RETURN TO NATURE
“You shall live in booths seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in booths.” (Leviticus 23:42)
Let me share the message I wrote on Sukkot ten years ago.
Yom Kippur is over. Sukkot is upon us. If I were responsible for putting a calendar together, I would have spaced the holidays more evenly throughout the year. We have barely recovered from the intense fasting and praying of Yom Kippur, and already we are building a sukkah and acquiring the four species. In fact, there is a tradition that even before breaking the fast, we put the first nail into the sukkah. How about some breathing room?
Allow me to suggest a reason why the festivals are so close together. Yom Kippur is our most spiritual holiday. We are far removed from the natural world. On Yom Kippur there is no eating, no drinking, no sex, no labor, no bathing, no comfortable shows, and no anointing with oil. We separate ourselves from the material world in which we live. We are almost like the angels above who live without any physical needs. Some say that Yom Kippur is the only day we pronounce the words outloud Baruch Shem Kavod Malchuto Leolam Vaed, “Blessed be the glorious name of His kingdom forever and ever,” because those are the words of angels. On Yom Kippur we are like angels, living in a spiritual world.
We cannot live in that spiritual world forever. That is why Judaism has never countenanced the ascetic life or disappearing into a monastery. We need to come back to earth. So five days after Yom Kippur, we return to nature. Now we celebrate our most natural festival. We leave the comfort of our homes and eat all our meals in a temporary booth under the stars, with tree branches for a roof. We are exposed to the natural forces of wind and rain. In Florida I often worry about heat and certainly bugs on Sukkot; up North I used to worry about snow. We take four kinds of species – a citron, a palm branch, willow branches, and myrtle branches, and we wave them in all directions. We have entered the world of nature.
However, we do not stay in nature forever. We dwell in the Sukkah for seven days, but then we must come back indoors. We pray for rain for the winter. (I know that the summer is the rainy season in Florida; we are praying for rain for Israel.) Just as we cannot be spiritual beings forever, so we cannot simply live in nature forever. The philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau taught that children would be better off if they were raised in nature. According to Rousseau, society corrupts them. He would have loved stories like The Jungle Book or the Tarzan novels, that speak of a child brought up in the jungle. Virtue comes from living in nature.
Our tradition strongly disagrees with Rousseau. Nature may be beautiful and inspirational. But nature cannot teach us morality. Nature cannot teach us holiness. To be a human is to rise above our nature, to realize that we are more than animals. Animals follow their natural instincts. Humans must strive for holiness, rising above mere instinct. To be human is to overcome our nature and live on a higher plane.
So Yom Kippur sees us as living in a spiritual world, beyond nature. Sukkot sees us living in a material world, in the midst of nature. Judaism says that as humans we must live somewhere in between. We are more than animals; we are less than angels. If we have soared into the spiritual world on Yom Kippur, and come back to the material world on Sukkot, we are then ready to live the rest of the year somewhere in the middle. The holidays balance out each other. Together they teach us what it means to be human.