Some years ago when fully immersed in Orthodox practice I went out into the chilly fall night wrapped in a sweater and blanket, sat in my sukkah and read the whole book of Psalms. It is customary to read the whole book of Tehillim on the eve of Hoshana Rabba, the last day of the intermediary days of Sukkot. According to tradition Hoshana Rabba is the last day to get in all your repentance to God. Perhaps, you missed something on Yom Kippur or perhaps you lapsed from Yom Kippur until now, God has left open this last crack in the gate to cry out for forgiveness.
The Hebrew word Hoshana is an Aramaic derivative of two Hebrew words meaning please save us. What better way to ask for that final forgiveness or salvation than to read a book full of praises to Hashem. I remember felling eerily spent and spiritually satiated by the experience that took a couple of hours sitting in the cold. I went upstairs and slept soundly believing that I had righted some wrong course in my life.
I miss those days of utter surrender to faith and spiritualism because it gave me hope that things can and always will get better. But after a time it began to feel almost naive and innocent, I simply stopped believing that God listens. The faith based answer to that is that God always listens just sometimes the answer is, “no.” Accepting that means believing in an individual God and at this point in my life, I don’t. I believe in the Divine macro manager, not the micro manager.
This year, Hoshana Rabba falls out on a Sunday which means that working people will not have to find a very early and quick service to speed through so as to get to work on time. Nonetheless, having been to enough Orthodox Sunday Hoshana Rabba services I assure you that the speed-reading version will take place in enough shuls as to render it kind of beside the point. If anything, Hoshana Rabba deserves more respect and attention than it gets. It is by far, certainly to outsiders one of the strangest rituals performed in Judaism.
It is a weekday where work is permitted but the liturgy is of a formal holiday. The cantor wears a kittel, the white frock all men wear on Yom Kippur, at the Seder and is the garment we are buried in. We pray with the four species, palm frond, citron, myrtle and willow branches. Unlike the other days of Sukkot we circle the sanctuary not one time with the four species but seven. Finally, we bring with us an extra set of willow branches, which in Hebrew are called Aravot during the rest of the year, but on Hoshana Rabba are called Hoshanot, meaning saviors. And in the strangest ritual of all, after the seven laps are completed we beat the willow branches against the pews or floor. Many throw the discarded beaten branches onto the top of the Ark, while others take them home and bake them with apples.
I sit and contemplate these rituals and wish that I could find meaning in them again. They certainly have symbolic significance but they don’t speak to me. I see a world that is war torn, full of corporate greed, income disparity, racial tension, xenophobia, homophobia, misogyny, anti Semitism, hatred and divisiveness, I find asking God for a personal favor now inappropriate. In our private lives things seem to get more complicated. I for one obsess now more than ever on my imperfections and wish that prayer and ritual can wipe away past mistakes and poor judgment. I worry more about the people I have alienated than I do about alienating God and I wonder how I will ever make it better. Beating a willow branch just won’t do it for me. So today I am Hoshanna Rabba, sort of a hybrid between a holiday and weekday, I seek forgiveness and introspection not to save myself from eternal damnation but closeness to my fellow human beings and forgiveness for my imperfections especially towards them. And like the day itself, I am forgotten or rushed by. Somehow I believe that’s exactly where I am supposed to be and in that way I can find a true path.