Perhaps toward mid-December, but more likely closer to December 31, you might start thinking about goals or “resolutions” for the new year. Many people set goals that have numbers attached: how much money they want to make, sales volumes, how many books to read, pounds to lose. Perhaps, if they’re thinking in a broader context, those metrics will include the number of friends to call every day. In almost every case, the numbers on the list are higher than the numbers on the previous year’s list, even if they didn’t hit the previous year’s numbers.
This is the our culture: the pursuit of better, faster, more.
An Assessment of Soul Goals
The Jewish New Year and from the “high holidays” through the holidays of Sukkot, Shmini Atzert, and Simchat Torah, offer a stark contrast to secular “new year’s planning.” The preparations begin the month before Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, with a set of daily prayers that begin to call forth introspection.
The Hebrew word that means “to pray” — lehitpallel — literally means “to judge oneself.” As much as God sits in judgment of us on these days, we are also in charge of judging ourselves. This is a healthy form of self-judgment, more like a personal assessment:
How have we lived? What is our purpose? Have we taken steps to fulfill it? What will we do differently if given the opportunity to continue to live?
The high holidays call us to assess our personal growth and self-actualization. There are no relevant metrics in the goals of the spirit and the soul.
Sukkot: A Detour to Implementation?
On the heels of this intense ten-day journey, instead of getting right down to the business of implementing our new visions for the new year, we usher in Sukkot, a seven day holiday during which we venture into nature, living in temporary shelter under the canopy of the stars and clouds, as we celebrate the harvest season.
It seems odd: having prayed to be inscribed in the Book of Life, you might think we would get down to business and start using every second of every day to put our plans into action.
Instead, we take what seems to be a detour, with a seven day holiday of rest and rejoicing in nature, followed by two more holy days — for a nine day holiday.
Even if you’re prone to procrastination, this seems a little excessive. The ten days from Rosh Hashana through Yom Kippur invite us to reconnect with the purpose for which we are here in this lifetime.
Don’t we have an imperative to start implementing and living that purpose?
Why Sukkot is a Difficult Holiday
Perhaps this is why Sukkot can feel like such a difficult holiday. It asks us to do two things that may feel difficult.
First, it asks us to celebrate and rejoice in the midst of uncertainty. The sukkah reminds us of the temporal aspect of life. Sukkot asks us to celebrate this.
Second, it asks us to go against our nature to get right to work on fulfilling the purpose for which we’re here. It seems to interrupt our momentum for time in nature and rest. Moreover, Sukkot reminds us that life is uncertain — this generally would heighten our desire to get to work.
Who can celebrate in the midst of uncertainty? Who can rest when there is so much work to be done?
A person who has found home under the canopy of faith. A person who recognizes that the fleeting nature of life requires focus on what’s truly important.
The Antidote to a Fleeting Breath
The book of Kohelet, known in English as Ecclesiastes, which we read on Sukkot, ties this together for us.
The constant refrain in Kohelet is that all is “hevel.” This is often translated as meaningless, vanity, futile. But a more exact translation is a “shallow breath.” Kohelet’s message is that life is short, so we must make it count by focusing on what matters most. Wealth, material goods, and even wisdom, have their limits of usefulness. We cannot take them with us when we leave this earth.
What gives life meaning is finding joy in the moment, spending time with people you love, being in service to others, appreciating the miracles of nature.
The antidote to hevel — the shallow breath — is a slow, deep breath. The ancient yogis believed that every person was given a certain number of breaths in a lifetime; when you use up your breaths, you’re done.
Kohelet is the ultimate prayer — a self-judgment of a man who wasted too many breaths on things that didn’t matter, who sped through life to acquire more only to realize that what gave life meaning was found in stillness and presence.
When we slow down our pace, or even come to rest, we slow our breathing. This happens naturally when we are in nature. Nature goes at its pace; it won’t be rushed. In these moments of stillness, time expands. We get more life.
We just asked to be inscribed in the Book of Life; Sukkot is the fulfillment of our request: a week-long holiday dedicated to gathering with those we love to eat good meals, appreciate nature, and celebrate each moment for what it is. This is what it means to live.
Sukkot is not a detour from the real work; it is a reminder that the real work — the most important work — happens in stillness.