Ever hear of Jim Morris? He was a struggling minor league pitcher who blew out his arm and by age 25 walked way from baseball. He became a high school science teacher and baseball coach in East Texas. But at 35, Morris, married with three children, succumbed to the urging of his players to try out for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, a major league team. With an arm that could throw a fastball 98 miles per hour, Morris was signed to a contract, and after three months in the minor leagues was called up to the Devil Rays, the oldest rookie in the game.
The Jewish people are also programmed to go from 0 to 100. Just a few days ago on Yom Kippur, we prayed for mercy from G-d, admitting that we had no credits only debits. Three days later, we celebrate Succot, or Tabernacles, with joy, prayer and song. The logical follow to Yom Kippur would have been an interim period of repentance and spiritual development. But G-d has a different plan: No time for the minor leagues.
That’s the way it has always been for the Jewish people. When they turn away from G-d, they fall fast. And, when they return to G-d, the sky is the limit. And, the process can take place in a matter of days.
There are three characteristics of Succot that make it unique among Jewish holidays. First, Succot commemorates the Jewish people’s 40-year sojourn in the desert, where G-d took care of their every need as they prepare to enter the Land of Canaan. Second, Succot emphasizes the temporality of the world, the truth that our stay here is short and meaningless outside of our service to G-d.
Third, Succot completes Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur, Maimonides says, means to repent for sinning to G-d, and on that day we are absolved. But Yom Kippur does not include our sins to our fellow man. That requires asking them for forgiveness. What better time to do that than on Succot, a holiday of joy and brotherhood, when we visit each other, dine together, sing together and learn Torah together? From that point, forgiveness is easily granted, and the new year begins with unity and love.
During the Temple period, Succot marked a nightly celebration. The Talmud says that one who missed the scene never experienced joy in his life. This was not the joy of physical pleasure — whether of a steak or a woman — rather the happiness of a Jew with his maker. That joy goes deeper than anything in this temporal world. It also puts everything in perspective — including disease and death.
Yom Kippur has not been an easy day in Jewish history. Nearly 50 years ago, the Jewish people were attacked along two fronts and suffered some 2,700 casualties in 19 days. At least nine Arab states joined Egypt and Syria. The Soviet Union airlifted supplies to its allies. In contrast, Britain ordered an arms embargo, ensuring that Israel could not receive parts for its fleet of Centurion main battle tanks.
Israeli fighter-jets were downed by the dozens; main battle tanks blown up by the hundreds. Senior commanders led their troops into traps set by the Egyptian Army with disastrous results. The military and political leadership collapsed. The prime minister and defense minister even discussed suicide. The same leadership in Washington that ordered Israel to take the first blow now decided to favor its enemies and found no weapons to resupply its ally.
Succot in 1973 was a time for war. The generals proved helpless but G-d saved Israel through ordinary soldiers and low-level commanders. With almost no field intelligence, reserve soldiers stopped the Syrian advance toward Haifa and fought their way through the Golan Heights and toward Damascus. By Oct. 12, U.S. President Richard Nixon, determining an Israeli military turnaround, approved an emergency airlift to Israel. Later, Washington would save Egypt’s Third Army, trapped in the southern Sinai Peninsula.
Eight years later, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was gunned down by his own troops during the annual commemoration of the Yom Kippur War. For Israel, however, the trauma continued.
Succot, however, has served to end the trauma of the Jewish people. Some 2,500 years ago, Ezra and Nehemiah won permission to bring back their flock from Persia to Jerusalem. Most Jews, particularly the wealthy, refused to leave the exile. Ezra and Nehemiah found a desolate Jerusalem, a cowed Jewish population and a quisling leadership that opposed change. Some of them even joined the gentiles in telling the emperor that Ezra and Nehemiah were planning a revolt.
But Ezra and Nehemiah refused to back down. Ezra taught the Jews in Jerusalem the Torah and dissolved their marriages to gentiles. Nehemiah rebuilt the walls of the city and expelled the merchants responsible for trade on the Sabbath.
With Jerusalem safe Ezra addressed the Jews. He read the Torah and then sent the people to celebrate Succot for seven days, their first Jewish holiday in more than 50 years. On the eighth day, the Jews promised to keep the Torah and end assimilation.
The Talmud tells us that Succot marks a message to the world. During Yom Kippur, the Jewish people are on trial: Will the divine verdict result in a year of redemption; a year of freedom, or a year of tragedy? With our many sins, it doesn’t bode well. Then, Succot comes and we are infused with the joy of G-d, His Torah and our love for each other.
Like Jim Morris, we are ready for the major leagues. G-d has yet again forgiven us
The question is will we forgive each other?