This week many of us spent rather a lot of time at shul. We journeyed through the liturgies of Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, learnt together, and mourned together. Some came for a bit, some stayed the whole day, many joined us online. We were asked to look inwards and to decide who we want to be in the coming year – and how to be the best versions of ourselves. During the final service we say that the gates are closing. The gates of mercy are going to shut and we are both joyful that dinner is nearly upon us and urgent in our last chance at prayers. But the gates of mercy aren’t the only gates. There are, among others, the gates of communal prayer, the gates of teshuvah, and the gates of tears – which are never closed.
There is another teaching that suggests that the gates of mercy don’t close completely at the end of Yom Kippur. They in fact don’t close fully until the end of Sukkot, which begins on Monday night. This isn’t just because Sukkot is next, but, I believe, teaches us something hugely important about the journey we are on in the Jewish calendar and in our own personal growth.
On Yom Kippur we spend the day in prayer, contemplation, and self analysis. We deprive our bodies and focus on the inside and changing. We might make all sorts of commitments to ourselves, and we emerge at the end of the day exhausted but somehow refreshed, ready to take on the new year. But that isn’t the end of the work – just as today isn’t the end of your Jewish learning and engagement Dillon, it is just the beginning. The first mitzvah we are invited to perform on leaving the Yom Kippur services is to begin building our sukkah – a temporary booth in the garden with leaves or bamboo for a roof. We will spend a week eating in, and if we lived in warmer climes or were, frankly, just a bit more hard-core, we would also sleep in it. I don’t believe we are asked to do this immediately after Yom Kippur just to help get it started because sukkot is only a few days away. Sukkot is, in many ways, the counter balance to Yom Kippur. After all that time looking inwards, we now need to return to the physical reality of the real world, and we need to test our repentance and commitments to change in that world.
Out in the sukkah we embrace the physical. We are at the mercy of nature, and no matter how much preparation we do, we have no control over whether or not we will get to enjoy our sukkah. We can spent hours creating decorations, hanging baubles, setting the table and preparing delicious food, but whatever our plans, particularly living in the UK, we may not get to enjoy the fruits of our hard work. This is one example of how we test our promises and resolutions for the new year. Can we stay calm when all we have hoped and prepared for isn’t quite how we wanted it – something I know you Dillon, and all our B’nei Mitzvah families have had to grapple with over the last 18 months. Can we find a way to make the best of a sukkah blown down by the wind – or in my case last year a sukkah roof blown into our neighbours garden much to their confusion.
Yom Kippur is a festival of the inner worlds we all hold. Sukkot is the festival of the outer, physical world, in which our kindness, patience and justice is tested. This Shabbat is a bridge between the two, and it strikes me that it is a fascinating part of torah to sit in that bridge. Dillon leyned beautifully the poetry of Moses last song to the people, before he is told to head up Mount Nebo to find his final resting place. Placing this between Yom Kippur and Sukkot, perhaps we are being asked to put ourselves into Moses shoes, and to ask what is it we would want remembered about our lives? Moses doesn’t recount everything he has experienced with the Israelites, and sometimes he tells the story differently to how we heard it the first time over in Torah. We all remember events differently, but we also have a chance to decide how we want to be remember as we move from making commitments to ourselves and to God on Yom Kippur, to putting them into action on sukkot and beyond. The reality is of course that we will make mistakes in the year to come. We won’t always be the best versions of ourselves (except, maybe, for Dillon, who I’m sure will be an exemplar!) But the gates of teshuvah – repentance and return to God – are always open, and next year the gates of mercy will open once again, so that we can deal with our imperfections once again. But until then, our job is to work on living well, and to do our best to deal with the wind and rain that will inevitably be sent our way to test us.
Each of us will leave a legacy of memories behind us, and our Judaism asks us to take the time through this holiday period to ensure that they are the memories we want to leave with our loved ones, and that we leave the world better than we found it. As a community we are there to support one another through the expected and the unexpected, and we will be here to walk this journey once again when we come to the High Holidays next year.
Dillon, your Bar Mitzvah has started your life as a Jewish adult with a bang. I hope that for you and for all of us, good intentions become good deeds, and that when storms do hit, we know we can turn to our friends, families and communities to help us sail as smoothly as possible through, and I’m so glad to know you are a part of that community now Dillon, and that when we need a quick magic trick to cheer us up, we will know who to call! None of us will get it right all the time, but we will get on with living as well as we can, and come back together next Yom Kippur, to recommit ourselves to the vision.