These are spiritual days. By spiritual I mean
days when we are less immersed in the daily quotidian of
material survival, and more focused on the bigger issues
of life: Why am I here? How do I deal with loss? Where are
the souls of my departed beloved ones? What is the destiny
of my and my family’s life? What does the future hold?
It’s extremely healthy for human welfare to
have a season (not just a coffee break or a weekend) dedicated
to soul searching and revisiting our life’s mission and
our relationship with G-d.
The Jewish New Year and High Holiday season
is ultra rich with layers of opportunity to peer deeply
into our lives, and come out renewed and empowered to take
on our life challenges.
In essence, the holiday season is comprised
of three stages: Renewal on Rosh Hashana, Sanctity on Yom
Kippur and Joy on Sukkot (for easy retrieval remember the
acronym RYS: R for Rosh Hashana Renewal;
Y for Yom Kippur Yechida; S
for Sukkot Simcha).
Master these three forces – renewal,
sanctity and joy – and your life will forever be different.
Let me correct myself. Master is a strong word and presents
a daunting task. Perhaps a better word is access. Access
these three forces and your life will never be the same.
Renewal: One of our most powerful psychological
adversaries is resignation, the sinking feeling that your
life will never change. We are part of one endless merry-go-round
that continues to repeat similar patterns, albeit in different
shapes, forms and change of scenery, but do not fundamentally
alter our reality. Rosh Hashana teaches us that we have
the power to literally renew and revitalize our lives. Through
prayer, focus and effort we can pierce the monotonous surface
and access the enormous energy that lies beneath brimming
with new possibilities.
Sanctity: The ultimate secret to an
exhilarating and invigorating life is to recognize every
experience as an opportunity – a challenge to sublimate
and sanctify the experience. Simply put, you see every event
in your life, even the most trivial, as part of your mission
to refine develop and purify – or as the Kabbalists
would say: to “elevate the sparks” within. Yom
Kippur – the holiest day in the year – empowers
us with the necessary strength to sanctify and integrate
(sanctity and unity always go together) every aspect of
our lives – to direct all our activities toward higher
Joy: The triad is not complete without
joy. The renewal and sanctity of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur
now must lead us to rejoice. Not just to live our lives,
but to celebrate them. Joy is uplifting, freeing –
a glorious dance of the human spirit as it soars like a
Today we have precious few moments of joy
in our overworked and overstressed lives. We compensate
through escapist bouts of instant gratification, but don’t
always have time to stay for the conclusion of the dance.
Even as we celebrate we have our eye on the door and our
minds on next days anxiety.
Comes Sukkot – a full cycle of seven complete
days, encapsulating all time – and lifts us on its wings
for a perpetual dance.
What and why are we celebrating?
Bodies don’t dance. Souls do. That is bodies
on their own. Once the soul is exuberant, the body follows
along – lifting its legs in dance, swinging its arms in
joy and parting its lips in song.
When your soul feels free, when it has a sense
of belonging, when it is aware of its purpose – it
celebrates. Children are natural celebrators, until “adult”
life dulls their senses and lowers their expectations.
So Sukkot is about expectations – renewed
and sanctified by Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.
Celebrate them well.
Ok, now for the practical side of this. All
the above is good and well on paper. But how
– how do you begin to access your soul, how do you rejoice
when you don’t feel their is anything to celebrate?
There are many answers, but the one that comes
to mind just now lies in the inherent theme of Sukkot. On
Sukkot we invite guests (ushpizin) – both
cosmic and physical. We celebrate together.
Simply put, look at the people in your life.
Study your Rolodex – palm, blackberry, database or
wherever you hold your contacts – and see how many
of these people reinforce your life and lift your spirits.
No doubt that you will find quite a number who are always
ready to tell you how depressed things are and how bad you
should feel. After all, misery does like company (some clichés
happen to be true). Feeling good about yourself today? I’m
sure you can find someone to call that will change your
The key to this exercise is to avoid the people
who make you anxious.
Find people who believe in you, who bring
the best out of you, who empower you. Look for those that
make you feel happy, proud and dignified (in a real way).
Find people who bring your soul alive.
And do something that brings other people’s
Then you will see that you will be able to
dance and celebrate.
Obviously the Yom Kippur Yizkor prayer (and
then again on Shemini Atzeret) is a towering expression
of the introspection – and vulnerability – of
the holiday season: No one standing at the Yizkor service
is immune from the profound impact of a departed parent.
For good or for bad a parent is always part of you –
ever so keenly felt after the soul has passed on.
Personally, with the passing of my father
a few months ago, Yizkor has now become part of my reality
and that of my siblings – as so movingly expressed
by my youngest brother, Yosef Yitzchak in My First Yizkor.
As I said the words “Remember G-d the soul
of my father Gershon Dovber ben Freida who departed to his
world…” – my entire life, all the 48 years I was honored
to spend with my father on Earth, passed before my eyes.
Millions of moments – some conscious, most unconscious,
going back to pre-conscious early childhood – flooded my
brain. Not the details, but the memory of one winding life
story – the sum total of a life – impossible to describe
Tears rolled down my cheeks, as they did on
the cheeks of my fellow Yizkor rememberers, as they recalled
by name their parents’ souls.
Then it dawned upon me. The power of Yizkor
is in its name. Yizkor means to remember. Would it have
been better to wipe our memories clean and forget our fathers
and mothers, and by extension all the pain and grief left
by their loss? We orphans were given a great gift –
the gift of memory. We have the power to remember our parents,
and invoke their names before G-d. We have been blessed
with the power of eternity – the ability to remember
our parents who came before us. And one day (until Moshiach
comes) – we too will be remembered.
Death is horrible. But to forget is worse.
My thoughts were reinforced when we came to
the Yom Kippur Musaf service in which we recollect the story
of the Ten Martyrs. Each martyrs death is a profound story
of its own. The one that struck me this year was Rabbi Chananya
ben Tradyon. When the Romans discovered him teaching the
outlawed Torah they wrapped him in a Torah scroll, piled
bundles of twigs around him, and before setting him afire
they placed damp woolen cloths on him to prolong the agony
of being burned to death…
As the flames engulfed him, his disciples
asked him, "Master, what do you see?" Rabbi Chananya
replied: “I see a scroll burning, but the letters
are flying up to Heaven.”
Yes, many holy body scrolls have burned throughout
history. The bodies of the Ten Martyrs, the bodies of those
that fell to the sword of the Crusaders, the Inquisition,
the pogroms and all the persecutions, murders and pillages
that left Jewish blood running through the streams of European
cities. And then finally – the six million holy scrolls
that went up in smoke just 60 years ago. Not ten. SIX MILLION…
Far too many scrolls have burned.
Yet, even at his moment of painful death,
Rabbi Chananya left us with an eternal message: “but
the letters are flying up to Heaven.”
We want the letters here on earth in the scrolls
where they are meant to be. And we will surely have them
back here one day. But we can take solace as we say Yizkor
that the letters are flying to – and in – heaven.
And with our Yizkor memory we can make them
fly on Earth as well.
With this awareness I think I can dance a
bit this Sukkot.