I love the way we end Yom Kippur at Temple Beth Hatfiloh. After the heightened spiritual intensity of the day, the physical strain from fasting (and lots of standing), the emotional work we are called upon to do, culminating in the solemnity of the final shofar blast, we just unwind, relax, loosen up, and sing.
The lights go off, the havdalah candle is lit and we first sing some songs before marking the transition from Yom Kippur to the rest of the week/year with the havdalah blessings. And then, of course, we break the fast together to continue the celebration.
And that is what it feels like–a celebration. We made it through the day, and it feels like a relief. But we made it through together, and that is worth celebrating, too: our ability to be present for one another, to be in community with one another, to be in relationship with one another.
And just as Yom Kippur winds down, we pick up again with the fall harvest festival of Sukkot, which begins Sunday night. Thinking of the calendar it sometimes seems so odd that there are so many holidays placed so close together. And Sukkot can be seen as both a part of and separate from the High Holidays.
It is of course a separate festival with its own independent themes. We recall the ancient story of the wanderings in the desert as our ancestors traveled from slavery to freedom. We build sukkot–temporary structures–to experience this idea of transience, impermanence and transition. And it is a festival of the fall, and so we take up the lulav and etrog–a cluster of four types of plants–to renew our connection to nature, our dependence on our natural world and our obligation to care for it.
But at the same time, Sukkot is connected to the High Holidays. Sukkot is traditionally called zman simchateynu–“the time of our rejoicing.” This is the continuation of the celebratory feeling we noted at the end of Yom Kippur. Our tradition in an sense codifies that feeling. After the intensity of Yom Kippur, we need to just relax, enjoy nature and celebrate in a new way the renewal of life. Sukkot serves that function.
For we can recognize the truth in this: after challenging ourselves and feeling challenged, it is good to rejoice. Both in the fact of having made it through the challenge, and in the fact of being challenged in the first place, for it is in these instances that we learn and grow. And the opportunity to learn and grow is a gift.