Sunday, October 07, 2012

Random Thoughts on Hoshana Rabba

There is a widely accepted tradition that the judgment determined on Yom Kippur is finalized, once and for all, on Hoshanna Rabba, the last day of the Festival of Sukkot. The liturgy and melodies of Hoshana Rabba reflect this idea by imitating or borrowing from those of the High Holidays. Yet, when we examine the Torah and Talmud, we find no indication that Hoshana Rabba is singled out for any special treatment or has any distinct status. What is the basis for attaching such tremendous significance to the last day of Sukkot?

While it is true that there is no clear reference to Hoshana Rabba as a day of judgment in the Torah, we can identify a hint in the text that leads us to the answer. In Parashat Pinhas, the sacrificial order for every holiday is presented. On Rosh Hodesh, Passover, Shavuot, Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Sukkot we are commanded to offer a combination of sacrifices unique to those days.

It is easy to gloss over the details in Parashat Pinhas, particularly when it comes to the exact number of bulls, rams and sheep offered on a specific day of the year. However, the diligent student is struck by one fascinating pattern. Three days of the year have an identical "menu" of offerings, and all three fall in the Hebrew month of Tishre. Those days are Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Shemini Atseret! In a subtle way, the Torah is suggesting that Shemini Atseret is linked to the High Holidays, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. It is not simply a postscript to Sukkot; it is a return, as it were, to the themes of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. How does this work?

As I have explained in the past, Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Sukkot represent a spiritual progression of sorts. Rosh Hashana sounds an alarm, encouraging us to liberate ourselves from unthinking habit and to reflect on the ultimate reality of God's Kingship. Yom Kippur is the natural reaction to that awareness - a rushing to the opposite extreme,  escaping from the material and mundane and immersing ourselves in exclusive focus on Hashem and His transcendence. Sukkot attempts to strike a healthy and joyous balance between the two - we engage with the physical, we enjoy and even embrace the natural and the beautiful, but we devote it to a transcendent purpose. In other words, we relate to the physical not as a distraction from or contradiction to the truth but as a vehicle that, when understood and used properly, can enable us to reach ever greater heights of intellectual and moral development.

We can see, then, why Sukkot cannot possibly be an end in itself. After our experience of reconciliation and reconnection with Hashem on Yom Kippur, we are not quite ready to dive back into ordinary life - we still need the Sukkah, the Lulav and the Etrog as safety nets that keep us connected to transcendence while we tentatively reengage with the natural world. Like a patient released from drug rehab, immediately returning to our old dysfunctional environment would be a recipe for disaster. Instead, we gradually move back to the material and the sensual, with the Sukkah and Four Species as our "lifeline" along the way. Eventually, however, the umbilical cord must be cut - we need to stand up and face life on our own, without the elaborate support system put in place on Sukkot.

Shemini Atseret, then, is the moment of truth. Bereft of the Sukkah, on our own, in our familiar, temptation-filled environment, we are now in a position to really gauge how much of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur has become a part of who we are...How much of its inspiration, insight and call to repentance have we genuinely internalized? Have the holidays changed us, or has the apparent "new beginning" been nothing other than an artificial effect created by the continued presence of so many mitzvot, so many reminders, so much structure that has kept our connection with the truths of Yom Kippur alive?

Precisely because Shemini Atseret is a throwback to Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, its sacrificial order is radically different than that of the other days of Sukkot, repeating, instead, the Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur Temple Service. Sukkot was a necessary bridge from the High Holidays, with all of their grandeur and transcendence, and the less-inspiring, more murky existence we struggle with the rest of the year. But once we've crossed the bridge, we are faced with a test - have the effects of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur rubbed off on us as PEOPLE? Do we still have a deeper, more robust relationship with Hashem and His Torah, something worth celebrating even WITHOUT the fanfare of Sukkah and Lulav?

And this is why, I believe, Hoshana Rabba is so significant. It is the last opportunity we have to ensure that our observance of Sukkot has reached its objective and has helped us internalize the lessons of the Holidays of Tishre. We call out "Ana Hashem", help us, Hashem! Help us to remain true to the ideals that began inspiring us during Selihot and have stayed with us until now. Help us even as we are taking leave of the Lulav and Etrog and we are bidding farewell to the Sukkah. Give us the inner strength and courage to survive the intellectual and moral challenges we will face this year, and to continue on the course we charted for ourselves during the High Holidays even when Your presence is more distant from our consciousness than it is right now. Don't allow us to be overwhelmed by our impulses, our emotions or by the endless pressures and demands of everyday life and to abandon what we have worked so hard this month to achieve!

One last observation, that really deserves its own essay: One of the most prominent themes of the Hoshanot, including those of Hoshana Rabba, is our yearning for the Messianic redemption.We invoke a rare and unusual name of Hashem, "Ani Vahu", which according to the Rambam, is a reference to the verse in Haazinu "Ani Ani Hu" - I, I am He - the declaration Hashem will make to the nations of the world when He ends our exile, once and for all. What is the reason for this Messianic fervor?

I believe the answer is that our existence in a perpetual state of exile is, in and of itself, the true measure of our progress (or lack thereof) as the Chosen People. We pray, therefore, that the strides we have made this month will serve as the first steps toward our ultimate goal - the redemption of the Jewish people and, by extension, the redemption of all of humanity.

Yes, we've hopefully progressed, we've implemented changes and committed to new resolutions. And in the meantime, we have prayed for the gift of time - another year of life during which to grow in our knowledge and observance of Torah.But our repentance has a grander and more revolutionary objective, one that reaches far beyond the realm of personal development or self-improvement: namely, the fulfillment of our role as a Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation, sanctifying G-d's name in the world and inspiring all of mankind to join us in our quest for knowledge of the Creator and to partner with us in our struggle to establish justice, peace and harmony on Earth. For this reason, even after all of our prayers and supplications, even after all of our introspection and self-correction, we still must cry out to Hashem with Hoshanot, yearning for His help to transform our individual processes of repentance into a national, collective process of reawakening, rejuvenation and redemption.

I would love to compose another note explaining what I think is the significance of beating the Aravot on the ground on Hoshana Rabba. Hopefully I'll have the time and the inclination to do so after the Holiday. Ana Hashem Hoshia Na!

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