Happy days: The gates of repentance are still open

Rabbi Craig Marantz

By Rabbi Craig Marantz, Torah Columnist

Torah Portion: Haazinu (Deuteronomy 32:1–52)

Yom Kippur is in the rearview mirror. But the work of teshuvah is not. Finding our better selves; paying attention to what will make us and our world more whole; drawing nearer to G-d and seeking spiritual alignment; saying “I am sorry” and meaning it–all are ways to pursue teshuvah on a daily basis. All constitute spiritual work we may still have to complete. The good news is the gates of teshuvah, the gates of repentance, are not yet closed. If we haven’t yet, we still have some time to make things right.

The upcoming festival of Sukkot gives us a unique space to get this teshuvah done. It’s a much happier space than we usually consider on Yom Kippur, and even Rosh Hashanah, for that matter. As tradition has it, the sha’aray teshuvah, the gates of repentance, close during Hoshana Rabbah, which is a special observance the day before Simchat Torah. It is marked by an all-night water drawing ceremony and lots of fun and joyful celebration.

When the Holy Temple stood in Jerusalem, one of the special Sukkot observances was to pour water on the mizbeach (altar). The drawing of water for this purpose followed all-night celebrations in the Temple courtyard; Levites stood on the 15 steps leading to the azarah (inner courtyard) playing a variety of musical instruments. Sages danced and juggled. Huge torches, and oil-burning lamps illuminated the entire city. The singing and dancing went on until daybreak, when a procession would make its way to the Shiloach Spring which flowed in a valley below the Temple to “draw water with joy.” (Isaiah 12:3)

“One who did not see the joy of the water-drawing celebrations,” declared the sages of the Talmud, “has not seen joy in his life.” (Babylonian Talmud, M. Sukkah 51a-b; 53a) Today, we remember these joyful practices by holding Simchat Beit Ha-Shoeivah (“Joy of the Water Drawing”) events in the streets, with music and dancing.

So, if Yom Kippur is so sober and serious and stern, why is Hoshanah Rabbah, and by extension, Sukkot, so happy and cheerful? And isn’t this joy an odd spiritual context in which to practice teshuvah? The water-drawing experience reminds me of an aspect of this week’s Torah portion, Ha’azinu. The portion draws on comparisons Moses makes between his speech and various precipitations: rain, dew, and droplets. The speech falls like rain upon those who need stern justice. Conversely, speech falls like droplets on those who require a more compassionate touch. (Rabbi Solomon Zalman Ulman of Yastritz).

So, perhaps it’s not so much that Yom Kippur is so serious and Sukkot so happy. Rather, it’s that Yom Kippur is the stern rain that commands us to justice. And, Hoshanah Rabbah, and Sukkot, in general, is the merciful dew that understands who we are, who we’re not, and reveals to us that G-d is really willing to meet us half-way in our growing up process. Consider the following midrash.

A sovereign ruler, whose adult child decides to leave the protective shelter of the palace so that she may try to make it on her own. After traveling a great distance, she is ready to come home. Sound familiar? The young princess sends word to the king, asking that he come to her. The king replies: “If you can find a way to travel half the distance, I will help you find the rest of your way home.” (Midrash)

Here the king uses soft, encouraging speech. Speech that rains down softly like dew, not a thunderstorm. Speech that encourages his daughter to do her part to make her way home. Speech that shows that G-d will come half-way to help her home. What a beautiful way to think about G-d in our lives. Not just there to judge us. Not just there to be compassionate. But there to meet us where we’re at, while still holding us responsible for our own teshuvah. So as we move toward the closing of the gates, we can rejoice that G-d will help us find our way to greater wholeness, fuller awareness, and the enduring blessing that come from turning–back to G-d and toward our best, new selves.

Rabbi Craig Marantz is rabbi of Emanuel Congregation.

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