With Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur behind us, we are about to enter the chag of Sukkos, which is a time designated in the Torah for great happiness. Specifically, regarding the chag of Sukkos, Hashem instructs us, “v’samachtah bchagechah, v’hayisa ach sameach,” translated as, “You shall rejoice on your festivals, and should be fully happy.”
It is no coincidence that it is at this time of year, having just exited from the aseres yemei teshuvah, culminating with the awe-inspiring and cathartic experience of Yom Kippur, that we are instructed to be happy.
As someone who has personally been on a 4-year-long journey, seeking internal peace with “self” - and ultimately, happiness - it is fascinating to see this commanded of us: “Be happy.” As if this is something we can simply instruct ourselves to do?
It seems as if all around us, everyone is searching for happiness; how do we find happiness and how do we sustain it?
The connection between the commandment of v’samachtah b’chagechah to Sukkos, which falls out in the fall season, is understood to be a direct outcome of the farmers harvesting their crop, their year of work now complete, and the fulfillment and ease that comes with being prepared for the winter season.
I would like to explore a different understanding of the connection between the holiday of Sukkos and happiness, and it is intrinsically tied to the days in which we have just immersed ourselves - not just Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, as well as the days that link these two, but perhaps all the way back to Rosh Chodesh Elul.
During the period of the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah, we understand that it is an auspicious time to “Drush Hashem b’himatzo” - “seek Hashem when He is to be found.” While Rosh HaShanah is recognized as the Jewish New Year, the Hebrew word “Shanah” also has another translation, which is, “to change.” With this understanding, Rosh HaShanah is the “head” of the year for change. In gematria, the word “Shanah” totals 355, seemingly just shy of the 365 days that total one year. In all aspects of life, there really are no coincidences; the 10 short in the gematria is no coincidence either. The 10 seemingly missing days are the 10 days of the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah, which neither belong to the prior year (the prior year has concluded) or the coming year (the new year has not really begun until after Yom Kippur). Over these 10 days we are in limbo, in transition, a time dedicated to setting forth real changes in our lives for the coming year.
It’s an emotionally charged time – we are inspired, we want to be better, and we are nervous, worried for the coming year, hopeful that our prayers will be heard and answered l’tovah, for health, relationships, livelihood, for all or any of the areas in our lives where we are seeking yeshuah.
As children, the focus of these ten days is spent asking others for mechilah, forgiveness, from our family, friends and classmates, who we may have wronged over the last 12 months. This year, mechilah takes on a different meaning for me. In the same way that we know forgiveness from G-d cannot help us with forgiveness from our fellow man, there is only so much that (external) forgiveness from others can accomplish. At the root is really finding a way to forgive ourselves.
If we look at ourselves with honesty, and examine our flaws, not with shame and judgment, but with empathy and compassion, we can make space for ourselves, our full “self” – both the qualities we love about ourselves and are proud of, and the parts of ourselves that we wish were different, the flaws we wish we did not have, and that we are ashamed of.
As I prayed in shul over the Yamim Noraiim this year, I unexpectedly discovered - and really stumbled head-on during the moving tefilah of U’nesaneh Tokef - that beneath the pain and struggle I have faced these last few years, was a deep feeling of guilt, of shame, over the parts of me that feel flawed. The parts of myself that make me feel broken and not enough. By the end of kedushah, tears were streaming down my face, releasing the shame, the guilt for all the mistakes I have made this past year, in my life and in my relationships. (I am told now that what I journeyed through is something referred to as transformative guilt.)
A friend shared a letter with me, written by Rav Hutner to a student who was despondent and struggling, unable to imagine that he could ever change and be great. In this letter, Rav Hutner, speaking to his student, quotes the pasuk “sheva yipol adam, v’kum” – “seven times a man falls, and then he rises.” Traditionally, this is understood as, despite stumbling, man will rise. Rav Hutner says: No, to the contrary. It is because of the seven failures that man is able to triumph; the struggling, the stumbling, the failing, is all part of the journey. The struggle itself, our flaws and the challenges we face, is something we can learn to embrace with radical acceptance, and is very much part of self-acceptance and self-love. It is a false belief to wish life could just be easy and perfect all the time. Being human is by default the very opposite. We were put on this earth by G-d to work – even before Adam’s sin and our punishment “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food,” we were put in the Garden of Eden to “guard and protect it.” To reject the struggle and wish we were always thriving is to bemoan our very humanity.
Perfect is the enemy of good. When we leave perfection behind, we make room to strive to just be, to do the best we can each day, and to embrace who we are today – our strengths, and especially our weaknesses, which are our opportunities for greatest growth and self -transformation. Where we are today is just a set point. It doesn’t define us and it is not our destiny - unless we choose for it to be.
In slichos and on Yom Kippur, we recite the 13 midos harachamim to evoke G-d’s empathy, mercy, and forgiveness. Following this recitation, we are told “salachti k’dvarcha.” G-d granted us His forgiveness after the biggest betrayal in history - the cheit haegel -the worshipping of the Golden Calf just as we became G-d’s nation. Preceding these passages, when Moshe descended from the top of mountain to discover the idol worship down below, the luchos became heavy and he dropped them and they broke. After G-d forgave B’nei Yisrael on the first Yom Kippur in history, Moshe ascended the mountain again and came down with a second set of luchos. Interestingly, the first set of luchos, now broken, were not discarded; rather, they were kept in the aron. In fact, when we went out to battle, we took the Aron with the broken luchos in it. Why? To remind us that even at time a of our greatest vulnerability, even after the sin of the Golden Calf, G-d forgave us, v’salachti k’dvarecha.”
When we go out to battle, whether literally on a battlefield, or metaphorically, in our daily battles with our yetzer harah, we are vulnerable and we need G-d’s protection. We take the broken luchos with us to remember G-d is with us, and forgives us even when we stray. Even if we’re not worthy to be protected in battle, G-d protects us. We take our brokenness with us. We take the most vulnerable and flawed parts of our “self,” our very humanity, to remind us that G-d is always there with us, supporting us through our battles and struggles.
We each have a part of us that feels broken, unworthy. If G-d is compassionate, so must we be to ourselves. Forgiveness starts with radical acceptance, self-compassion, and forgiving ourselves.
The journey towards forgiving oneself is not for the faint of heart; it is painful, vulnerable, and only those brave enough to truly seek it and be open to the encountering pain along the away, will come out on the other side. Mechilah this Yom Kippur took on a whole new meaning for me this year – forgiving ourselves for our choices, mistakes, behaviors, even the things that happened to us that were out of our control. Perhaps, forgiveness starts with us, with our “self” – to ask ourselves forgiveness and to give it with compassion, so that we can open ourselves up to progress, change, and self-transformation for the coming year.
Many of us struggle with a harsh inner voice and critic, a voice that follows us through our daily lives, judging us, shaming us, and taking away our right to enjoy life and be proud of ourselves, to be happy with what is. Comedian Whitney Cummings, in her book I’m Fine And Other Lies, wisely questions herself: “I would never let my friends treat me the way I treat myself. Why do I allow myself to treat me this way?”
An integral key to forgiveness of self is compassion. I understand very clearly that I could not have experienced forgiveness of self without self-compassion. Compassion entered my energetic space on Rosh Chodesh Elul. I was invited to a women’s New Moon gathering, where we were each asked to share the emotion that we are bringing with us into the new month. I was surprised (embarrassed? isolated?) as every other woman in the group shared that their emotion was joy. I thought to myself – joy, I own joy! I am always in joy, and yet that evening I was not in joy. I have learned in life that if we are not going to show up as our authentic selves, we may as well not show up at all. And with Tisha B’av just behind us at that time, I was still feeling the waves of loss from Tisha B’av. I was seeking healing and I understood intrinsically that without compassion, and specifically self-compassion, there can be no healing from pain. And so for me, on Rosh Chodesh Elul, I infused compassion into the new month.
As I look back now, I am in awe and wonder that on Rosh Chodesh Elul, I unknowingly planted the seeds of compassion, and began the emotional journey which brought me to experience the most pristine and genuine level of forgiveness during the Yamim Noraim - that of the self.
Only once we have moved through Yom Kippur, through the experience of facing our vulnerabilities, our flaws, our struggles, our brokenness, our very humanity, and forgiving ourselves, “v’salachti,” can we journey forward into happiness, into a year of fulfillment and purpose, and into Sukkos, into the very holiday that celebrates happiness.
Wishing you a year in which you too will experience the depth of true, lasting simchah.
*Special thanks to Edith Eger (The Gift), David Sacks, and Mrs. Shifra Revah for inspiring this article.