By Lawrence Ziffer
Executive Vice President
The Macks Center for Jewish Education
The holy days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are known as the “days of awe,” which describes our annual period of reflection and self-evaluation. How did we conduct ourselves during the previous year, and how can we improve ourselves in the year to come? Seriously confronting these questions demands more than the cursory “new year’s resolutions” that are so common in western culture.
The holiday of Sukkot follows right after the days of awe. Sukkot is known as Z’man Simchateinu, the “time of our rejoicing.” The laws and customs of the festival stress joy, which represents a crescendo of spiritual achievement.
From their descriptions, one might think that these holidays define two very different philosophies: awe and rejoicing. And yet there is a common theme that explains why they occur together within the month of Tishrei. Unity is the inclusive theme. During the first part of the month, when we celebrate Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the unity aspect is hidden or sublimated, whereas during Sukkot it is revealed and emphasized. How do we experience this?
During the days of awe, we all have the same responsibility to examine and search our inner soul, delving deeply into ourselves to reach a point where we are all the same. External differences fade away as we consider our collective human potential and our individual spiritual potential. Ultimately, we are all alike at the core. Our unity is a central, if subtle part of our shared experience on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Despite the differences in our thoughts, speech and action during the rest of the year, there is, ideally, a pervasive theme of unified human identity and destiny during the days of awe.
Sukkot reflects an even higher level of unity. It is a unity so profound that it actually brings highlights and includes the subtler aspects of unity that were experienced during the days of awe.
One of the central mitzvot/commandments of Sukkot is taking and waving the four species (lulav/palm branch, etrog/citron fruit, hadassim/myrtle branches and aravot/brook willows). Each of these species reflects a different set of human characteristics: the etrog has both taste and “smell” (a pleasant odor), representing those with Torah (education) and good deeds; the lulav has taste but no smell, representing the presence of education but the absence of good deeds; hadassim have smell but no taste, representing good deeds but the absence of education; aravot have neither taste nor smell, representing the presence of neither education nor deeds. The mitzvah is not to take each of these species individually or in succession, but to take them bound and held together to demonstratively proclaim that we are, at our core, unified. Despite our many differences, it is that which we have in common that is truly important!
Interestingly, in this symbolic representation of unity we do not create a “stew” where each item gives up its independent identity to create one homogenous whole. Instead, our symbols of unity are more like a “salad” in which celebrates the differences of each component. We recognize and acknowledge our differences while asserting that they are subordinated to the unified whole.
It is fairly easy to speak of theoretical unity. It is more difficult to speak of and emphasize unity from a practical and pragmatic perspective. In “reality,” the differences seem more obvious, sometimes even distressing. Nevertheless, Sukkot teaches us that we must set those differences aside and focus on reaching “higher level unity.” The inspiration of this month can and should carry us through challenging times when it seems as if our unity is fraying.
A Jewish view of unity sees reality as diversity and establishes the goal of nevertheless recognizing how much we have in common so that we can live together and build together. This is the stuff of Jewish community and the way in which we come together as one whenever that is necessary … notwithstanding–and even celebrating–our differences.
Source: Likutei Sichot v.4, p.1159