Monday, October 10, 2011

From Yom Kippur to Sukkot

At this moment in time, we have emerged from the seriousness of Elul and the עשרת ימי תשובה (Ten days of Penitence) to the joy of Sukkot - "zman simchateinu." In shul, the heaviness and looming tension has palpably lifted as our prayers are suddenly lighter, streamlined - the selichot, avinu malkeinu and various other additions to our prayers have been exchanged for a "no tachanun" week. For the regular shul-goer, there is no sweeter relief than that!

We may well ask ourselves what remains then, of the Yamim Nora'im? To answer this question, I will share an idea that I heard from Rav Yaakov Medan some years back. He related to the biblical Yonah, who entered the city of Nineveh and issued the famous proclamation:  "In forty days Nineveh will be overturned - עוד ארבעים יום ונינבה נהפכת" and astonishingly, the population, from king to child, all swiftly respond in a contrite mood of repentance, each returning stolen items and recanting their evil acts.

The text tells us that God retracts his condemnation of the city (echoing the famous line in Shemot 32:14 in which God waves his pronouncement of destruction after the Golden calf):

(י) וַיַּרְא הָאֱלֹהִים אֶת מַעֲשֵׂיהֶם כִּי שָׁבוּ מִדַּרְכָּם הָרָעָה וַיִּנָּחֶם הָאֱלֹהִים עַל הָרָעָה אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר לַעֲשׂוֹת לָהֶם וְלֹא עָשָׂה 
When God saw their deeds, that they turned from their wicked way, then God relented concerning the calamity which He had declared He would bring upon them. And He did not do it
Yonah (mysteriously) finds this repentance exceptionally distasteful. He sits outside the city and builds a Sukka: "to see what will transpire in the city." What is Yonah waiting for? And why is he so miserable? Does he think the city might be destroyed after 40 days? The Radak and the Metzudat David suggest that Yonah is waiting to see whether their penitence is genuine, in other words, whether their resolutions will hold, or will their behavior will merely revert back to its sinful ways - "עד אשר יראה אולי לא יעמדו בתשובתם" Yonah is rather cynical and suspicious regarding this "quick fix" teshuva, and he suspects that the changes are cosmetic in nature, and that very soon, the people will resume their sinful acts.

Rav Medan suggested that Yonah's skepticism should resound in our ears, in that our situation mirrors that of Nineveh. 

The model of Nineveh is built upon a pattern of a 40 day period of repentance, followed by a test period. We too have 40 days: the month of Elul and the 10 days of repentance. But what follows these 40 days of repentance? We now encounter a test period. The question that we face is whether OUR New Year's Resolutions will hold, or whether the commitments that we made sincerely and genuinely in the fervor of Yom Kippur will simply dissipate and evaporate. With the close of the tension of the days of penitence, we are challenged to ask ourselves whether our teshuva is only cosmetic, or whether it constitutes an enduring, fundamental reorientation of our behavior and lifestyle

Here we should pay attention to the small detail in the text. Yonah sits in a SUKKA (!) to see what will transpire in the city. The test is simple: Will our decisions last even the 5 short days until Sukkkot? Will we succeed in retaining that religious tension and passion even in these lighter, less intense, normal days? Will we be susceptible to Yonah's biting critique or will our change be more substantial?
Good luck! - Behatzlacha!

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