I have learned over the years that my High Holiday experience was different from many Jews I’d later meet. Growing up in my Orthodox bubble of New York and then Cleveland Heights, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur were mainly about the prayers. “Where are you going to daven (pray)” was a far more likely question than, “Who’s coming over for Rosh Hashanah dinner?” In fact, we usually did not have any guests for Rosh Hashanah dinner. The solemnity of the day didn’t feel compatible with the celebratory atmosphere of guests. Yom Kippur break-fast was a small and unimpressive affair.
And then came Sukkot.
Sukkot was the moment to celebrate, to travel to NY to be with our grandparents, aunts and uncles, or to have them come to Cleveland to be with us. To cook and enjoy big, festive meals. To walk from shul to shul on Simchat Torah, reveling in the spirit of the day and enjoying all the festivities. Sukkot was the relief after the intensity, the calm after the storm.
On Rosh Hashanah, Judaism teaches us to “rejoice with trembling.” But on Sukkot, it tells us to “only be joyous.” How should we be joyous, the Talmud asks? Here are some guidelines from thousands of years ago: For men, enjoy meat and wine. For women, new clothing and jewelry. For children, treats and sweets. In other words, find things that make you happy physically to enhance and awaken your inner joy.
What’s the inner joy about? It’s exactly about the calm after the storm.
For ten days, from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur inclusive, we’ve been under a cloud of seriousness. The Book of Life is open; are we going to be written in it? Have we successfully repented for our mistakes? Have we apologized and cleared our slate toward others we’ve harmed? Not gonna lie, it’s a lot of pressure. And it’s supposed to be. Yom Kippur is really hard. Introspection and transformation are not for the faint of heart. And fasting… well, let’s just say I’d rather be eating. But when that shofar sounds at night, when all the prayers and tears are over, when we draw a collective ragged breath, smile and hug each other, whispering, “Next year in Jerusalem!” — well, there’s no relief like that. There’s no joy like a hard job well done.
The joy comes from the deep sense of satisfaction and love in the air that we’ve humbled ourselves and hopefully been forgiven. That we’ve done the grueling task of the annual audit and come out in the clear. That we’ve had the tough conversations and they’ve ended well. Nothing feels better than doing something hard, and amazing.
Try to find a Sukkah to visit if you don’t have one of your own. Try to find a lulav to shake. Breathe in the clean air, drink in the sunshine. Celebrate this beautiful, underserved holiday with family and friends. Inhale the collective sense of relief, the relief of the Family of Israel. We’re in it together. Chag Sameach!