Rabbi’s Message, September 27, 2023

After Forgiveness, Paying it Forward

Illustration: “How to build a Sukkah with your family.” Credit: PJ Library
            What’s the right thing to do, right after you have been forgiven?
            Of course, there are several good answers to this question, based on who is forgiving you and what they are forgiving you for. If the one forgiving you is a loved one, you probably have your own vocabulary of relationship restorers.  If the one forgiving you is a friend, the same applies, within its own limits.
            But what if God is the One forgiving you?  What is the right thing to do, immediately after that?
            Let’s dispose quickly of the wrong thing to do. Only the self-centered person regards being forgiven as a license to continue the behavior that required forgiveness in the first place. Alas, too many people are exactly that way. 
            But one who has experienced genuine contrition and performed genuine repentance will have a sense of buoyancy because of the feeling of having been forgiven.  It may well give that person the courage to forgive others, people who have wronged him, if they seek to reconcile with him.
            The elation that one who has genuinely been sorry for one’s behavior will feel, after receiving forgiveness, can also generate a more general “pay it forward” position. Love your neighbor as yourself—and when you have been forgiven, your self-love gets a boost, which, in turn, can boost your ability to be proactive about caring about others, sensing their needs and responding.
            And this gets us to the holiday right after Yom Kippur, the holiday of Sukkot.  This holiday, which in origin was a harvest festival, starts only five days after the intense fasting and praying of the Day of Atonement. The connection is never stated in the Bible, but the implication is clear: when God forgives us, the harvest can be good.
            We tend to look at the world from within our scientific paradigm, and so we might resist the thought that our moral behavior affects the harvest.  But clearly it does. It has become uncomfortably clear that one of the most dangerous moral failings of our era is treating the world in an unsustainable fashion. That is harming others directly, as climate change disrupts lives on a world-wide scale; and it will hurt our children badly—how can we be apathetic about that?
            Let’s stay local, though, and focus on the here and now.  We have just been forgiven on Yom Kippur, and the harvest festival is coming up very soon.  What do we need to do? We need to build the sukkah (pronounced sook-KAH), the traditional booth in which we take our meals throughout the seven days of the Sukkot holiday.
            The sukkah is meant to be a place of hospitality.  Traditionally, each household builds its own, modest or grand as it can and wants to do. The booth is only a temporary structure, and even makeshift walls made of sheets will suffice.  The main requirement is that the roofing be made of sekhakh (pronounced s’KHAKH), cut foliage such as tree branches or bamboo poles. These minimal requirements put the sukkah within the reach of the individual household.
            The sukkah is not primarily associated with the synagogue, even though synagogues typically erect them.  The commandment to build a sukkah is not fundamentally intended to be delegated to the synagogue, because we are supposed to take all of our meals in it throughout the seven day holiday.  Indeed, a week of al fresco dining makes this my favorite holiday of all the festivals of the Jewish year. Our synagogue sukkah will have fulfilled its purpose best when we use it to take communal meals. This year, we will be starting the sukkot holiday with just such a communal meal…. This Friday, the first night of the holiday.  We will gather in the sanctuary for worship at 5:30 and then have a meal together. 
            Thematically, there is no cost to attend, except to bring one or hopefully several cans of food to go to the local charity food pantry. This is our way of celebrating the community that the holiday of sukkot is meant to foster.


Illustration: Mary Williams Engisch, Charlie Nadozzi, "Sharing the Harvest: Creative Ways to be generous with your garden's bounty."  Credit: Vermont Public/BBC World Service.
            In the Bible, sukkot is called the happiest of all the holidays:
שִׁבְעַ֣ת יָמִ֗ים תָּחֹג֙ לַיהֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ בַּמָּק֖וֹם אֲשֶׁר־יִבְחַ֣ר יְהֹוָ֑ה כִּ֣י יְבָרֶכְךָ֞ יְהֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֗יךָ בְּכֹ֤ל תְּבוּאָֽתְךָ֙ וּבְכֹל֙ מַעֲשֵׂ֣ה יָדֶ֔יךָ וְהָיִ֖יתָ אַ֥ךְ שָׂמֵֽחַ
            “You shall hold a festival for your God יהוה seven days, in the place that יהוה will choose; for your God יהוה will bless all your crops and all your undertakings, and you shall have nothing but joy.” (Deuteronomy 16:15) 
            The Bible makes it clear in the two preceding verses: there is no doubt that this quality of undiminished joy stems from the sharing of the bounty: 
חַ֧ג הַסֻּכֹּ֛ת תַּעֲשֶׂ֥ה לְךָ֖ שִׁבְעַ֣ת יָמִ֑ים בְּאׇ֨סְפְּךָ֔ מִֽגׇּרְנְךָ֖ וּמִיִּקְבֶֽךָ׃ וְשָׂמַחְתָּ֖ בְּחַגֶּ֑ךָ אַתָּ֨ה וּבִנְךָ֤ וּבִתֶּ֙ךָ֙ וְעַבְדְּךָ֣ וַאֲמָתֶ֔ךָ וְהַלֵּוִ֗י וְהַגֵּ֛ר
וְהַיָּת֥וֹם וְהָאַלְמָנָ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר בִּשְׁעָרֶֽיךָ׃
            “After ingathering from your threshing floor and your vat, you shall hold the Feast of Booths for seven days. You shall rejoice in your festival, with your son and daughter, your male and female servant, the [family of the] Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow in your communities.”
            Meals at harvest time… in every culture, this is the opportunity to show loving kindness by sharing food. This year, as a guest and/or as a host, let your sukkot holiday be the spark for invigorating your willingness to share. I can tell you from my pastoral work: food insecurity is still a grave problem in our society. Please redouble your giving to food pantries and help feed the hungry.  Our local Jewish Family Service has such a pantry, and our congregation is proud to be known as the most generous of its congregational partners in the effort to keep it stocked.  Please let the bounty of this happy holiday—happy because the harvest is in, happy because that, in turn, signals our forgiveness-- become a blessing shared. Remember, a blessing hoarded is a blessing wasted. A blessing shared is a blessing properly used.