I confess; I am a serial procrastinator. When faced with a deadline, I will happily do anything else before attending to the matter at hand. It is amazing how, when facing an urgent time line, I suddenly become aware of countless other things that need my attention; things that when I had the time, escaped my attention entirely.
So, as I open the first chapter in the Shulchan Aruch (the four-section 16th century code of Jewish law and practice), I am shocked by the first paragraph in the section dealing with the Yomtov (holyday) of Sukot: “It is a mitzvah to prepare the Sukah immediately after Yom Kippur.” (Ramah, OH”Ch 625) And, in case I think it is referring to the day following Yom Kippur, I am put right in the previous section still dealing with the laws of Yom Kippur (624:5) in which the Ramah states clearly “And those who are meticulous (about the observance of mitzvot), begin to assemble their Sukah (in the evening) immediately after Yom Kippur ends.”
When my Yom Kippur ended, an extensive list of urgent matters crowded my attention. I needed to check in with my family around the world, pack for a trip, read my emails, catch up on the news and much else. Building a Sukah didn’t make the list. Even though my wife and I will be enjoying Sukos with my children and therefore won’t be building a sukah of our own, I could at least have begun reviewing the complex laws of Sukot, like the Vilna Gaon who used to review the whole of tractate Sukah (a volume in the Talmud) before breaking his fast. But, as Yom Kippur ended, my expanded Todo list didn’t include the study of hilchot sukah (for which I still had four days).
The next morning, the day after Yom Kippur, as I am packing my Shulachan Aruch to take with me on my trip (because some time in the next four days I will need to review the laws,) I open it and am reminded of sections 624 and 625 referred to above. I realize with sadness, I have missed an opportunity. The moments after Yom Kippur were not spent preparing for Sukot; an opportunity that will not return until next year.
So, studying the reasons for this law of begining Sukah preparation the night that Yom Kippur ends, I initially find two distinct reasons:
One reason is provided in the laws of Sukot (section 625) bit a different reason is given in the laws of Yom Kippur (section 624). The reason in 625 is stated as, “When a mitzvah comes your way, do not allow it to lose its freshness.” (The actual phrase is “do not allow it to become chameitz – leaven;” a principle deduced by the Mechilta in Parshat Bo from the laws of Matza. See also Biur Hagerah 625:1). The other reason given in section 624 is “To seamlessly transfer from one mitzvah (Yom Kippur) into another (Sukot).”
The Vilna Gaon links these two reasons (see Biur Hagera end of 624), however, they are stated twice in two consecutive sections, one in the laws of Yom Kippur and the other in the laws of Sukot. Clearly, therefore, there are two distinct dimensions to this law of leaving no time before the end of Yom Kippur and the start of Sukah preparations. The two dimensions must also have slightly different practical ramifications.
The reason given in the section dealing with Sukot, section 625, “When a mitzvah comes your way, do not allow it to lose its freshness,” is a generic reason applicable to all mitzvot, at all times. Always perform a mitzvah at the first opportunity possible. (See Rashi Megila 6b, Yoma 33a, and see Nazir 23b and Bava Kama 38a.) This is because a mitzvah performed at the first opportunity has a different quality to it than one performed later. A mitzvah, much like produce from the market, can lose its freshness. It is still usable until its expiry time, but it isn’t as fresh as it is when performed early. The Mechilta deduces the impact of staleness on a mitzvah from the laws of Matza on Pesach, where the lack of freshness caused by even just an eighteen-minute delay, can so damage the quality of the matzah that it is no longer fit for use on Pesach, and must be destroyed. (Matzot – unleavened bread used on Passover – and mitzvot – Divine commandments of the Torah – are, not coincidentally, spelled the same way in Hebrew.) Not everyone can discern the difference between a fresh mitzvah and a stale one, but mitzvah-connoisseurs can. This is an important sensitivity to cultivate as part of our spiritual practice and growth.
The reason given in the laws of Yom Kippur (section 624) “To seamlessly transfer from living one mitzvah into another mitzvah,” is not generic but applies specifically to Yom Kippur. It is about making sure that the exalted experiences of Yom Kippur do not turn out to be one-day-wonders whose impact is lost the next day – or even sooner. Rather, embed the Yom Kippur experience deeply into your psyche by investing those exalted emotions, before they dissipate, into the next Mitzvah; preparing for Sukot. In this way you preserve the heights of Yom Kippur for at least another twelve days, through the period of Sukot. By then, hopefully, the experience has become part of you and you find yourself permanently living on a slightly higher spiritual plain than the prior year.
Reason 3: The Link between Yom Kippur and Sukot
There is a third, more Kabbalistic reason to link Yom Kippur and Sukot by beginning the preparations for one immediately after the termination of the other. The Midrash (Vayikra Rabba 30:2) states:
Compare (Sukot) to two people who came before a judge and we do not know who won the case. But when we see one of the litigants carrying a trophy, we know he won. So too, the Nation of Israel and the secular world accuse one another before Hashem on Rosh Hashanah (the day the world is judged), and we don’t know who won. But, when the Jewish people emerge (on Sukot) with Lulavim and Etroggim in their hands, we know that the principles of Jewish sanctity have beaten those of the secular world in the way God has judged the world.
The idea of the “secular world’ (or, as the Midrash words it “the nations of the world”) is a worldview that is obsessed with its exteriority, its external accomplishments, its acquisitions and its conquests. The idea of the Nation of Israel is a worldview focused on its interiority, its spiritual accomplishments and growth and the impact it has on the world through its growing levels of sanctity. Impact and sanctity are inextricably linked for the Nation of Israel, as philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote in his notebook in 1931, “Amongst Jews, genius is found only in the holy man.” (Quoted by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks in his introduction to the Yom Kippur prayers, page lxxvi. Rabbi Sacks adds, “Jews had this genius not because they are better than others – often, reading the prophets, you get the impression that the opposite was sometimes true – but because they worked harder at it. The Hebrew word for serving God, avodah, also means ‘hard work.’ ”)
There are similarly two systems of natural law. The one system operates by secular values where causality is mechanical and sometimes random. In this operating system events are either determined by predictable science or they are random. The second system operates by principles of sanctity where human actions and societal norms play a greater part in determining events. On Rosh Hashanah God decides whether to manage the world the following year by a secular system of natural law or by one that favors interiority and sanctity (See Zohar, Emor 99b). By carrying our Lulavim and Etroggim during Sukot, praying for rain and living in our Sukot (booths we build and live in during Sukot whose roof is made from natural vegetation such as branches of trees or bamboo), we declare our trust that even the natural world operates by the laws of sanctity and not by random, secular laws void of sanctity and the Divine.
Eisav and Yaacov – Exteriority and Interiority
We see the fragile balance between these same two worldviews of exteriority versus interiority in the Avodah (Temple service as prescribed in the Bible) of Yom Kippur. Two goats are used, one represents Eisav, the originator of a secular worldview of exteriority, and the other, Ya’acov, the father of a worldview focused on interiority and sanctity. On Yom Kippur, we expel the Eisav goat from our lives, and adopt the Ya’acov one. Then, immediately following on the intense period of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, after expelling the influence of Eisav, we retire to our Sukot. This mirrors Ya’acov’s journey to a place called Sukot (see Bereishit 33.17) immediately after parting from his twin brother Eisav. It is in Sukot that Ya’acov in those days, and we until this day, affirm our commitment to and belief in the way of the Nation of Israel (that is the Nation of Ya’acov – also known as Israel), the worldview of accomplishment through the development of our interiority; the worldview centered in sanctity.
The holiday of Sukot is the finale of the symphonic period leading up to Yom Kippur, and is linked to it so tightly that we bridge the four days in between with activities that prepare us for Sukot. (This Kabbalistic idea is extended significantly by Rabbi Moshe Shapiro ztz”l in Shuvi Ve’Nichye for the High Holidays, Chapter 56.)
From the three reasons for the first law in the Shulchan Aruch’s section dealing with Sukot, I learn three important life-principles:
i. Fresh gestures have more vitality and power in them. When an opportunity comes, don’t let it get stale. Help someone out, visit one who is ill, call a friend to connect or congratulate for a simcha as soon as the opportunities to do so arise. The same applies to mitzvot: Daven (pray) and say keriyat shema as soon as their times present themselves.
ii. When inspired in the moment, don’t allow the experience to evaporate. Immediately invest the inspiration in a lasting activity. If inspired to make a change in your life, begin the change immediately, not the next day.
iii. Invest in your own interiority though learning, prayer, meditation and exposure to natural beauty and beautiful works of art and music. Deepen your knowledge, your sensitivity and your insight. Tune in to your intuition and draw on the wisdom within you. Build sanctuaries in time and in place which you dedicate exclusively to things spiritual and to your own interior growth. Develop your capacity to live in sanctity.
Halacha is not just a dry list of do’s and don’ts. It is a dynamic system of higher consciousness, principles and frameworks by which to make sense of the world and give meaning to life.