A HOLY CONTRAST – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon
All of us who go through the various observances of the fall season are experiencing contrasting emotions. Depending on the style of your congregation’s services, the emotions could be anywhere from calm to violent. But the contrast is there.
Start with Rosh Hashanah, a time to spread friendly good wishes and offer some serious prayers for ourselves in the year ahead. Of course Rosh Hashanah begins the Ten Days of Return, adding petitions for life to the regular prayers, reminding us to inspect our lives with the purpose of making some positive changes. Those ten days culminate in Yom Kippur, with 25 hours of fasting. Many of those hours are spent in the synagogue, hearing and repeating ritual confessions of our misdeeds – even those we don’t remember personally doing. As a united people, we share responsibility for communal mistakes, family mistakes, even national mistakes. We hope for the moral strength to turn evil into good. As the long Day of Atonement begins to wind down, we enter N’ilah, the last of the day’s five services (the only day of the year that has that many) and the text of our prayers gives us confidence that if we were sincere today, if we observed this penitential season properly, then we have forgiven those who wronged us, and we can count on a measure of forgiveness from those we may have hurt, and a sense of release from our own errors, our misdeeds, our violations.
The sounds, the melodies of our Yom Kippur services should support the spiritual progress of that day. In many congregations they do. Some musical services tend to be more solemn than others, maintaining that feeling all the way to the last shofar call at the end of Yom Kippur. Other services sing their way from regret and confession to forgiveness and confidence. This year I spent the Yamim Nora’im in a Chabad shul and felt the power of the community singing support the spiritual progress we were making. By the end of Yom Kippur, with the rhythm of the “Napoleon march” around the Bema, the feeling of optimism and joy resounded. The Lubavitcher Rebbe in fact named the day after Yom Kippur a day of joy. We have every reason to be happy. The Almighty is accepting us.
Indeed only a few days later comes the Sukkot holiday – this week, in fact. The third of our three Pilgrim Festivals, Sukkot is thoroughly upbeat. While Passover is identified as “the time of our freedom,” and Shavuot as “the time of giving us our Torah,” Sukkot is called simply “the time of our joy.” Check it, it’s right there in the text of the Kiddush. As we bless the wine at our Yomtov dinner table in the leafy-roofed holiday booth, we repeat the happy nature of this week.
True, we have other happy holidays – like Purim and Hanukkah. But somehow this week is particularly special. At the end of Sukkot comes what might be called the happiest day of the year – Simkhat Torah, literally “Rejoicing in the Torah.” Torah reading goes on all year round and it does not stop. Today we celebrate that practice by starting over: reading the last portion in Deuteronomy and immediately following with the first words in Genesis. Aliyot –Torah honors – for all who qualify! A crazy tie or a funny hat is a costume today. And a l’khyim for every Torah honoree if you want one. Costumes, toasts, and dancing! As the old Yiddish song goes:
Kinder mir hobm Simkhas Teyre,
Simkhas Teyre di gantze velt
(Children, we have Simchas Torah, all over the world)
Teyre is de beste s’kheyre,
azey hot der rebbe mit unz gekvelt
(Torah is the best business – that’s how the rebbe delighted in us!)
Oy vey, oyoyoy, freylekh kinder ot a zoy,
Nissim gissen zekh fun de zek, freylekh freylekh on an ek!
(Wonders pour out of the sack, Happy, happy without end!)
Is this the same Jewish community that beat its chests through Al Khet (“For the sin we have sinned”)? The same people who cried through Kol Nidrey? Yes it is. Our holy contrast fulfilled this season. If our prayers are answered, this holy contrast strengthened our lives.