I am often asked the question, “Why does Yom Kippur come after Rosh Hashanah? Shouldn’t this holy day of fasting and confession and cleansing come before the celebration of the New Year?”
This is a good question, and I think I have the answer, but to understand it, we first need to wrap our minds around “Jewish time.” By “Jewish time,” I don’t mean coming late to things. I mean the entire rhythm of the Jewish calendar.
For most of us, immersed in and often overwhelmed by the demands of our secular lives, “Jewish time” plays in the background. The autumn Jewish holidays squeeze in between the frenzy of the beginning of the school year and all its attendant activities; Chanukah is overwhelmed by Thanksgiving and Christmas; Passover makes a run for it, but our attention often peters out long before the eight days are up; Shavuot and Tisha B’av are mostly forgotten as summer vacation calls to us. And Shabbat, well, we know that Shabbat is cut to ribbons by the chores and hobbies that wait each week for Saturday. It takes tremendous determination to keep the Jewish calendar present in our lives, even in abridged form. Believe me, I know.
So Jewish time, the Jewish way of traveling through the week, month and year, loses its organic coherence. Instead, the highlights of the Jewish year are all that remain, uprooted from the sacred flow of time, hanging like bubbles in the air. Most of the time we see them coming: “Oh, Rosh Hashanah is here!” Sometimes they take us by surprise: “The holidays are so early this year!” But always they are disembodied, disconnected from the rhythm of our driven secular lives. We forget, or were never taught, to follow the moon and the seasons, the determinants of Jewish time. We forget, or were never taught, to count in sevens, the magic and holy Jewish number.
My role as rabbi has forced me to live in Jewish time, and this has turned out to be one of the greatest blessings of my life. Our ancient people constructed a calendar that weaves together the cycles of nature with our sacred history, and joins our spiritual journey with the movement of the seasons. Jewish time hon- ors the waxing and waning of the moon, and the solstices and equinoxes of our orbit around the sun. Jewish time bequeaths to us the sublime idea of the Sa bath, a concept so compelling that a seven-day week culminating in a day of rest, an idea that emerges in the first chapter of Genesis, has become the standard for counting time around the world.
Living in Jewish time shapes and nourishes my life, maps it and fills it with signposts of profound meaning. One of the great joys of living in Israel with my family last winter was that the entire culture ran on Jewish time. Schools were out for Chanukah, stores closed early on Friday afternoon to prepare for Shabbat, and as Tu B’shvat, the Jewish New Year for the Trees, approached, the supermarkets and the corridors of the Jerusalem mall were all filled with special displays of Tu B’shvat fruits and nuts for sale. I loved it. I loved living in Jewish time.
There are two Jewish New Years. One is Rosh Hashanah, which occurs on the new moon in the month of Tishrei, the month that contains the autumn equinox, the turning of the seasons. The other Jewish New Year, proclaimed in the Torah, is Passover, and it falls on the full moon in the month of Nisan, the month of spring. These two “New Years” balance each other across the ellipse of the year: the turning from winter to spring, and the turning from summer to autumn. Now, if you count six moons, half a year, from Nisan — Nisan, Iyyar, Sivan, Tammuz, Av, Elul — then Tishrei, our current month, is the seventh month. Seven is the magic number in Judaism, representing wholeness, completion, and fulfillment, and the seventh day (Shabbat), month (Tishrei) or year (the Sabbatical Year) of the Jewish calendar is a time for celebration and renewal.
Tishrei is an entire month set aside for celebration and renewal. It begins with Rosh Hashanah, when the shofar is blown to announce the sacred season. Then, on the tenth day, comes Yom Kippur, a day of fasting and atonement. Four days after, on the full moon of Tishrei, we welcome the Festival of Sukkot, a week of joyous celebration of the harvest and of our spiritual renewal. Sukkot is followed by the closing festival days of Shmini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, a great exclamation point of joy. Then we chill, all the way to Chanukah, our winter solstice festival. Tishrei, the seventh month, contains twenty-three days of Holy Days and their preparation. In Jewish time, it is the sabbatical month.
Now, how can we American Jews be expected to take a sabbatical month in September? The dissonance between the secular demands of September and the Jewish demands of Tishrei make my head hurt! Rosh Hashanah we can manage, and Yom Kippur, too, but then eight days of Sukkot? This blissful holiday, a holy time set aside not for fasting and self-denial but for relaxing out of doors, for feasting on the harvest, and for visiting with friends, is sacrificed by most of us to the gods of work, school and homework.
Yet here is the truth, the emes: Sukkot may be the best Jewish holiday of all. Its other traditional name is Z’man Simchateinu, the Time of Our Joy. For the Torah instructs us regarding Sukkot:
You shall rejoice in your festival, with your son and daughter, your servants, the Levite, the stranger, the orphan and the widow in your community . . . and you shall have nothing but joy. —Deuteronomy 16:14-15
I think I am ready now to answer the question of why Yom Kippur comes after Rosh Hashanah instead of before. The culminating celebration of this holy season is not Rosh Hashanah, it is Sukkot. Rosh Hashanah, and the days of Teshuvah climaxing today on Yom Kippur, prepare us to dwell in joy in the sukkah. Yom Kippur is a day of cleansing, purification and forgiveness, clearing us out of inner shmutz so that we can experience pure joy. The sukkah, the leafy hut we build under the sky, is the container our ancient tradition provides for that joy.
It would be sad for Yom Kippur to be an end in itself. What, you fasted and purified yourself so that you could go back to work? Jewish history and suffering have conditioned us to expect life to be hard, and Yom Kippur fits that mold, but Jewish history is not the same as Jewish spiritual wisdom and practice, and Jewish spiritual wisdom is clear: deep, rich joy is our birthright as souls. We can experience this joy more fully if we humbly acknowledge our flaws and faults and forgive one another. Yom Kippur is our opportunity to open ourselves to forgiveness; Sukkot is the gift of time and space to savor life anew before launching back into our busy lives.
The joy of Sukkot is not the joy that is contingent on life going our way. It is the joy of being alive. It wells up in us and fills us at fortunate moments. Rabbi Nachman taught: It is a great mitzvah to be in a state of joy. Who knew that it was a commandment to nurture joy? But it is, indeed, a commandment. The joy of accomplishment is a wonderful and valid feeling; we should all meet our goals in the coming year, and rejoice. But the joy that emerges from Yom Kippur is the joy of having the opportunity to be a part of creation itself, a child of God, an expression of Mother Earth. When our bodies and spirits are saturated with this joy, we overflow our gratitude in acts of love and kindness, like vessels overflowing with fresh water. It is a mitzvah to be satiated with life’s goodness. One might say: God wants us to be happy!
My mother recently forwarded me a really cute video on YouTube, announcing a new technology, a “twitteleh,” that keeps you in touch with the most important person, your Jewish mother. On twitteleh you only have to answer three questions at any time: where are you, have you eaten, and are you wearing a sweater? Then your Jewish mother is happy. It got me thinking that on Sukkot, the sukkah is our home and God, the Kadosh Barukh Hu, is our Jewish mother. As she hugs you, she asks, “Where have you been? Do you want something to eat? Do you have a sweater?”
Whether you join us in the sukkah this year or not, may you be blessed with the capacity for joy this year. May your joy overflow freely in acts of love, creativity, caring and justice. May you feel yourself embraced by Mother Earth and the power that flows through all living things, and know that this pure joy is your birthright, and that in embracing this joy you help create a sukkat shalom, a sukkah of wholeness and peace for us and for our planet.
May our heartfelt participation in Yom Kippur prepare us all to dwell in the joy of being alive for another year.
—Kol Nidre 5770