Drash on Parashat Sukkot 2018
Rabbi Stan Zamek
United Jewish Congregation of Hong Kong
The Jewish calendar is not simply a time-keeping tool. It is also an unfolding story in time. The progression of days, weeks, and years have meaning. Jewish time does not just pass, it teaches. It is a text. Our calendar is our catechism, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch taught.
As I am writing, we are in the brief lull between Yom Kippur and Sukkot, an appropriate moment to reflect on what the calendar is trying to teach us by juxtaposing these two observances.
Of all the holidays of the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur is the most disembodied. More than any other observance, the power of Yom Kippur is dependent on liturgy-- on words that prick the conscience, give voice to regret and remorse, and assure us of Divine compassion. The words are sharpened by austerity. We deny the body all that gives it comfort or pleasure.
We are trying to accomplish something that is only possible within the religious imagination. We are trying to be soul alone. Symbolically, the body dies on Yom Kippur. On Yom Kippur we engage in sacred play-acting, pretending to have passed beyond this world, in order to remind ourselves of our mortality and give urgency to the task of teshuvah.
Just a few days after the soul-focused Day of Atonement we come to Sukkot, our most embodied festival. Sukkot is a festival of the physical. It is filled with sights, sounds, and aromas. Eating, the most mundane business of embodied living, is elevated to a mitzvah by taking place in the Sukkah. Sukkot is called Z’man Simchateinu, the Season of Our Rejoicing. Certainly this rejoicing is partly spiritual, but it is expressed through the physical, through the beauty, wonder, and sweetness of earthly life. In its own way the days of Sukkot are days of awe. Our awe is for Creation and for its Creator, who through soil, sun, and rain sustains all that lives.
The proximity of the ethereal Yom Kippur and the earthly Sukkot highlights an essential creative tension of Jewish life. Judaism is simultaneously otherworldly and utterly worldly. We value the life of the spirit and see the cultivation of the soul as a central task. At the very same time we are commanded to find holiness in the material world. We shun mortification of the body and understand our physicality as part of the realm of the sacred. Soul is holy. Body is holy. Contemplation is holy and feasting is holy. Denial can be holy. Satiety can be holy. We serve HaShem with the totality of our being.
Yom Kippur and Sukkot are very different chapters of the calendar’s catechism, but both essential. One cannot be accepted to the exclusion of the other. We are neither ascetics nor hedonists. These two festivals come to teach their respective lessons in a way that holds our attention fully for a short time. The proper path runs between them.
Truly, the Jewish calendar is the deepest of sacred texts. It is always speaking, always teaching, always posing the crucial questions. As the days go by, as we page through Sukkot to the following chapters of holy time, we must pay careful attention. For us, time itself is Torah.