by: Ilse Strauss, Assistant Editor
The rhythm of life in Israel is governed by an annual cycle of feasts. The year flows from Passover through Shavuot (Feast of Weeks) and on to Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles), infusing the everyday with the holy, joyous and awesome. Yet even amidst a calendar marked with times set aside to celebrate, the three-week period that starts with Rosh HaShanah (Jewish New Year), continues with Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) and concludes with Sukkot is unlike any other.
In the days before the trio of feasts, an atmosphere of expectation settles over the Promised Land. The bustle of daily demands slows to a holiday crawl as Israelis shift their attention to the responsibilities and revelries of the feasts. And, as sunset signals the start of Rosh HaShanah and the blast of the first shofar (ram’s horn) echoes throughout the Land, everyone falls under the sway of “the feasts of the Lord” (Lev. 23).
According to Moshe Kempinski, a golden thread ties the trio of feasts together. Each has a distinct yet interconnected purpose to accomplish a wondrous work. Kempinski, an Orthodox Jew, has significant experience explaining Jewish truths to Christians. His biblical gift store, Shorashim, offers a haven in the Old City, both for those looking for the perfect souvenir from Jerusalem and for Christians seeking the roots of their faith. “The festivals enable us to stand before the Almighty, clean and pure, while remaining unbroken vessels. In the end, we are changed,” he says.
The festivities kick off with Rosh HaShanah, “a memorial of blowing of trumpets” (Lev. 23:24). It’s considered vital that every Jew hears the shofar during this two-day feast. Kempinski explains, “We declare God as the King of the universe. In biblical days, the sound of the shofar signaled the coronation of a king. This feast is thus a time of coronation.”
The declaration—and coronation—establishes an important mindset. “Before the time of repentance over Yom Kippur, we acknowledge and affirm God as the King of the universe—not me or my own will—but Him alone.”
On Rosh HaShanah, the piercing call of countless shofars resounds through the Promised Land. And with each blast Israel declares, “You are God Almighty, King of the Universe.”
“Once we acknowledge God and not ourselves as King, we can deal with things that keep us from Him,” Kempinski continues. “To us, repentance is about a broken, contrite heart before God, as per Psalm 51.” That’s what the Ten Days of Repentance between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur are about. “We open our hearts to wipe away the ego and arrogance separating us from Him.” Where Rosh HaShanah is the first step in turning to God as the Master of all, the ten days continue the repentance journey that culminates on Yom Kippur.
Yom Kippur is considered the holiest day in Judaism. Leviticus 16:29 says it’s set aside to afflict the soul and is spent abstaining from food, drink and other pleasures.
Leviticus 16:30 describes Yom Kippur as an atonement to purify the soul. The Hebrew word for atone is kaparah, Kempinski says. “The meaning entails ‘to cover.’ In Jewish thought, on Yom Kippur, there is a covering of sin. Who is the sin covered from? From God? Nothing is covered from God! It’s covered from ourselves. Why? The problem isn’t sin keeping God away from man; it keeps man away from God. So He introduced a solution: a day where the sin flooding us with shame and driving us from God, is covered.”
Moments after sunset signals the end of Yom Kippur, the hum of repentance prayers makes way for sounds of rejoicing as Israel moves from solemnity to exuberance. The sudden switch is pivotal, Kempinski explains. “By the end of Yom Kippur we have opened our hearts and souls. The day is awesome, but the process breaks you. You’re a cracked vessel—cleansed, yet broken. God doesn’t want that. He wants purified vessels, whole and filled. And the only medicine to mend a broken vessel is joy.”
God provides this remedy four days after Yom Kippur with something called “the season of our joy” or Sukkot. The instructions for the celebration come from God Himself: “You shall rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days” (Lev. 23:40).
God’s directives for the week of delight continue, “You shall dwell in booths for seven days…” (Lev. 23:42). That’s why the first hammers can already be heard shortly after breaking the Yom Kippur fast, as countless sukkah (booths) take shape in back yards, balconies and sidewalks. Families spend the next seven days living in these booths, much like their forefathers while wandering 40 years in the desert.
The source of joy over Sukkot, Kempinski says, comes from more than instructions or the prospect of seven days relaxing in the sukkah. “Nothing uplifts like telling a broken person you desire something from him or her—a gift, service, love or affection. That’s the way God restores us from brokenness to whole, joyful vessels. Instead of telling us He loves us, He asks us to love Him, to bring Him a gift and offer Him a service. His two requests for Sukkot are a sukkah and a gift of an etrog (fragrant citrus fruit) and a palm, willow and myrtle branch.”
Kempinski holds there is no greater joy than fulfilling the desire of one’s beloved. The four days from Yom Kippur and Sukkot thus pass in a flurry of activity as Israel sets about fulfilling the heart’s desire of their Beloved—God. Jews spend hours seeking flawless palm and willow fronds, myrtle branches and an etrog—all for the joy of presenting their Beloved with the perfect gift.
With the holy, joyous and awesome three weeks of Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot around the corner, we wish all our Jewish friends chag sameach (happy holidays)! As Christians we rest in the knowledge that the King of the universe reigns supreme over all our cares. We can approach Him with open hearts any day of the year. We rejoice that He has forgiven our sins. May we delight in the Beloved who desires us to love Him.
Photo Credit: Natalia Van Doninck/shutterstock.com
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