From Oy to Joy (Sukkot)

Posted on October 10, 2019


by Hazzan Tisser 

In his Rosh Hashanah Sermon, Rabbi Schwab referenced a book by Professor Deborah Lipstadt, entitled Antisemitism: Here and Now; specifically, the final chapter, “From Oy to Joy.” As I sit at my computer just hours before we will gather for the opening service of Yom Kippur, I cannot think of a more appropriate title for the period of the next five days.  

Over the course of the next 25 or so hours, we will once again bring ourselves as close as we can to experiencing our own deaths. We will dress in white, without adornments of jewels and perfume; we will not eat nor drink; we will not bathe in luxurious fashion; and we will literally fall on our faces, begging for God’s kindness, until the shofar sounds at Neilah and we know we can then continue on with the work of a new year.  

Immediately after we get home (well, after pausing for a bagel, kugel, other varieties of sweet carbohydrates, and some coffee…), we begin preparations for the next holiday — Sukkot. We all know that Sukkot is the fall harvest festival…a time to connect with nature, to be with family, to eat in the sukkah, and with the seemingly strange custom of shaking some plants and a particular citrus in circles while reciting a b’racha… But Sukkot is so much more than that! Just as Yom Kippur has become, for many of us, the most sacred day of the year, Sukkot is, in the Rabbinic mind, “THE festival” (heh-chag), “THE time of joy!” (z’man simchateinu). 

So how are we supposed to switch gears so quickly? How do we confront our own mortality, our misdeeds, our least proud acts? How do we come before the Sovereign of Sovereigns, bowing down to the floor, begging for another chance to do better? How do we do this with our full beings, and then in almost an instant re-approach God with hearts full of joy, in beautifully decorated sukkot, and become our most joyous and festive selves?  

I want to propose that there are a number of ideas in each of these two seemingly disparate holy days which connect them very deeply. As I mentioned above, each one of these holidays demands that we experience one extreme or the other of the emotional spectrum — awesome fear on Yom Kippur (mixed, of course, with the joy of knowing at Neilah that we are forgiven), and extreme celebration on Sukkot. We start off the year by exposing ourselves to the highs and lows we will ultimately experience over the course of the year, all the while connecting ourselves more deeply to God, to community and to our families. There is something very poignant about this—it’s almost as if to remind us that to be successful in the work we set out to do over the course of the year, we must not keep to ourselves; we must keep close to God, and we must know that we have supportive and loving community and family to aid us on our journey…and that we must be present for them as well.  

Then there is an element of fragility which exists in both holidays as well. On Yom Kippur we examine the frailty of our lives. From our petitions to God to the Yizkor prayers, we cannot help but realize the limits of our own mortality. On Sukkot, of course, we are commanded to spend our meal times, and by some interpretations, even sleep, in the sukkah—a temporary structure which is completely vulnerable to nature, and which could theoretically collapse at any moment. I think that through these two expressions of fragility we can and should be reminded to enjoy and to maximize all of the wonderful things and opportunities which make our lives so rich.  

There are a number of other connective themes between these two days, and I would encourage you to think about the holidays themselves and then invite you to share—with each other, and with me—the connections you have been able to draw to create even deeper meaning and celebration over the next couple of weeks.  

In the meanwhile, it is my hope that over Yom Kippur you were able to experience moments of personal reflection, that perhaps you left the sanctuary changed or moved, even just a little bit, from how you felt when you entered. It is my prayer that all of your prayers be answered, and that all of our worthy deeds over the course of this year be blessed by the Holy One. May we ultimately find next week that just as we pray for God’s protection on Yom Kippur, we find that protection inside the Sukkat Shalom, the sukkah of peace, and that in that protection we find many things to be joyful about and to celebrate.  

From my family to yours, Hag Sukkot Same’ach