Over the years, I’ve had what must be tens of thousands of conversations with congregants, and strangers that I’ve met in the context of my work. I couldn’t begin to count the number of times those conversations began with the words “Rabbi, can I ask you a silly question?”
The good teacher — or should I say the wise teacher -— will tell you that there are no silly questions. There are silly answers, to be sure, but very few if any silly questions.
Earlier this week, I was speaking at the Self-Help Senior Center that meets in my synagogue. Self-Help is a social service agency that was founded originally to serve the elderly German Holocaust survivors here in New York, but its mandate has expanded. The Self-Help Center that meets in my synagogue is populated by large numbers of Jews and- interestingly- Chinese Americans.
The director of the Center in my synagogue is a charming Korean man, who had invited me to speak to its “culture club,” to explain the High Holidays and Sukkot. I must admit- it’s the first time I’ve given a presentation that was simultaneously translated into Chinese. Seeing the translator trying to make sense out of what I was saying was, on its own, worth the experience.
Before I even started, the Korean director took me aside and asked me the following, prefacing it, of course, by asking if he could ask me a silly question: why is Sukkot so soon after Yom Kippur? Wouldn’t it have been better- or made more sense- to spread the holidays out a bit more? After all, they’re so different in just about every important way…
I immediately responded to him that if that’s a silly question, then just about every Jew I’ve met is silly, because all of them- all of us!- ask the same thing. After all, by the time Yom Kippur is over, most of us are exhausted, and preparing for and celebrating Sukkot- as pleasant as it is- feels more like a burden than a pleasure. Couldn’t we have done with a little breathing room?
The simplest answer to my friend’s question is that Yom Kippur and Sukkot are both mandated by the Torah, and their dates on the Jewish calendar are firmly dictated by explicit instruction in their respective Biblical origins. The Torah establishes when we are to celebrate them, and it leaves us no room for debate on that score.
But still, the fundamental question remains: why are they so close to each other?
I suspect that there is some historical dimension to the answer, as there is with almost every question that we might ask about our tradition and how it unfolded. After all, Sukkot and its sister pilgrimage festivals of Pesach and Shavuot each operate on two parallel levels of meaning. There is the historical/political thread- Passover celebrates the Exodus, Shavuot the revelation of Torah, and Sukkot our having been sheltered by God from the harsh desert climate. But there is also the agricultural dimension— Sukkot celebrates the harvest and the onset of the rainy season in Israel, Pesach the end of the rainy season and the time for planting, and Shavuot the time of first fruits. How these two dimensions were blended into one harmonized festival is a question that scholars on the early origins of Judaism have dealt with.
But as regards my Korean friend and his question, I don’t think that’s the answer he was looking for (although I did mention it to him). Personally, I rather prefer the midrashic approach, if you will- more interpretive than fact-based.
I would like to think that Sukkot comes so close to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to kick-start us on the real agenda of Judaism: to celebrate life and appreciate God’s myriad blessings.
Where Rosh Hashanah is all about sober introspection and Yom Kippur self-denial rooted in heartfelt penitence, Sukkot indulges all of our senses enthusiastically. We are bid to be exceedingly joyous, eating festive meals, enjoying the company of family and friends, singing favorite melodies in synagogue, and beginning the new year with all the gusto and enthusiasm we can summon. Judaism is not a sad religion, or a religion rooted in sadness. It is not, as I sometimes refer to it, the religious of “oy,” though some Jews choose to live it that way. If the fundamental message of the High Holidays is that God loves us and wants us to live, then I have to believe that God wants us to live as happy and contented people. The rituals of Sukkot point us firmly in that direction.
So my Korean friend’s question was hardly silly; quite the opposite. The lesson bears re-learning. There are no silly questions; only silly answers.