Happy Hoshana Raba!

Posted on October 9, 2009


Sukkah Willow

Three weeks ago I wrote that on Rosh Hashanah we affirm God’s authority to judge us and on Yom Kippur we implore God to use that authority leniently. Figuratively speaking, God inscribes our names in the Books of either Life or Death on  Rosh Hashanah, seals the inscription with Heavenly sealing wax on Yom Kippur, and closes the books on Hoshana Raba. Happy Hoshana Raba! That means we have until sunset this evening to repent for any sins we might have overlooked on Yom Kippur. We symbolically rid ourselves of those sins by beating the leaves off of willow branches.


Hoshana Raba is also the seventh and penultimate day of Sukkot, one of our oldest holidays and originally an agricultural holidayas were our other two harvest festivals Pesach and Shavuot. In Israel and the Palestinian Territories Pesach coincides with the winter wheat harvest, Shavuot with the barley harvest, and Sukkot with the autumn harvest of (in good years) a cornucopia of crops which include pomegranates, grapes, figs, and dates . To this day Sukkot is associated with abundance, joy, culinary hedonism in particular, a celebration of the senses in general, and seems to be the opposite of the sensory restraint of the Yom Kippur fast that precedes it by four days. So strong is the imperative to celebrate and rejoice that the bereaved are not allowed to mourn during Sukkot. In ancient Israel farmers would set up temporary structures in the fields so they could harvest more crops without having to waste waning daylight hours traveling between their homes and their fields. But Larry Magarik (in a commentary on the weekly Torah and Haftorah portions that is not available to the general public) cites the Bible critic Richard Elliot Friedman who concludes that the passage in Leviticus that establishes the religious requirement to dwell in a sukkah was introduced when the Torah was redacted in the time of Ezra the Scribe well after the return to Judah from the Babylonian exile.


We have already noted the contrast between the self-denial of Yom Kippur and the rejoicing of Sukkot. In another commentary with a rather different tone Rabbi Sam Weintraub  quotes Israel’s first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Ha Kohen Kook’s observation that Sukkot is a corrective to Yom Kippur. Kook sees the self-abnegation and purging of sinful deeds on Yom Kippur as weakening our life force and will to live. Some Jews wear shrouds over their clothing on Yom Kippur to demonstrate their willingness to accept whatever fate God decrees. But Sukkot’s rejoicing and celebration restores our strength and will for living thus completing the process of repentance. In Kabbalah Yom Kippur and Sukkot are associated with the Sephirot Gevura (restraint, law, severity, and judgement) and Chesed (love, compassion, abundance, and generosity) respectively. In contrast to the self-denial of Yom Kippur, on Sukkot we open our homes and sukkot to guests and share the abundance of our kitchens and shopping expeditions. People whose personalities are out of balance in the direction of Chesed are generous to a fault, have a poor sense of boundaries and are overly emotional. People whose personalities are overly weighted towards Gevurah on the other hand are emotionally constipated stingy bean counters who insist on adhering to the letter rather than the spirit of the law. The proximity of Yom Kippur and Sukkot balances their associated Sephirot, Gevurah and Chesed: the purging of sins we seek through ascetic austerity on Yom Kippur is fulfilled through sensory and material pleasure on Sukkot, which is why the period of atonement is extended until Hoshana Raba, the next to last day of Sukkot (and in an earlier era the last day: some scholars infer that the last day of Sukkot, Shmeini HaAtzeret, was added by the Temple priests so that they could extort additional sacrifices which was their main source of livelihood).


The joy of Sukkot flows into another holiday, Simchat Torah, which will be celebrated Saturday night in synagogues by taking out all the Torah scrolls and dancing with them. Sunday morning we read the last portion of Deuteronomy, rewind the entire Torah scroll, and read the first portion of Genesis. Like Purim in late winter/early spring Simchat Torah celebrations often include drinking alcoholic beverages, usually hard spirits, which some synagogues serve in the sanctuary (though drinking to excess is frowned upon).


Shabbat shalom v’chag sameach!