chords heard in the background of the musical piece. Rosh Hashanah is the day that the world was conceived. The story of the Creation of the world is read on Simchat Torah.  

At the end of the account of each day of Creation, the Torah tells us that God saw that it was good. But on the sixth day, after land animals and human beings were created, God saw that it was very good. On the seventh day, God rested, creating Shabbat as a part of the rhythm of time.  

Shabbat is a regular exercise for us in which we have a day in which we see that the world, and everyone in it, is very good. Not perfect. Very good. There is a teaching in Pesikta Zutra: “Six days, you shall do all of your work, and the seventh day is Shabbat to the Eternal, your God. (Shmot 20:7-9)’ And is it possible for anyone to do ALL their work in six days?!? Rather, rest as if all your work were done.” The point is that, no matter what is happening at that moment in our lives, we take a day during which all labor is off-limits, as is any discussion of work-related, or money-related things. We are to stop, and to see that the world is very good. We are not to pretend that our lives are perfect. Just to cultivate and deepen our sense of appreciation for the ways in which the world is very good. 

That is the role of the Sukkot/Shmini plays in this holiday cycle. The High Holidays tell us that we are imperfect, and that we all need to make teshuvah for something. Sukkot, with its atmosphere of joy and contentment comes to tell us that we can now celebrate as if all our teshuvah were done. It comes to remind us that we, like our world, are very good, even if not perfect. The entire Tishrei holiday cycle is our reminder to acknowledge our own imperfection, and to accept and embrace ourselves and each other with all our imperfections.  

Shabbat Shalom! 

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