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Jewish World Review
Oct. 6, 2006
/ 14 Elul, 5767
Living in the Circle of Love
Rabbi David Aaron
Four days after Yom Kippur we celebrate the seven-day holiday called Sukkos. One main feature of the holiday is the four species: the lulav (palm branch), which is bound together with three myrtle branches and two willow branches and an esrog (citron), which looks somewhat like a lemon. We are commanded to own a set of these four species and each day wave it towards the four corners of the world, upwards and downwards.
In preparation for the holiday we also build a sukkah which is a temporary hut covered by a roof made of sechach branches or any other material that grows from the ground and is detached from it. There must be enough sechach to provide shade but not too densely packed that you cannot see the stars at night. During the entire seven days of the holiday we are required to leave our permanent homes and take up residence in the sukkah as much as possible. Therefore, we eat our meals there, entertain our guests there and even sleep there.
The sukkah reminds us of the huts that the Jews lived in during their forty years of wandering in the desert after their miraculous exodus from Egypt. It stands to reason that Sukkos should be celebrated right after the holiday of Passover. However, our sages explain that since Passover is in the spring, living in the sukkah would not appear to be for the sake of performing G-d's commandment because it is common during the warm months of the year to go outside. After Yom Kippur, however, when it starts to get cold, people generally take shelter from the cold and go inside. Therefore, G-d commands us to leave our homes and live in the sukkah after Yom Kippur.
Leaving our homes precisely when we are not naturally inclined to do so, internalizes an important lesson of Sukkos G-d is our only true shelter and we must trust in G-d. We often transgress the will and guidance of G-d because we mistakenly trust our own minds regarding what is good for us, rather than trusting G-d. This was the mistake that Adam and Eve made when they ate of the forbidden fruit. They thought they knew better than G-d as to what would serve their best interests and accomplish their life goals.
Trusting G-d is a vital truth to internalize especially after the High Holiday season .just before we begin our new year and go back to the challenges of our everyday lives.
There is another advantage to celebrating Sukkos at the start of autumn rather than after Passover in the spring. Autumn is the season of the harvest, which is a particularly vulnerable time for much haughtiness and egotism. It is too easy during a good harvest, after you reap the fruits of your labor, to begin to pride yourself over your power and accomplishment. Pride and ego are fertile ground for the seeds of sin. Ego was another reason why Adam and Eve disobeyed the will of G-d. Sensing the G-dliness within themselves they aspired to become all-powerful and all-knowing, just like G-d. Therefore, they were easily seduced by the snake's claim that the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge would empower them to become G-ds and thereby determine for themselves what is good or bad.
Therefore, on Sukkos, as we start afresh the New Year, we protect ourselves from returning to our wrongdoings of the past year by embracing the message of the sukkah in G-d we trust and before Him we are humbled.
In addition to living in the sukkah and waving the four species, it is customary on Sukkos to read the Book of Ecclesiastes written by King Solomon. Our sages tell us that King Solomon was inspired to write this book when he realized in a psychic way that the Temple that he built would be destroyed. Lamenting over that excruciating truth he wrote, "Futile of futilities, of what worth is the work of man under the sun." It seems odd to read this apparently depressing book on the holiday of our happiness. However, King Solomon's brutal confrontation with the transience of life and our temporary accomplishments on earth actually reveals the key to true happiness and security. He concludes, "In the end, obey the word of G-d and do His command because this is everything."
Sukkos teaches us to how to find security and permanence in the transient. We embrace our perishable four species and dwell in a transient hut covered by perishables and we acknowledge that happiness and security are not based on what you have nor what you can hold on to but who you are in your relationship to G-d. When you serve G-d here and now, you infuse the finite world with infinite meaning and the fleeting moment with eternal meaning. When you understand this truth, you will never be in a rush to get to some other place and get to some future time because you realize that the joy of life is to serve G-d and there is no better time than now, and no better place then here so what's the rush? If not now, when?
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We often do wrong and sacrifice our integrity in the present because we are anxious over securing our future. Sukkos, however, teaches us that we can find security even in the temporal and transient, when we focus our attention on serving G-d here and now.
Adam and Eve also sinned because they were anxious and impatient to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad. They intuited that this type of knowledge was essential to fulfilling their purpose on earth. And they were right, but their timing was wrong. According to Jewish mysticism, G-d wanted them to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad, but on Shabbat. Had they patiently waited, trusted G-d and ate the fruit as a humble service to G-d, rather than as a rebellious act in defiance of G-d, they would have accomplished their ultimate goals. They would have actualized their Godliness through experiencing G-d's love and their oneness with G-d.
Sukkos set us off on the right foot into the New Year by teaching us how to protect ourselves from sadness and sin: trust in G-d, humble yourself before Him and only concern yourself with fulfilling the commandments serving G-d here and now.
THE CIRCLE OF LOVE
Each morning of Sukkos, near the end of the festive prayer service, the entire congregation carries their four species, marches in a circle around the cantor (the leader of the service) who holds a Sefer Torah the Torah scroll, and pray for rain. On the last day of Sukkos, which is referred to as Hoshana Raba, we encircle the Torah seven times. This number is reminiscent of the seven times the Jewish people encircled the city of Jericho and the walls came tumbling down. The day after Hoshana Raba we celebrate the holiday of Shemini Atzeres, also referred to as Simchas Torah, and we dance in a circle around an empty space hugging the Torah in our arms. Why?
During the seven days of Sukkos when we circle the Torah we remind ourselves that Torah must be the center of our lives. If we are self-centered, we cannot love others nor can we love G-d. To achieve true love we need to move ourselves out of the center and put the Torah the will and wisdom of G-d in the center.
Some people, however, claim that the laws of the Torah are actually obstacles to achieving true love. They argue that the routines, formalities and minutiae of Torah law, interfere with experiencing a warm, personal, individual, spontaneous and loving relationship with G-d and people. They believe that the commandments build walls not bridges.
This problem could happen, but only when we forget that the laws of the Torah are the will of G-d and express what G-d asks of us. True love means to do for your beloved what s/he asks of you not what you feel like doing even though it is against his/her will.
And even when we understand this basic truth, the commandments could interfere with our loving relationship to G-d if we perform them mindlessly. The richness of ritual depends on the measure of intention you invest in it. Imagine that you get married and a friend advises you, "Tell her three times a day that you love her." If you don't mean it at all but simply repeat like a parrot "I love you," then this mindless routine will become obstructive and destructive to your love.
This only happens when we consider the commandments of G-d to only be on the peripheral of our daily lives. However, when we put the Torah in the center of our lives and acknowledge that it is the axis upon which our lives revolves then, over time, it actually breaks down the walls that divide us and separate us from G-d. This was the message that G-d communicated to us through the prophet Isaiah, "It is only your wrongdoings that separate you from Me." The Torah and the commandments, however, break the barriers that divide us and build bonds of love.
After we succeed in making the Torah the center of our lives during Sukkos, and the wall and barriers to love are broken down, then we celebrate the holiday of Simchat Torah by dancing with the Torah around an empty space.
Of-course, we all know that there is no such thing as an empty space because G-d's presence fills the earth there is no place void of G-d's presence. And Simchas Torah we acknowledge that putting the Torah in the center of our lives empowers us to find the true center, core and soul of our lives G-d.
The celebrations of Sukkos and Simchas Torah prepare us to dance our way into the upcoming year in a circle of love embracing the natural, holding the hand of our fellow man, hugging the Torah and feeling close to G-d. And we experience all this in the very midst of our everyday lives in this transient world.
For more on this topic, get Rabbi Aaron's latest book:
Inviting G-d In: Celebrating the Soul-Meaning of the Jewish Holy Days
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Rabbi David Aaron is the founder and dean of Isralight, an international organization with programming in Israel, New York South Florida, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Toronto. He has taught and inspired thousands of Jews who are seeking meaning in their lives and a positive connection to their Jewish roots.
He is the author of the newly released, Inviting G-d In, The Secret Life of G-d, and Endless Light: The Ancient Path of Kabbalah to Love, Spiritual Growth and Personal Power , Seeing G-d and Love is my religion. (Click on links to purchase books. Sales help fund JWR.) He lives in the old City of Jerusalem with his wife and their seven children.
© 2006, Rabbi David Aaron