Sukkot is the first day
A colleague and I were joking together about how crazy it is that these Jewish holy days fall so close together. Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year), is followed a quick ten days later by Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), and then a mere four days later, the seven-day festival of Sukkot (the Feast of Booths), which ends with Simchat Torah, the rejoicing at the finishing – and beginning again – the annual Torah reading cycle. Were we to have made our own holiday calendar, we might have spread things out a bit more evenly across the year. But, alas, it was God’s decision to make. So, we live with the mixed blessing of a crazy 3 weeks with family and community to do all the good and hard work of observing and celebrating, praying and repenting, cooking and eating, building and dancing.
One might wonder why these holy days and holidays are timed so close together and what the spiritual message might be behind that. This is not a new question. In fact, at least one ancient rabbi asked this question and addressed it in his Sukkot sermon. This sermon is saved in a medieval collection of homiletical midrashim called Peskita Rabbati.
This rabbi begins his sermon with a question:
A comment on the verse, On the first day you shall take (Leviticus 23:40). Can the words the first day mean the first day of the month? No, for scripture has fixed the day as the fifteenth day of the seventh month (Leviticus 23:39).
If you look to Leviticus 23:39, and read that verses in full, you will see that this rabbi is asking a question about what day is referred to when it says “on the first day you shall take the fruit of the tree…”. Is it the first day of the month – the month of Tishrei – which would be Rosh Hashanah? Or is it another day? (Why the new year is in the seventh month is another blog post…) The rabbi answers his own question by reading the next verse, Leviticus 23:40, where the day is clarified to be the 15th day of the 7th month, which is the 15th of Tishrei. So, then, what does “first day” refer to in verse 39? The first day of what? It refers to the first day of the Festival – the first day of Sukkot.
He continues his sermon:
But why should Scripture have shifted over from counting the days in the month to counting the days in the festival? Rabbi Mani of Shaab and Rabbi Joshua of Siknin citing Rabbi Levi replied as follows: The matter can be explained by a parable – the parable of a city which owed the king its tax. The king sent collectors to take up the money, but the people of the city would not pay what they owed the king. Thereupon the king said, “I will go myself and collect it.”
When the people of the city heard that the king was on his way to collect the tax, the notables of the city went out to meet him a distance of ten parasangs and said to him, “Oh king, our lord, we acknowledge that we owe you money. But right now we have not the means to pay the entire amount. We entreat you, have pity on us.” The king, seeing that the were seeking a peaceful settlement with him, remitted a third of the sum the citizens owed.
When the king came within five miles of the city, the city councilors came out, prostrated themselves before him and said, “O king, our lord, we do not have the means to pay.” So the king remitted another third of the sum the citizens owed.
Then, when he entered the city, the very moment he entered it, the entire city, everyone in it, men and women, grownups and little ones, came out, prostrated themselves at his feet, and pleaded with him. The king said, “Suppose I ask for no more that one part in four of what you own.” They replied, “Oh lord, we have not the means.”
What did the king do? He remitted the entire amount and wrote off their debt in full.
What did all the people of the city do then? They went, the grownups and the little ones, and brought myrtles and palm branches and sang praise to the king.
The king said, “Let bygones be bygones; from this moment on we shall commence a new reckoning.”
The application of the parable is as follows: Throughout the days of the year, Israel sins. Then on Rosh Hashanah the Holy One goes up on God’s throne and sits in judgment. What do the people of Israel do then? They gather and pray in synagogues and after reciting the ten verses asserting God’s sovereignty, the ten verses asserting God’s remembrance of God’s creatures, and the ten verses alluding to the shofar of revelation, they blow the shofar. Thereupon the Holy One remits one third of the punishment for Israel’s iniquities.
Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur those men who are notable for their piety fast as they avow penitence. Thereupon the Holy One remits another third of the punishment for Israel’s iniquities. Then when Yom Kippur comes, all Israel fast as they avow penitence, men, women, and children. Indeed they avow complete penitence, for they put on white garments, even though they are bare of foot like the dead. They say to God: Ruler of the universe, we are two things at once: in our white garments we are like the angels who are eternal, but bare of foot we are like the dead.
When the Holy One sees Israel resolved upon complete penitence, God forgives all sins and writes off Israel’s debt to God, as is written, For on this day atonement shall be made for you to cleanse you of all your sins (Leviticus 16:30).
When Israel see that the Holy One has made atonement for them and has written off their debt, what do they do? During the four days between Yom Kippur and Sukkot they go and fetch myrtle and willows and palm branches and build booths and sing praises to the Holy One. The Holy One says to them: Let bygones be bygones. From this moment on commences a new reckoning. Today is to be the first day in the new reckoning of iniquities. As Scripture says, On the first day (Leviticus 23:40).
This rabbi’s message is comforting. He helps us see that God knows the work we do over the High Holy Days is hard and draining. To relieve ourselves of our debt – our sins and wrongdoings – is challenging. Ultimately, God is compassionate.
This rabbi also offers us charge. We must still remember the work of atonement we did during the first half of the month. It is not until Sukkot arrives on the 15th of the month that the slate is really wiped clean. There is still time to finish our spiritual and interpersonal work.
Sukkot is the first day of the new reckoning… the new accounting begins today. May this week be one filled with joy and celebration as we sit in our sukkot, enjoying family, friends, and God’s sheltering, divine presence. May they all be shelters of peace and calm as we look forward to good things in this new year.