"On the first day, you must take for yourself a fruit of the citron tree..." (Leviticus 23, 40)
Asks the Midrash: "Is this the first day, is it not the fifteenth day? Rather it is the first day for calculating our sins." What is this Midrash trying to convey to us? The Shilo explains this Midrash as follows: "During the four days between Yom Kippur and Succos the Jewish People are preoccupied with the building of their respective Succos, acquiring the four species (citron, palm, willow and myrtle). These activities bring an individual to a heightened awareness of G‑d, belief in Him and devotion to Him. Therefore these days are as a Yom Tov in that one who is involved in Holy tasks is brought to remembering as we have stated to be joyful in the spiritual joy of serving G‑d with joy and a full heart. As it is written in the Midrash Tanchuma and brought down in the Tur in the beginning of the laws of Rosh Hashana: 'At the close of Yom Kippur one busies himself in the mitzvah of succah and lulav and therefore does not involve himself in sins, therefore we call the first day of Yom Tov, the first day for calculating sins.'" It would seem that our Sages concur with the common wisdom that "Idle hands are the devil's playground," refining its meaning to encompass an entire world view. How often have you heard someone say, I believe I am a good Jew. I am charitable, honest and moral. What need do I have for the trappings of ancient rituals?
Our Sages however take a very different attitude toward the physical requirements of a Torah life. We are taught, "they are our lives and the length of our days..." How can one understand this concept which frankly, seems sadly alien to the vast majority of American Jewry? Let me shake your memory for but a moment. One of the most compelling memories of my childhood is the still vivid picture of my Grandmother (I did not have a Bubba - but that's another story) passing her Yiddish-Hebrew machzor over the machitza to my Grandfather sitting in the men's section of the Synagogue so that he might find the place for her. Sitting next to Grandpa, I couldn't help but notice that Grandma's machzor was stained with tears. The plaintive prayers of my Grandma, read in Yiddish, as she wanted to know what she was saying, still ring in my ears. Her cries, pleading with G‑d to grant a good year to her family, to all humanity, still send a chill up my spine. Indeed, as I am sure many of my generation can attest, my Grandma was far from unique. "Shma koleinu," hear our voice, rose heavenward on the cries of the Congregation as a whole. High Holy Day services in my youth were always filled with the cries of individuals seeking G‑d's mercy. Alas, the last of the "criers" has long passed from this earth.
Synagogues are hopefully decorous at best, painfully noisy all too often. The spirit of simple Faith in G‑d, the profound acceptance of these days as truly days of judgment, is lost on the vast majority of Jews today. At moments when I feel empty, when I need a nudge to really get into prayer at High Holy Day services, I think of my Grandma and her tears. That picture wells up in me the emotion and Faith to truly pray to a loving and receptive G‑d. Being physically and emotionally involved in the tasks of a Jewish life is the mortar by which we cement ourselves to our religion and People. Taking out the Succah, cleaning it off, putting it together are special spiritual moments shared by parents and children. In the days before Succos, Builders Square is awash with Jews buying everything in sight to build or enhance their Succah. Harried yet joyful, families are totally involved in this positive religious construction project. So enwrapped are they in the doing of G‑d's Will, so emersed in the physical precepts of Succah and lulav, it seems as if they have literally entered another dimension; the otherworldliness of one totally immersed in the service of G‑d. And what a grand experience it is! And then comes Succos. The work done, we enjoy the fruits of our labors.
Eating in the Succah, spending a fall afternoon with friends surrounded by the smells of the Succah, the hustle bustle begun in the days prior to Rosh Hashana has come to an end. We now begin to live life at a more normal pace. The splendor of the rigors of preparation, the exultation experienced in those all too short few days through this positive commandment so much a part of the season plays a less dominant role in our lives. And when this occurs, say our Sages, the opportunity to stray from the Jewish path becomes more probable. The fifteenth of the month, the first day of Succos, is, at the very same moment, the first day for calculating anew our sins. Surrounding ourselves with the physical commandments, far from a chore in the view of our Sages, vouchsafes for us and our children, a commitment to Jewish life. No longer ancient ritual stringencies to be discarded in a modern world, the physical mitzvos are the bedrock upon which one can build a true spiritual life dedicated to the uplifting of self and humanity as a whole. These physical precepts lovingly performed, enrich our religious life and strengthen our resolve to ever be faithful to our people and religion. During this Hol HaMoed let us think about this wise lesson of the Sages. The observance of the positive commandments is not merely a recollection of some ancient past. It is the means by which we underscore our Jewish consciousness bringing it into practical application in our lives. Surrounding us with reminders, beautiful majestic and uplifting reminders of the principles of our religion, the positive commandments are far from a burden. They truly are "our lives and the length of our days."