I can’t shake this feeling that there is something missing.
Maybe it is the weight of a laptop bag missing from my shoulder.
Maybe it is the way I can casually walk by Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf without the anxiety of finding an outlet and an empty table.
Maybe it is the dining room table that is no longer a temporary workspace, overrun with sermon drafts and notes.
There is a strangeness to these days, the days immediately after Yom Kippur and before Sukkot. And I don’t think I am just saying that because I am a rabbi, because these are our “Superbowl Sunday” or “New York Marathon.” I believe that all of you felt it, feel it, as well. There is something special, even magical, that happens in those moments—our cantors’ majestic voices, the quiet contemplation of Yizkor, the anticipation and excitement building through Ne’ilah. There is this sense, this beautiful, meaningful sense that we are all in it together, that we are not alone, that we can and will make a difference in our lives and in the world.
My colleague, Rabbi Sharon Brous, unknowingly summed up just what I felt as I looked out over the crowds on Wednesday morning. I realized it was, maybe, inappropriate to the day, but I kept smiling as I saw your faces. In her Kol Nidrei sermon this year, she wrote:
It’s that I love that for all of your cynicism, skepticism, discomfort, alienation, marginalization -you still come. Trying to find something – holding out the possibility that maybe, just maybe something will happen. So you fight for parking and stand in line and come and sit here on our crummy rental chairs, no idea if the AC will blow out mid-service turning this into a sweat lodge or some kind of bikram davening experience. You come pretty much knowing it’s not all going to feel good – the day is long and the liturgy is challenging and I’m going to, in some very loving way, kick your spiritual a$% over the course of our time together…But you show up – with your questions of imminence and transcendence, your struggles over life’s meaning and your purpose in the world.
And we do. We struggle, and we strain, we are bored, we are inspired, we are moved, we are “utzy.” We are here. We are together.
And then….havdallah. We separate, literally and figuratively. We all go our separate ways, carrying memories and moments and melodies. We go back—to the emails, the voicemails, the piles that we left on Tuesday afternoon. We go back:
--into a world where rabid anti-Islam fanaticism is plastered in the New York City subway, claiming to speak for me as a Jew.
--into a world where the vision of Israel’s existence as a Jewish, democratic, and physical state is unclear, and something to be debated by diplomats and dictators alike.
--into a world where the problems I had, we had, before Yom Kippur, are still there, looming…maybe just a little bit smaller.
It feels jarring. Each year, the day after Yom Kippur feels surreal—even without the exhaustion. I think of it as a spiritual hangover; there’s so much, there’s TOO much in these first 10 days of Tishrei. And so, waking up without it—I felt—maybe we feel—a bit adrift. A bit lonely. Even a bit sad. To say nothing of the ache in my knees!
But, of course, our tradition is wise to the challenge. Our tradition recognizes that, like Moses coming down from the mountain, it is too hard to simply jump right back into the every day. And so, tradition teaches us that—while one can build a sukkah beginning 30 days before the holiday itself, the ideal time to do it is the night after Yom Kippur. Have a bagel, grab a hammer.
I want to suggest tonight—as we look ahead to Sukkot on Sunday night, that there are two reasons for this. One is traditional, one experiential. Traditional commentaries suggest that we build a sukkah immediately after breaking the fast in order that we go from mitzvah to mitzvah. In other words, we stave off the inevitable—creating this artificial space in which our behavior remains spotless. We don’t give ourselves the time to slide back into old patterns, we move from one thing to the next, barely giving ourselves a chance to reflect on what was before we turn to what will be. It’s a smart tradition, if a difficult one.
But there is a deeply experiential piece of Sukkot, and therein, I think, lies the answer to my dilemma of how to re-enter the world.
Sukkot is, more than any other holiday, a holiday of vulnerability. We are required to be open—open to the elements of wind and rain, of cold or blistering heat. We are expected to be uncomfortable—to not have all of our “stuff,” to live without some of the creature comforts. We are enjoined to leave our homes and possessions and to go out to the sukkah, protected only by the wings of the Divine presence. It’s scary, just like the world. But it is also a space for growth, and for incredible potential.
The High Holy Days are, among other things, a chance to live in the world as it could be. They are a chance to imagine our best selves, and with it—imagine our best world. Cocooned within these walls, it all seems real, it all seems possible. Sukkot is a chance—a requirement—to live in the world as it is. A world where not everyone has comfortable, permanent housing. A world where the custom of ushpizin—of inviting guests—can be an exclusive, hate-mongering experience. A world where the very structures in which we ground our lives—are fragile, impermanent. But, we get to do it surrounded by the Divine Presence, sure only of ephemeral comfort and protection. And it is with that Presence, with that protection, that we can ease ourselves back into life—back into our task of transforming the world as it is into the world as it could be.
Because it is possible. It is real. And we are in it together.
The old-wives tale says that the only cure for a hangover is the tail of the dog that bit you. My cure for the spiritual hangover of Yom Kippur? Sukkot. Come join us Monday morning, study in the sukkah next Saturday, shake lulav and etrog and samachta b’chagecha—rejoice in the Festival. Rejoice in the world as it is, and start building for the world as it could be.