The Sukkot Transition: From Individual to Community

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imageby R. Yehoshua Pfeffer

The calendar transition from the gravity of the Days of Awe to the festive atmosphere of Sukkot involves a change of atmosphere laden with religious meaning.

According to one suggestion raised by the Midrash (Midrash Tanhuma, Emor 18), the change reflects two phases of a single process: Rosh Hashanah heralds the beginning of war, a ten-day struggle between life and death. Sukkot, as it were, represents the “victory parade” after coming back from war.

Another explanation expounds on the closeness of Hashem to His people during the Days of Awe. Of this time the Sages apply the verse “Seek out Hashem when He is present, call upon him when He is close” (Yeshayahu 55:6; Rosh Hashanah 18a). On Sukkot we go a step further and experience the elation of actually being together with Him, enveloped by the Clouds of Glory (see Sukkah 11b).

In this sense the Vilna Gaon explains how the temporary dwellings imply ultimate closeness with Hashem: “The mitzvah of Sukkah indicates how Hashem took us from the direction of the constellations, and brought us into the providence of Hashem and His guidance, without any intermediary. This is unlike the nations of the world, who dwell beneath the armies of the constellations…. Therefore, we are instructed in the shade of the Sukkah” (Introduction to Oneg Yom Tov).

However, the two times also involve a social transition that should not be overlooked. Beyond the bein adam laMakom element of moving from Rosh Hashanah to Sukkot, there is also a bein adam lechavero aspect that deserves attention. The Days of Awe with which Tishrei open are days of the individual. Sukkot is a time of community.

Rabbi Moshe Isserles (Rema, Orach Chaim 605) records an ancient custom of visiting graveyards during the period of the High Holidays. Beyond the message of taking life seriously, if there is one emotion that graves awaken in us it is the feeling of loneliness.

The custom of visiting cemeteries reminds us that just as we die alone, so we stand in judgment alone.

Rosh Hashanah as the Day of Judgment, and the days that follow up to and including Yom Kippur, impel us to perceive ourselves as individuals. As the Mishnah writes (Rosh Hashanah 16a), all the people of the world are judged alone, passing by the Divine judge in single file.

Judgment is not passed in groups. We are not judged primarily as communes or as communities, but as individuals. The merit of one cannot avail another, and one person’s crimes will not indict his neighbor. On the Days of Awe we have nobody to rely on but ourselves, nowhere to look but inwards.

In this sense the Days of Awe erect partitions between one man and his fellow. Each person has an individual purpose in life. Each possesses unique character traits and dispositions, unique strengths and weaknesses – and each must strive to make the most of what he has. As we engage in self-analysis and reflection, the Days of Awe accentuate our individuality.

On Sukkot the reverse is true. Rather than an individualistic self-perception, we see ourselves as a people united by a single purpose.

Leaving our homes on Sukkot, we set aside the conventional differences of society and class, coming together in the uniformity of the Sukkah (before the advent of the living-room Sukkah!). The lonely partitions of the Days of Awe melt away as we dwell as we celebrate, together, the festive atmosphere of the time.

The Talmudic Sages note this concept of festive togetherness in the expression: “The entire nation of Israel can dwell in a single Sukkah” (Sukkah 27a). In contrast with other mitzvot, which are generally fulfilled individually (I cannot eat your matzah), the mitzvah of Sukkah can be fulfilled communally. The entire Jewish People can dwell in a single Sukkah.

Before reaching the exultation of communal celebration, we must pass through the phase of individual reckoning. For if we are not individuals, each with his special path and his own calling, we cannot be a community.

A human grouping is worthy of its name only insofar as it binds together individuals who are essentially different from one another. A group of clones is not a community but a herd.

A rainbow is only as beautiful as the variety of its colors, and by the same token a community as valuable as the diversity of its constituents. Absent individual diversity and you absent the entire concept of community. There is no human value in bonding together more of the same.

According to tradition, Rosh Hashanah is the day on which Adam was created (Vayikra Rabbah 29:1). In contrast with every other form of life, Adam was created alone – to teach us that no two people are the same, and that each is an entire world unto himself (Mishnah, Sanhedrin 4:5).

On Rosh Hashanah and during the days leading up to Yom Kippur we accentuate our uniqueness and our individuality. Only following this can we enter the national communion of Sukkot and experience the joy of a diverse and multicolored community.

Howard Thurman once said the following: “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs; ask yourself what makes you come alive. And then go and do that. Because what the world needs is people who are alive.”

On the Days of Awe we ask ourselves what makes us come alive. We deal with the ongoing and never-ending question of self-definition: Who are we? What are our personal aims and goals and how do we plan to achieve them? Are our actions in line with our self-definition, and how can we enhance them?

We give ourselves life with the answers we find for these questions.

On Sukkot, we discover that the answers each one of us gives are in fact individual pieces of a collective puzzle, components of a people with a shared purpose. Our colorful lives converge onto a single canvas – the Sukkah – to create a unified and harmonious picture.

If we could really feel that, we would definitely be rejoicing.

About Yehoshua Pfeffer

Rabbi Yehoshua Pfeffer teaches at Yeshiva Chedvas HaTorah in Jerusalem and works for the Tikvah Fund as director of programs for the Haredi community. He has served as rabbinical judge on a Jerusalem Beis Din and is the long-time rabbi of the website.

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