We are in a peculiar moment between the trepidation of Yom Kippur and the celebration of Sukkot. Yom Kippur is an arduous time where we are supposed to be working as individuals and hope to be comforted.
However, the idea of refusing to be comforted is, of course, well-attested in Jewish sources. There is a well-known story on the grief of Rabbi Yochonan ben Zakai over his lost son (in Avot D'Rabbi Natan 14, 29b). His friends (disciples) tried to console him with “Adam lost a son. Nevertheless he found consolation.” Another added that “Job had sons and daughters, and he lost them all. Nevertheless he found consolation.” Then another added, “Aaron had two exceptional sons who both died the same day.” Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai answered, “Why do you add to my sorrow with the sorrow of someone else?”
Finally, Rabbi Elazar ben Arach spoke, “Allow me to tell you this story: A king entrusted one of his subjects with a precious object to keep safe and the man worried incessantly, as he had to return this object undamaged. Only when he returned the precious thing to the king intact was he relieved. You see, my master had a son, a scholar of Torah. He departed sinless form this world. You should receive comfort for having restored your trust whole. Rabbi Yochanan replied, “You have comforted me as far as any man can.”
It seems to me that this ritualization and physical enactment of sorrow allows one to look at the grief as a real but separate entity which one can at some point put away. Even with that said, as the officiant at a number of funerals, I have to say that it is never that easy, and each one takes on a special dimension of its own.
Nonetheless, we are called on Sunday night to make a journey of emotions, from the vale of Yom Kippur to the joy of Sukkot. It too seems like an impossible journey, but it is one our forefathers have managed for millennia. Starting from an external manifestation of joy in our Sukkah, we must integrate that happiness into our hearts. It is literally a process of ingestion--eating in the sukkah for a week, a reversal from Yom Kippur.
As rabbis are wont to do, I read from a small book on the Vidui (confessional) prayer during our break on Wednesday and instantly realized that I want to share what it said with you as we make the seemingly abrupt shift from Yom Kippur to Sukkot. The purpose of fasting on Yom Kippur is not self-affliction. Yom Kippur is not like Tisha B’Av, a day of tragedy and mourning. The essence of Yom Kippur is the transcendence of limitations. Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus (ironically a disciple of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai) quotes in his Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, chapter 46 that the angel of sin, commonly known as Samael—Satan himself, as he comes before God on Yom Kippur:
Samael saw the sin that was not found among (Israel) on Yom Kippur. He said to God, “You have a unique nation, which is like ministering to angels in heaven. Just as the angels have bare feet, so the Jews have bare feet on Yom Kippur (many of us disdain leather shoes). Just as the angels neither eat nor drink, so the Jews neither eat nor drink on Yom Kippur…”
Yom Kippur is a day when Jews become elevated to the status of angels. It is God’s will that when people begin to repent, God grants atonement far beyond their ability to deserve it through their own efforts. Even a minimal, sincere effort is rewarded greatly, for it is God’s will that the service of Yom Kippur should gain Israel’s entry into the world of angels. It is not as hard as you thought!
Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham