This is a strange time. Within the space of 1 month, we have 4 of the most mixed up holidays that one can imagine and we are pulled in all different directions. One day we are listening to a Shofar, one day we are denying ourselves, then we are shaking palm leaves and then dancing while holding the Torah. Happy, sad, inside, outside. Weird.
And on Sukkot, we suddenly take four different kinds of plants and shake them all about while we sit in a makeshift hut. The non-Jews must look and say “what comes next? Are you going to dig a pit and juggle a cat and 2 chainsaws next month?” And we do all this (OK, not the chainsaw part) in order to be part of a community! We aren’t lone wolves following personal and individual practices, but acting in accordance with the rules of an entire congregation!
I think that some of this traces back to something I heard from Rabbi Jon Schachter, though I assume that this isn’t his originally, but I give credit where I can. He pointed out to his students that we are part of a Tzibbur, a community. The word Tzibbur, ציבור, is made up of the letter Tzadi, which stands for צדיק, a righteous man, the letter Reish, which stands for רשע, a bad man, and a Beit, which stands for בינוני, a middling person who is neither fully righteous or evil. The idea is that we must include all 3 groups to make for a complete community. But I commented that that seems to ignore all the letters. The word also has the Yod-Vav which is a name of God. To be a complete community we all must include God. Four separate components to a congregation.
Those 4 groupings seemed to me to link to the 4 species which we take on Sukkot – the lulav branch which stands tall and represents the spine and the righteous who stand tall like angels as they pray, the aravah, the willow, doesn't smell or taste good – it lacks all connection to “goodness” and represents the evil man, while the hadass has some positive and some negative quality is the middle-man, the beinoni. God is the etrog, full of flavor and smell and all the goodness one can imagine. All four must be taken together for the individual to fulfill the mitzvah. Thinking of this, I went back to the 4 holidays all jammed within the month of Tishrei and looked at the differences. Rosh Hashana, it seems, is a day of judgment and closes the book on those who are clearly righteous, like the Tzaddik. Yom Kippur is a day of somber judgment which clears up the fate of the middle man, the beinoni. The evil person, unpersuaded, is still given more time to repent, and has until the end of Sukkot (hoshana rabba) when the gates are finally closed. Then, Shmini Atzeret/Simchat Torah is a day when all the groups come together to celebrate the ultimate gift of God, the Torah.
In a parallel sense, the four holidays demand different modes of behavior to appeal to all of the segments of that community. On Rosh Hashana, we use a single accompaniment to our davening, the Shofar, named in the written Torah to inspire us. On Yom Kippur, nothing. On Sukkot, we are chock full of external symbols, and Shmini Atzeret, just the Torah, which is around us all year long. Again, four modes of expression to reflect the 4 groups: the righteous man sticks with the single Torah mentioned symbol, one which proclaims throughout the day, his place in the book of life; the middling man must remove all distractions and find his inspiration from within – he has to make a decision about his life and only he can change it but by the end of the day, there is a single Shofar blast commemorating his forgiven state (he goes from being one of the avaryanim, sinners, to being written in for a good year); Sukkot fills the rasha, the evil man with outside inspiration to complement prayer in order to infuse his life with meaning, because without it, he has not found his connection to God and Shmini Atzeret centers it all around God’s Torah, not as inspiration to man, but as an expression from God. We need all these parts of observance before we can complete the process of repentance – to be a tzibbur, all of us must be allowed to connect to the divine and we must then celebrate the divine’s expression of connection with us.
Tishrei is a microcosm of us as a people and of the entire of the year. It is about including everyone in our community. It is about finding a path which will help guide us throughout the next 11 months. It might be by recognizing the penitence from within or from without. It might be by looking at the Torah and letting it inspire us. Maybe it will be by seeing someone who lives his life, daily, in accordance with halacha. Whatever it takes during Tishrei must be pursued so that the rest of the year can flow smoothly.