The Tishrei Unit

June 24, 2009

9 min read


Rosh Hashanah (Day 1: Genesis 21; Day 2: Genesis 22 )

Greetings from the Holy City of Jerusalem!

The month of Tishrei incorporates the three major holidays of Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Sukkot. These give us an opportunity to improve the three major components of self: mind, heart and limbs.

Rosh Hashana is a holiday when we use our mind and intellect to serve God as we acknowledge and accept the sovereignty of God over the world. It is a time when we re-affirm our belief that God rules the world, and we contemplate our outlook and Jewish perspective on life. Even the name of the holiday - Rosh Hashana - 'Head of the Year' is indicative of the predominant involvement of the mind on this holiday.

Yom Kippur, however, is more of an emotional day as we pour out our hearts to God in prayer and supplication. It is a solemn and awesome time when we re-connect to God on an emotional level, therefore representing the heart, the second dimension of Man.

Finally, Sukkot represents the body/limbs, as it involves much movement and physical activity, for example, building a sukkah prior to the holiday, sleeping and eating in the sukkah, shaking the four species, and lots of dancing at Simchat Beit Hashoeva celebrations. It is a time when we serve God predominantly with our body.

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We could suggest that these three holidays also symbolize the three Patriarchs. Rosh Hashana, which focuses on connecting to God with our mind, represents our forefather Yaakov who was deeply involved in Torah study (Genesis 25:27).

Yom Kippur is a day when we connect to God with our heart, representing the patriarch Yitzchak who also symbolizes this type of service. Yitzchak, at the Akeida, was willing to be offered up as a live sacrifice to God. As prayers nowadays serve as a substitute to offerings (Talmud - Brachot 26b). Prayer is referred to as 'service of the heart' (Talmud - Ta'anit 2a). Yitzchak represents prayer, connecting to God with the heart, and therefore shares the same essence as Yom Kippur. It should therefore not surprise us that the Akeida occurred on Yom Kippur!

Finally, the festival of Sukkot, which focuses primarily on serving God physically, represents Abraham who was renowned for his hospitality (see Genesis 21:23 and Talmud Sota 10b). Abraham was constantly involved in helping others, physically going out of his way to reach out to people in need. On Sukkot, we leave our homes and places of comfort and go out to the Sukkah, which is open to all who wish to enter. Sukkot is a time when the focus of our service to God is through physical acts of kindness, just as Abraham represents.

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Although Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are referred to as the High Holidays, it could be that Sukkot is actually the highest of holidays, as its essence, likened to that of Abraham, will ultimately bring about the final redemption. We read in Genesis 12:2 of God's blessing to Abraham. The verse can be divided into four parts as follows:

  1. I will make you into a great nation.
  2. I will bless you.
  3. I will make your name great.
  4. Tt will be for you a blessing.

Rashi explains that in the first part of the verse, God tells Abraham that he will become a great nation, indicating that he would be mentioned in the first blessing of the Amidah, as we read "Elokei Avraham."

In the second part of the promise, Rashi continues, God, in telling Abraham that he will be blessed, indicating that his son would also be mentioned in the liturgy, as we read, "Elokei Yitzchak." Finally, the third section of the verse, where God promises to make Abraham's name great, served as an indication to Abraham that his grandchild too would be mentioned in the first blessing of the Amidah, as we read, "Elokei Yaakov."

At this point, says Rashi, we may think that just as we mentioned the three Patriarchs at the beginning of the blessing, so should we conclude the blessing by mentioning all their names. However, God continues to bless Abraham saying, "It will be for you a blessing," suggesting that Abraham alone was chosen to be mentioned in the conclusion of the first blessing of the Amidah ("Magen Abraham"), as Rashi says, "With you [Abraham, the blessing] is sealed and not with them."

The Ba'al Shem Tov explains how God's blessing to Abraham indicated not just that he and his descendants will be mentioned in the liturgy in specific places, but also revealed how the whole of Jewish history would unfold. Beginning with the first major historical event for the Jewish nation - the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai - starting from that point in time and continuing until the Temple period, there would be a Tekufa shel Torah - 'An era of Torah', a period of time when serving God with the mind and intellect would be most predominant. Thus history would begin with a focus on the study of Torah, which is the essence of Yaakov.

Starting from the Temple period, the focus of serving God would be carried out through offerings, which corresponds nowadays to serving God through prayer, Avodah She'b'lev, thus symbolizing an era in which the essence of Yitzchak would predominate.

Finally, in the end of days, explains the Ba'al Shem Tov, the primary method of serving God in the era of the coming of Mashiach, will be serving God through acts of kindness to others, corresponding to the essence of our Patriarch Abraham.

This is how the Ba'al Shem Tov explains the deeper meaning of Rashi's statement, "With you [Abraham, the blessing] is sealed and not with them." Not only will the first blessing in the liturgy end with (mentioning the name of) Abraham, but also the whole of history will culminate with an era when the characteristic trait of Abraham, kindness will be the primary method in serving God. It is through these acts of kindness that we will merit the coming of the Mashiach.

This idea fits in perfectly with the verse in Leviticus 26:42 where, after warning Israel of the curses that would befall them if they deviated from God's word, God promises Israel, "[But] I will remember My covenant with Yaakov, and even My covenant with Yitzchak, and even My covenant with Abraham I will remember, and I will remember the Land [of Israel]." Many of the commentators are puzzled by the seeming lack of chronology in the listing of the Patriarchs and provide a plethora of approaches to answer this question. However, based on the approach of the Ba'al Shem Tov, this verse makes perfect sense, as it is exactly the order in which history will unfold!

(Following the mention of the covenant with Abraham (in Leviticus 26:42), which according to the Ba'al Shem Tov, refers to the end of days, the verses talk of the return to Israel, which connects to this time period, as God will gather all the Jews scattered across the world and return them to the land.)

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We can now provide a deeper insight as to why the festival of Sukkot, which represents Abraham, is referred to in the Torah as Chag Ha'Asif - 'the festival of ingathering' (see Lev. 23:39). Based on the idea that Abraham represents the physical service of God through kindness, we could suggest that on Sukkot, we 'gather' all our limbs to serve God physically, performing kindness and good deeds to others. This could be why the general term Chag refers to Sukkot more than it refers to Passover and Shavuot (see Numbers 29:12), as the word Chag, when read backwards, spells out the letters gimmel and chet, which is the acronym for Gemilut Chasadim, acts of kindness.

The idea that Sukkot resembles the channeling of the physical body to serving God is hinted at in the four species, which symbolically represent different parts of the body, as each of the species share a similar shape to the corresponding body part. The Midrash (Vayikra Raba 30:14) explains that the Etrog (citron) symbolizes the heart, the myrtle branch is symbolic of the eye, the willow branch symbolizes the mouth and the palm branch, the spine. As King David expresses in Psalms 35:10, "All my bones say who is like you, God."

We could further suggest that the festival of Sukkot, symbolic of the essence of Abraham who reached out to all humanity in need, is a holiday of ingathering of the Jewish people themselves. This is hinted at in the Midrash (Vayikra Raba 30:12) where it describes how each of the four species represents different types of Jews. The etrog, which has a good taste and smell, is symbolic of a Jew who possesses both Torah and good deeds. The palm branch, which has a taste but no smell, represents the Jew who possesses Torah but no good deeds. The myrtle with its characteristic smell but lack of taste is symbolic of the Jew with good deeds but who lacks Torah. Finally the willow branch, with no smell or taste, symbolizes the Jew who lacks both Torah and good deeds. As we hold the four species together, we are imbibing the message of the need to respect and care for others regardless of background or religious level, just as Abraham exemplified.

May we all be blessed this year, as we gather around the table in our Sukkot, to understand the deeper meaning of the holiday and pull together all our limbs, performing acts of kindness for all types of Jews, thus unifying the Jewish people, and meriting the speedy arrival of the Messiah.

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