Sukkot and the Completeness of Teshuvah

By Rabbi David Rosenn

The season of repentance is hard on our egos, requiring a level of honesty that threatens a healthy sense of ourselves as good people with reliable judgment. Teshuvah (repentance) requires admitting and then confessing aloud that we have in fact shown terrible judgment, hurting people we love or narrowing the circle of our concern so that it includes only ourselves.

Indeed, complete repentance requires more: while our sins against God can be forgiven through regret, confession and a sincere resolve to not repeat those misdeeds, our sins against other people require us to make them whole and seek their forgiveness. Doing all of this can be powerfully redemptive, but it is also a brutal, ego-challenging process which, like the most successful psychotherapy or rehab, requires uncomfortable and difficult work.

And that is why, when Sukkot arrives, just five days after the intense period of repentance that culminates in Yom Kippur, we are ready for joy.

We call Sukkot “the season of our joy/z’man simhateinu” because of its unabashed physical pleasures. During this week-long holiday, we feast, we gather together and wave about fragrant bunches of plants and fruit, and we fulfill the mitzvah of dwelling in booths with our entire body. As the Torah says about Sukkot: “you shall have nothing but joy.” (Deuteronomy 16:15).

At the time of the Temple, Sukkot was the occasion for the happiest ritual moment of the year, the annual pouring out of water on the altar to mark the onset of the life-giving rainy season and an ecstatic celebration of that offering that must have served as an enormous release after a cycle of intense judgment, atonement and forgiveness. According to the Talmud, priests and elders danced the night away, juggling torches to the sound of the Levites playing cymbals, lyres, trumpets and flutes. The celebration was held at the place where water was drawn for the libation (beit ha-shoevah) and tere was such joy at this moment that the Sages say “One who has not seen the celebration at Beit Ha-Shoevah has never really seen joy.” (Sukkah 51b)

Looked at this way, Sukkot leaves the season of repentance behind and moves us into a new mode of physicality, connection with the earth, and gratitude for God’s abundant blessings.

And yet…there are voices in the tradition that insist that Sukkot is part of the repentance cycle, not something contrasted to the severity of the Days of Awe, but a necessary complement to the severity of those days in our process of reconciliation.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Ha-Kohen Kook, who served as Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi in pre-state Israel, taught that for all that it is powerful and necessary, the process of repentance shrinks the will, and that

“when one shrinks the will…there is also a shrinking of the will for good. The vitality of the virtuous life is also weakened. The penitent suffers from their moral cleansing the kind of weakness experienced by the patient cured from an illness by a strong current of electric shock. It may have cured the illness, but it also weakened the patient’s healthy vitality. That is why the penitential season is followed by days of holy joy and gladness for the self (Sukkot) to restore the will for good at the innocent vitality for life. Only then will repentance be complete.” (Orot HaTeshuvah, chapter 9)

According to Rav Kook, Sukkot completes the Days of Awe by restoring a sense of self-confidence and joy that is required for full repentance.

This idea that Sukkot is part of a larger repentance cycle is confirmed by the fact that in most congregations, we stop reciting the special psalm for the Days of Awe, Psalm 27, not on Yom Kippur but on Hoshannah Rabbah, at the end of Sukkot.

What is the contribution of Sukkot to the repentance cycle? I would like to suggest three indispensible elements that Sukkot brings to the process of teshuvah: a focus on love, a plan for action, and a movement from individual to collective action.

Focus on love: As Rabbi Kook notes, the teshuvah of the Days of Awe requires a certain tearing down of the self as we acknowledge our own errors, misjudgments, and moments of weak will. On the Days of Awe, God appears as judge, and although Yom Kippur signals that God is a merciful judge, judgment a role that puts God at a distance. On Sukkot, God appears as a caring and welcoming parent, and we are reminded of God’s goodness and nourished by God’s love.

God embraces us fully on Sukkot, as symbolized by the commandment to dwell in booths/sukkot during the holiday. The roof on a sukkah cannot be solid. It must enable you to see the starlight at night and during the day it must create shade, a symbol of God’s sheltering presence. Some describe sukkot as a symbol of the period of wandering in the desert after Israel’s escape from Egypt, a time when God surrounded us with clouds of Glory and fed us with mannah, a time the prophet Jeremiah describes as a honeymoon, a time of hesed/kindness and ahavah/love (Jeremiah 2:2).

Feeling loved opens up new possibilities for teshuvah. It is a very difficult for someone who feels judged and criticized to embrace change, even if they know they need to change. Often our capacity for change is not simply a measure of the strength of our will, but is also dependent upon how worthy we feel, how capable of being good, and how much loved.

Sukkot is not just a season of joy, but also a season of love and embrace, enabling repentance to be based not just on what we fear if we sin, but also on our love for the good, for one another and for God.

A plan for action: Teshuvah on the Days of Awe is focused on the many things we did that we should not have done. There is a literal litany of thou shalt nots that we went ahead and did anyway, and the focus of teshuvah is often on promising not to do these things again.

But is repentance only about refraining from evil? The verse says “Refrain from evil and do good.” (Psalm 34:15), and Sukkot enables us to fulfill the second part of this verse by adding a plan for positive action to our promises to refrain from doing harm.

The offering of first fruits brought to the Temple in ancient times starts off with an acknowledgment of the bounty that God has provided to the individual bringing the offering, but it ends with this directive:

And you shall enjoy, together with the Levite and the stranger in your midst, all the bounty that the LORD your God has bestowed upon you and your household.

When you have set aside in full the tenth part of your yield—in the third year, the year of the tithe—and have given it to the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, that they may eat their fill in your settlements…(Deuteronomy 26:11-12).

Reconciling for wrongs requires not just refraining from committing acts of evil. It also requires acts of positive good in which we walk in God’s ways by modeling the love and caring God shows for us, enabling others to feel cared for, worthy and loved, and perhaps creating a basis for them to feel secure and safe enough to undertake their own challenges of repentance.

Movement from individual to collective action: Finally, while repentance during the Days of Awe has moments of communal focus (‘we have transgressed, we have sinned’), the overall mood of this period is intensely personal and introspective. Most of us think of repentance as act of personal spiritual rectification. And yet, what good is fixing ourselves if we do not also address the social structures that create collective sins like racism, poverty and climate change?

Sukkot takes us beyond the individual stock-taking and self-repair of the High Holidays and reminds us that we are all together in the same impermanent dwelling . We built this house together, and the impermanent nature of the booths we dwell in reminds us that no structure we have built is a part of nature that cannot be rebuilt and improved.

Our tradition recognized that communities can sin. The Torah assigns specific sacrifices to atone for communal wrongs, and the Sages recognized the power of collective sins to destroy a community from within. They also recognized that communal teshuvah as the most powerful form of repentance, capable of rewriting destiny at any moment. For individual sinners, there is a specific time to ask for forgiveness based on sincere repentance: the 10 days leading up to Yom Kippur.  But for a community, where sins are generationally ingrained and so much more difficult to atone for, our tradition says that collective repentance is accepted at any time. [Maimonides, Laws of Repentance, 2:6]

In the United States, we are going through a moment of heightened awareness against the sin of structural racism. Across the world, nations are beginning to come to terms with the devastating sins of environmental abuse. Will these trends result in complete teshuvah? It is far too early to tell, but by incorporating the themes of Sukkot into our understanding of repentance, we know that complete repentance from these social sins will come only if we combine love with justice, if we have a plan for positive action, and if we move beyond individual actions to a collective response that rebuilds the places we live together.