“I can understand why people want to sin,” the Kotzker Rebbe, zy”a, said. “Sins are enjoyable. What I can’t understand is where people find the time to sin.”
This logic is at the heart of one of the reasons Sukkos is the Festival of Joy. Fresh after the purifying experience of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we jump right into preparations for Sukkos — building sukkos, carefully choosing lulavim (palm branches), esrogim, (citrons), hadassim (myrtle branches) and aravos (willow branches).
We don’t have time to even think of doing anything wrong. The past? We wave a lulav and esrog at the past. What will be later? Hey … the lulav and esrog are the wave of the future.
And the culmination of Sukkos? Where can you go from the pinnacle of joy? You jump even higher. You dance and lift yourself above even the highest peak.
The Chiddushei Harim, zy”a, said that rikud means dance, and it also means to sift. The same word for dancing on Simchas Torah and at weddings also means winnowing grain — separating the wheat from the chaff. Dancing in holy joy shakes off the dust of daily living. It’s the original junk removal service.
Digression … Actually, not. Stick with me. You’ll see it’s just a detour.
When I was a kid, I knew when Lincoln’s and Washington’s birthdays were (February 12 and 22). In 1971 they got blended, pureed and desiccated into Presidents Day powder and sprinkled on the third Monday in February.
AP Stylebook dropped the apostrophe in Presidents’ Day, even though most dictionaries hold onto the original possessive form.
I’m not foolhardy enough to dissent from the dictionary doyens; especially Bryan Garner, the lion of lexicography. Garner wrote, “The spelling with the apostrophe is better and more common. It’s also the original spelling.” President Richard Nixon proclaimed that Lincoln’s Birthday and Washington’s Birthday would be combined as “‘the Presidents’ Day,’ honoring all past presidents of the United States” (Garner’s Modern English Usage).
Alas, the day no longer belongs to presidents past or present. We have forfeited the dignity of the office. Today the day belongs to retail stores advertising Presidents Day sales. Hail to the Chief Marketing Officer.
Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkos, Shemini Atzeres and Simchas Torah aren’t just a bunch of holidays lumped together at the beginning of the year for a conveniently long vacation.
The High Holidays and Sukkos are a journey to Joy. It is a process; perhaps an adventure. It’s a hero’s journey that starts a month earlier, in Elul. Then it builds to a climax with the ecstatic celebration of Simchas Torah. Woven throughout the entire fabric is a single thread: return to G-d through contrition, forgiveness and reunion.
The verse (Vayikra 23:40) says, “You shall take for yourselves on the first day the fruit of a beautiful tree, branches of date palms, branches of a braided tree, and willows of the brook; and you shall rejoice before the L-rd, your G-d, for seven days.”
What does it mean by “the first day”? Sukkos starts on the 15th day!
The Sages explain that the days between Yom Kippur and Sukkos are a blur of mitzvos. Who has time to sin? It’s not until the first day of Sukkos that we have a chance to start sinning again. So, it’s the “first day for the accounting of sins.”
Before you smack your head and say, “Oh no, here we go again,” listen to Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, zy”a. He zeroes in on the accounting concept: From Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur, we do teshuvah out of fear. That level of teshuvah only downgrades the sins from willful to unwitting. A spiritual plea bargain. But the account remains in the minus.
Then, when we rejoice on Sukkos, we upgrade our relationship through teshuvah out of love of G-d, and the transgressions are mystically transformed into mitzvos. So, Reb Levi Yitzchak says, Sukkos is the first day we can start paying off the account of all the things we prayed for on Rosh Hashanah — with the windfall Divine deposit into our accounts of sins now converted into mitzvos.
Then comes the final day of Sukkos — Hoshana Rabbah. The Zohar (Vol. 3, 31b) says, “On the seventh day of the Festival [Sukkos] is the final judgment of the world. The notes are distributed from the House of the King.”
It’s the final fall of the gavel for the New Year. But by then we’re already filled with joy and we know the Judge is smiling with us.
So we confidently wish each other a gutten kvittel. And then we dance.
What’s a kvittel? A kvit is Yiddish for a receipt or note. Like the ones you slipped into the Kosel.
So let me be the first to wish you a gutten kvittel — A good deposit slip. Or a good acquittal.
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