A season that is built for success

Mere minutes after the conclusion of Neilah, we pray anew ‘forgive us’ and ‘pardon us’ as part of the weekday Evening Service.  Isn’t this redundant?  After a full day of chest-beating atonement, what could we possibly be seeking fresh forgiveness for around Havdallah’s conclusion of Yom Kippur?

It’s hard to imagine additional iniquities mounting up within the few minutes of transition from one service to the next.  Perhaps the one misdeed that is most at-risk is believing that the piety of our Yom Kippur observance has just expired.  Being sealed for the New Year, the half-life of our personal commitments has run its course.  And yet, we know that the days after Yom Kippur tell the truth concerning our commitment’s sincerity and sturdiness. 

Promise-keeping is particularly challenging when it expects a change of habit.  This is why I particularly appreciated a friend’s recent message regarding the Jewish Holy Days of the Hebrew month of Tishre: they are built for success.  When we embrace a dimension of the Festival of our Joy, Sukkot, we may yet discover the resources that help us realize more of our resolutions.  This is because emotions are more persuasive than ideas are.  People are more inspired to change by seeing and feeling than they are by thinking and analyzing. 

The Prophet Jonah enjoys exuberant joy (simcha gedola) under the shelter of the gourd.  But his joy is short-lived because that which appeared one night, perished the next night.  Fascinatingly, that phrase ‘great joy’ (simcha gedola) appears just eight other times in the Bible. But all other instances of ‘great joy’ are associated with the whole community, often the entire nation, rejoicing in Jerusalem.  Perhaps what truncates Jonah’s ‘great joy’ is his solitude.  Along comes the Festival of our Ingathering, Sukkot, which requires us to be in the company of others. 

The Hebrew word gadol often means ‘great.’  But it can also connote ‘growth’ (gidale). 

We learn in the Talmud (Sukkah 45b) that the waving of Sukkot’s ‘lulav cluster’ should be performed ‘derekh g’dilatan’ by holding the species pointed upward, reflecting the way a growing tree ascends in nature.  I prefer to read this phrase as a principled approach to ‘growing ways’ (literally: derekh g’dilatan).  Rather than a botany lesson, it suggests an effortful way to become slightly better versions of ourselves today than we were yesterday.  Most significantly, we do so surrounded encircled by the companionship of joyous others. 

King David’s final words in the prophetic reading for this Shabbat also apply a form of the word gadol (migdol) great tower of salvation.  “Recovery is a process” writes Erica Brown,”not a singular act.  It requires tenderness, commitment, and patience.  Yom Kippur may represent the beginning of the process, but it is rarely its end.”  May we come to discover how helpfully our seasonal observances are built to help us succeed in manifesting our resolutions in the 5779.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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