V'Zot HaBracha(Deuteronomy 33-34)
Love Conquers All
We read V'Zot HaBracha on the last day of the Succot holiday. Simchat Torah, the name by which we refer to this day, is special even within Succot. It has its own Biblical name, Shmini Azeret, and its own rules: we do not sit in the Succah or use the four species; when the Temple stood, it had its own sacrifices, differing from those of Succot and was a special day of pilgrimage of its own; it is the day the Jewish people has selected to complete the annual reading of the Torah and begin the new cycle of Torah reading.
TWO SORTS OF HOLY DAYS
To acquire the necessary background to appreciate how the day acquired its special flavor, we must begin by studying the Succot holiday itself. Succot has a very unique quality. The Jewish calendar has two sorts of holidays. One set is known as the three Regalim, or literally the legs of the spiritual tripod that support the spiritual year.
Just as the natural cycle of nature has three growing seasons, spring summer and fall, the spiritual cycle has Pesach, Shavuot and Succot. Pesach is the spiritual equivalent of the natural spring, a season that liberates us spiritually from the shackles of nature and allows us to follow God into the natural wilderness, on Shavuot we acquire the means of our spiritual sustenance, the Torah and its commandments, and on Succot we harvest the crop of good works based on our beliefs and ideas that will support us through the long, spiritual barren period of our exile, a period of "katnus hamochin," or little brains, when we see and understand very little of the workings of Providence.
The provider of the spiritual energy that imbues these holidays with their special auras of sanctity is God Himself. Thus there is a Pilgrimage obligation associated with all of them. The people of Israel, the recipients of these spiritual inputs have an obligation to make a pilgrimage to the Temple to receive the inputs from God's own Hands, as it were.
DAYS OF AWE
In contrast, there is another set of holidays that we have just completed, known as the Days of Awe. These are days of judgment whose sanctity derives from the spiritual inputs that are the results of man's own labors, the fruits of the exercise of the human power of free will. On these holidays there is no pilgrimage obligation; it is not God who supplies the input of sanctity which is the backbone of these holidays, it is man. [see http://www.aish.com/hhGrowth/hhGrowthDefault/choice_holidays.asp]
Succot is unique in the sense that it belongs to both sets of holy days. It is one of the three Regalim, but it is also an integral part of the Days of Awe. Jewish tradition has it, that Hoshana Rabba, the seventh day of Succot, is really the final day of the days of Judgment and brings the Days of Awe to a close. Between Yom Kippur and Hoshana Rabba, Jews greet each other with the phrase Piska Tava, or Good Execution. All legal judgments are enforced by a separate body, known in our legal system as the Sheriff's department. A harshly overzealous executor of a relatively mild judgment is harder to bear than a lenient, distracted executor of a much harsher judgment. When the final judgment is issued on Yom Kippur, the issue of how it will be enforced remains open for consideration till Hoshana Rabba.
FALLING SHORT OF REPENTANCE
Let us see if we can get a better handle on this. Yom Kippur is a day of repentance, but it falls short of genuine repentance in a very basic way. We stand before God on Yom Kippur and repeatedly confess our sins, but we fail to make an absolute commitment to alter our ways permanently, or even utter an unambiguous statement of regret over having sinned. According to the laws of repentance, [see Maimonides, Laws of Teshuva 1] both of these missing elements are necessary parts of repentance. They do not merely increase the level of the penitent's potential access to spiritual purity; they are a sine qua non of the repentance process, which is a hollow shell without them.
We recite the following prayer at the end of our Yom Kippur confession:
"My God, before I was formed I was unworthy, and now that I have been formed it is as if I had not been formed. I am dust in my life and will surely be so in my death. Behold - before You I am like a vessel filled with shame and humiliation."
This is as close as we get to a statement that expresses our regret over our sins. If we examine it closely, it seems much more like a declaration of a general sense of worthlessness than an expression of regret over the commission of sins. It merely says that human beings aren't worth much; they are merely dust, so what can You [meaning God] already expect from them?
"May it be Your will, Hashem, my God and the God of my forefathers, that I not sin again, and what I have sinned before You may You cleanse with Your abundant mercy, but not through suffering or serious illness."
This seems to be intended as a fulfillment of the need for the penitent to make an undertaking not to sin again. It seems a little weak - it is phrased as a prayer, it fails to express a determination not to sin again and it seems like a confession of the impotence of the sinner's own will.
On the one hand, these limitations in the text of our repentance prayers are quite understandable. The rabbis who authored these prayers for us to recite had no wish to make us say words that we could not stand behind. To stand before God on Yom Kippur and make empty promises is worse than saying nothing at all. But on the other hand, the whole idea of Atonement loses its content in the absence of such undertakings. If we cannot in fact repent, what is the point of having a day of Repentance?
THE CLEANSING POWER OF CONFESSION
The great Medieval Kabbalist, R' Moshe Kordovera offers an explanation in his work, Tomer Devorah. The key is located in the final portion of the repentance prayer, the part that refers to cleansing through suffering. He explains; the Jew who stands before God and confesses his sins but also declares himself incapable of true repentance is really saying the following; "I would dearly love to cleanse myself spiritually through repentance if this were possible; unfortunately, I am not on a level where I can truly regret my sins or sincerely renounce them in future at the present time, so I will need Your help. I realize that repentance is something I must do on my own, but there is something You can do to help me; You can cleanse me through suffering."
Rabbi Kordovera explains that this is the explanation of the sacrifice of the scapegoat, that most mysterious portion of the Yom Kippur service. On Yom Kippur we ask God to purify us. God immediately grants our request and makes us pure. But as we have not truly repented, the only way to purify us is through suffering. A certain amount of suffering is associated with each level of purity. Thus for every degree of purity beyond the level of our own genuine repentance that we are awarded by God on Yom Kippur, there is a level of suffering required to attain it.
The degree of purity that is selected by God is not random. It corresponds to the intensity of the longing we express in our Yom Kippur prayers to be reunited unsullied with God's Presence. To the extent we fall short of this longed for level of purity in terms of our own power of repentance God agrees to purify us through suffering. The purity is supplied immediately, on credit as it were, and the suffering is translated into power to inflict harm and is handed over to the powers of evil collectively known as the Satan. The scapegoat of Yom Kippur has a rational explanation after all. The scapegoat carries our sins in the form of potential suffering.
THE SUFFERING OF THE PURE
This explains much that is mysterious to us. In fact Yom Kipur purifies us all. We pray for purity and God grants it by awarding the Satan the power of our sins. That means that the eventual suffering when it finally arrives, is experienced by the spiritually pure. After all, whoever prays for purity on Yom Kippur is purified. Even if the actual people whose sins were responsible for the power handed to the Satan suffer the infliction of the pain it is in his power to inflict, it is still by definition the pure who will suffer. But even this cannot be guaranteed. As everyone is pure of sin following Yom Kippur there is no theoretical reason why the Satan cannot wreak his power against innocent babes or the completely righteous instead of against those who were responsible for the creation of his power. As everyone was cleansed by Yom Kippur, no one is actually deserving of suffering at the present time.
It is no easy matter to determine how the suffering should be inflicted and against whom. The Satan will obviously prefer to exercise his power in a way that will wreak the greatest amount of spiritual havoc. He would prefer to inflict the harshest forms of suffering against the most innocent. This would ultimately provide the greatest amount of discouragement to those wanting to dedicate their lives to the pursuit of Divine service and cause the maximum amount of defamation of God's Name, or Chilul Hashem. For the same reasons, the anti-Satan would obviously prefer to limit the suffering to those who caused it so as to minimize the Chilul Hashem as much as possible. There is also the issue whether it should be administered in concentrated doses or dished out in manageable amounts over an extended periods. These are all matters that are up for discussion post Yom Kippur according to the tradition. That is why the days of judgment only end on Hoshana Rabba.
ANOTHER SORT OF REPENTANCE
But the issue reaches deeper than the determination of the proper way to distribute suffering. Yom Kippur actually enables Succot to become an opportunity for a higher sort of repentance than the one available on Yom Kippur itself. Our relationship with God there is made up of two elements; fear, known as Yirat Shomayim and love, or Ahavat Hashem. If we study how these emotions function in the human sphere we will discover that fear has little to do with feelings and is almost entirely a function of knowledge. If I know that someone has total control over my life and fortune I am naturally afraid of him. The only factor that might minimize my fear in such situations is love. If I know that the person who utterly controls my life is also totally committed to my welfare because of the greatness of the love he has for me, this will minimize my fear considerably.
Our sins affect both our feelings of love of God and the fear we have of Him. The very fact that we sin is an indication of loss of clarity regarding the extent of our dependence on His power. If we always walked around totally conscious of the fact that we could not even raise our arms unless God directly supplied the energy to perform the action, we would sin very little. The days of Awe are perfectly designed to restore our consciousness regarding the pervasiveness of God's power. We focus entirely on God's majesty; the power of His kingdom and the fact that He is sitting in judgment exercising His power.
ONE SIDED RELATIONSHIPS KILL FEELINGS OF LOVE
But at the same time as they raise our awareness of God's pervasive control over every aspect of our lives, these days also create an inner insecurity concerning the ability of the power of the love He has for us to shelter us from His great power. When misunderstandings pile up in love based relationships, the participants tend to lose some of their confidence in the level of the other party's commitment, especially when these misunderstandings are entirely their fault. The relationship is too one sided. One-sided love is a non-starter.
The more I focus my mind on the Majesty of God's power in the course of the days of Awe, the more aware I become of my own sins, and the more frightened I become. By the climax of the days of Awe, Yom Kippur, my anxiety level has risen to such a level, that I am willing to do or suffer anything to restore the love between God and myself. In light of my growing awareness of the greatness of God's power, it becomes ever clearer to me that the power of His love for me is my only chance of survival. I ask for restored purity even at the price of suffering.
WHEN PURITY IS RESTORED
Once purity is restored, it is possible to rebuild my love relationship. The repentance that was beyond me on Yom Kippur comes into my reach on Succoth. On Yom Kippur, I was still carrying my sins around. The weight of my own iniquities made it impossible for me to truly regret what I had done and made it impossible for me to relate to my own resolutions regarding the future with any degree of seriousness. How can a person carrying so much spiritual deadweight seriously resolve to become another creature in the future? It's like a badly overweight fighter resolving to dance rings around his opponent in the ring. Until he sheds some of his weight, he cannot experience the sense of lightness that makes the image of dancing around anything real even to him.
It is only on Succot that we become truly free to repent. Purified of our sins, we can imagine that we could be different in future. We can truly regret the past in light of our new found lightness of being.
KILLING THE SCAPEGOAT
But with true repentance we can kill the scapegoat! After all, the power that he carries is the suffering needed to lift us to our present level of purity. If we truly repent there is no need for any of this suffering to be ever applied. The repentance of Succot thus kills the scapegoat and frees us from the imposition of the purifying suffering that we ourselves had requested on Yom Kippur.
Succot is referred to as the season of our Joy. The joy we experience on Succot is explained by R' Yonah in Shaarei Teshuva as the ultimate form of existential judgment:
A person should not say: I will fulfill the Mitzvoth of the Torah and occupy myself in its wisdom in order to receive all the blessings which are contained within it or in order to merit life in the world to Come....It is not fitting to serve God in this manner. A person whose service is motivated by these factors is considered one who serves out of fear... One who serves God out of love occupies himself in the Torah and the mitzvoth and walks in the paths of wisdom for no ulterior motive...rather he does what is true because it is true and ultimately good will come because of it. >(Maimonides, Laws of Repentance, Ch. 10, 1-2)
The days of Awe are based almost entirely on fear. We are confronted with the image of facing judgment; the Books of life and death lie open and a decision is being made in which Book our names will be entered; such images can only inspire dread; but serving God out of fear is not the ideal:
The only ones who serve God in this manner are common people and minors. They are trained to serve God out of fear until their knowledge increases and they serve out of love. (Maimonides, Ibid.)
We must look at the Days of Awe as beginnings, as a long education process. We can only begin our steep climb out of the spiritual depths to which we have fallen by reminding ourselves of the fear inducing knowledge of God's power; but we cannot remain on this fear dominated level.
THE JOY OF RESURRECTION
The purification of Yom Kippur must bring about a restoration of relationship between ourselves and the Almighty based on love. The restoration of the confidence we feel in God's love for us that allows us to face His overwhelming power without the constant gnawing of anxiety should cause the release of an energizing burst of pure joy. The level of this feeling of joy is an accurate indicator of the intensity level of the restored love. This in turn is an indication of the extent to which our purity is no longer dependant on the cleansing power of the suffering held by the Satan, but has become transformed into an expression of our love of God and our confidence in his protection.
But the returning sensation of love is also accompanied by the expression of blessings. Love is blind to faults in the beloved. The greater the love the greater the blindness. When Succot has restored the great love between God and Israel, the judgment of Yom Kippur breaks down totally. You cannot regard your beloved through the eyes of judgment. No matter what was decided on Yom Kippur what follows is the blessing of V'Zot HaBracha. The culmination of the days of Awe is the production of a Holy day based on pure love, a day full of the intense joy that perfectly expresses the idea that Israel, the Torah and the Holy One, Blessed is He are all one and inseparable.