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Rabbi Doniel Staum - Succos 5768 - 5774 "The Circle of Life"
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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9/17/13

STAM TORAH

SUCCOS 5768

THE CIRCLE OF LIFE[1]

On any tombstone you will see two dates - the date of birth and the date of death. All that separates those two dates is a Dash. Just a simple, single line that represents everything that person did from birth to death.

I don't know how long my Dash of life will be, no one really does. For some, it’s a quick sprint while others have a long, long journey. But, I can have an impact of what that Dash represents on my own tombstone to people that met me and knew me. I can try to understand and feel for other people. I can be quicker to smile and slower to anger. I can show respect and be ready to lend a hand. I can try to live according to Oaths I've memorized.

When I die, as every one of us eventually will, that Dash will mean something to everyone that knew me. Do what you can to make your Dash meaningful.

Or, as Linda Ellis wrote,


'It matters not how much we own,
the cars, the house, the cash :
What matters most is how we live
and how we spend our dash.'

The holiday of Succos with its endemic plethora of unique mitzvos and customs, is termed, “z’man simchasaynu- the time of our joy”. It is a weeklong celebration of our newfound closeness with G-d after being granted forgiveness and atonement on Yom Kippur. When the week is over and the holiday of Succos concludes, a new holiday – Shmini Atzeres begins.

Rashi[2] explains the added holiday: “It is comparable to a king who invited his sons for a meal for a specific amount of time. When the time came for them to depart he (the king) said, “I am begging of you, detain yourselves and spend one day with me; it is difficult for me that you are departing.”

What is the point of keeping them for one more day; it only pushes off the inevitable for one more day day?

During the holiday of Shemini Atzeres, we also celebrate our annual completion of the weekly Torah reading[3]. All of the Torah scrolls are removed from the Holy Ark and a festive joyous atmosphere permeates the shul. The men dance around the bimah[4] with older children, while younger children ride atop shoulders, carrying flags and mini Torah scrolls, along with bags of nosh.

The concept of celebrating the completion of Torah seems enigmatic, if not blatantly inappropriate. In regard to in-depth Gemarah (Talmud) study, one never truly completes or masters a topic or tractate. Every time one revisits a sugya[5] he can develop new insights and perspectives despite the fact that he has learned the same folio dozens of times. This is evident in the fact that even the greatest Torah scholars do not grow weary of its study. In fact, au contraire, they approach their study with childlike excitement. If there is indeed no end to Torah study, what is the point of celebrating the completion of a cycle of the Torah reading? Why celebrate the completion of something infinite and virtually impossible to master?

The holiday of Succos seems to have a particular connection with congregational circles. During each day of Succos in the Bais Hamikdash, the assemblage in the Temple Courtyard would hold their Four Species and make a circular procession (hakafah) around the Altar. During the procession they would pray for G-d’s blessing, punctuating each phrase of the prayer with the word “Hoshanah- please save”. Because of the constantly-repeated word, the entire prayer came to be known as Hoshanos.

Although during every day of Succos they circled the bimah once while reciting one hoshanah prayer, on the seventh day of Succos, known as Hoshnanah Rabba[6], the custom is to circle the bimah seven times and recite seven hoshanah prayers. After the Bais Hamikdash was destroyed, there was a universally adopted custom to continue those circuits in every synagogue as a perennial remembrance of the service in the Bais Hamikdash.

In addition, throughout the seven days of Succos there are festive celebrations, commemorating the great Simchos Bais Hashoeivah[7] that was held during the time of the Bais Hamikdash. The Jewish custom since time immemorial is to dance in a circle while holding hands[8]. During the hakafos of Simchas Torah too we dance around the bimah with all of the Torah scrolls. What is the connection between circles, particularly around the bimah, and the holiday of Succos?

The sixth hoshanah prayer recited on Hoshanah Rabbah is entitled “Adamah Mayerer- The ground from accursedness.” The prayer is a supplication to G-d that He save every living being on earth from the particular dangers that threaten its individual homeostasis and growth. “Beast from aborting…grain from scorch…vineyard from worms…flocks from leanness, fruits from the east wind, sheep from extermination…”

In the prayer we beg G-d to save, “nefesh mibehalah- soul from panic.” It is curious that of all the catastrophes and dangers man faces, we are particularly concerned with behalah. The word “behalah” connotes confusion, tumultuousness, unsettlement, and instability. We pray for inner peace and tranquility, for there is no greater malady that plagues and engulfs man than doubt, anxiety, and inner turmoil.

Megillas Koheles is read on Shabbos Chol Hamoed Succos. The author of Koheles is Shlomo Hamelech, the wisest of men[9]. In the Megillah he relays his observations about life and the accomplishments of mankind. The Megillah’s dour and dismal portrayal of life is intriguing. Koheles seems to paint a picture of a pointless, inane, and worthless existence. (1:2) “Futility of futilities! – said Koheles – Futility of futilities, all is futile!” (1:14) “I have seen all the deeds done beneath the sun, and behold all is futile and a vexation of the spirit.” The spirit of man is his vitality and zest for life. Koheles observed that man’s very spirit is inherently vexed and perplexed, because it lacks direction.

Koheles portrays the world as an endless circle of nature, with no beginning or end. (1:5-7) “The sun rises and the sun sets – then to its place it rushes; there it rises again…All the rivers flow into the sea, yet the sea is not full; to the place where the rivers flow there they flow once more.” In essence, Koheles is describing the continuous hydrologic cycle. Runoff from land and all water bodies eventually flow to the sea. Then the processes of evaporation and condensation lead to precipitation; the water returns to the earth and begins the cycle anew. Koheles then comments on human life. (1:4) “A generation goes and a generation comes, but the earth endures forever.” It is a hopeless cycle of events; people are born, they live, procreate, and pass on. The world continues with nary a memory of their existence.

The whole description of Koheles is of a world of behalah - confused, aimless, and futile! It is tantamount to a hamster running on a wheel. The hamster is expending a great deal of energy, but without purpose.

For man to have fulfillment in life, he must find direction and meaning. He must be able to discern and comprehend the root of life. Koheles declares that, “there is nothing new under the sun.” He implies however, that what originates above the sun, in the celestial heavens, in the realm of the Divine, has constant newness and vitality.

The prophet Yeshaya[10] states, “For just as the rain and snow descend from heaven and will not return there, rather it waters the earth and causes it to produce and sprout, and gives seed to the sower and food to the eater.” The believer understands that there is a beginning and a source of the natural cycle. Every step is Divinely ordained and is regenerated constantly. It’s not merely evaporation, condensation, and precipitation. Rather, it is a process that is orchestrated by G-d. “You open your Hand and satisfy the desire of every living thing.[11]

In this respect the spiritual world is diametrically different from the physical world. The physical world is a whirlwind, an endless cycle devoid of meaning. But when the physical world is viewed as a medium for spirituality and growth, then it has great purpose and direction.

This concept is characterized by the hakafos of Succos. The hakafos themselves represent the continuous circle of life and nature, while the encircled bimah represents the focal point and foundation around which all of life and nature revolve. The circle goes on and on, albeit around its source!

In a similar vein, the walls of a succah may be constructed from any material. The s’chach which covers the succah however, has many more rigid and specific laws regarding what may or may not be used. The walls of the succah represent nature which surround and affect us in every facet of life. The s’chach represents G-d Who descends into our world and rests His Divine Presence among us. The succah as an entity[12] symbolize the fact that although we live within the confines of nature, ultimately we live in “the shade of G-d”, the source of life.

Anyone somewhat proficient in the study of Gemara is aware that one can feel despondent and lost in his studies too. It can be disheartening to know that every approach one conjures up to reconcile a difficult question on a particular passage of Gemara may be “schlugged up” (refuted) at a later time, perhaps even by the person himself. The endless pages of commentary on every page of Gemara can be daunting to even the most accomplished scholar, and the intense raging debate among the myriad commentaries can befuddle the most adroit intellectual. It was for this reason that the Gemara was written in increments, i.e. sugyahs, chapters, tractates, and orders. Although one knows that he can never truly master a Gemara with absolute finality[13], he can have the satisfaction of knowing that he has at least achieved a rudimentary understanding of a specific segment of it.

It is commonly thought that when one makes a siyum[14] the celebration is bi-faceted. There is joy in completing as well as joy of continuing and beginning anew. In truth, this is a misnomer, for there is no such thing as a celebration of the completion of Torah study, per se. Rather, a siyum grants one the opportunity to begin learning on a higher and more scholarly level. It is merely the excitement of beginning fresh, with new commitment and vitality. A siyum is a stopping point to ensure that Torah study does not end up being reduced to an endless confusing cycle where one gets lost in the vast ocean of Talmud and Torah law. Torah study too must be protected from the malady of behalah.

Perhaps this is the deeper meaning behind the parable Rashi mentioned. Succos always coincides with the harvest. It marks the end of the arduous and difficult farming season that began in the spring, and continued through the arid and hot summer. The farmer’s main toil is now complete and he can return home to enjoy the fruits of his labor throughout the winter.

So now what? Is he simply supposed to await the first sign of spring so that he can begin his work anew and recommence the endless cycle all over again? That is the curse which Koheles speaks of: “Behold all is futile and a vexation of the spirit”. The added day of Shmini Atzeres is an opportunity to contemplate and focus on that central point which infuses meaning and direction into our otherwise vapid and futile existence.

G-d says, “Detain yourselves and spend one day with me”, i.e. spend the day understanding that when one lives life “with Me”, his life transcends the dismal existence that Koheles portrays.

On Succos there are so many mitzvos to observe that one can become swept up in the hype and excitement. The holiday of Shemini Atzeres was added so that one can simply rejoice with G-d. There is no longer a mitzvah of succah[15], or shaking of the four species. The day is dedicated merely to joyous celebration; a celebration that our lives revolve around a focal point and therefore can have direction and meaning.

S’forno[16] explains that the holiday is called “Atzeres- assembly” because its whole purpose is to spend the day retaining and absorbing the lessons of Succos. So that one, “dedicate himself to the service of G-d, study His Word, and sojourn in His sanctuary before returning to everyday life.”

In the concluding verses recited after the daily hoshanah prayer, we state: “In order that all of the nations shall know that Hashem, He is the G-d, there is none other!” Similarly, the hakafos of Simchas Torah commence with the verse, “You have been shown in order to know that Hashem, He is the G-d! There is none beside Him!” It is through the circles of Succos and Simchas Torah that one gains insight and clarity to his purpose on earth.

It would seem that it is highly inappropriate to read Megillas Koheles, with its morbid and disheartening outlook on life, during the holiday known as, “the time of our joy”. However, the opposite is true. Koheles enlightens and awakens man to recognize his vulnerability and the futility of a purposeless life. If one realizes what a meaningful life is he can strive for it and retain the joy of the holiday throughout his life. Koheles concludes with the timeless words that serve as the mantra for that meaningful existence: “The sum of the matter, when all has been considered: fear G-d and keep His commandments, for that is man’s whole duty.”

“Detain yourselves and spend one day with me”

“That all of the nations shall know that Hashem, He is the G-d”

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[1] The basic idea recorded below was based on a discourse given by Rabbi Dovid Trenk in Kehillas Kol Chaim, Lakewood, N.J., at the Neilas HaChag, Simchas Torah 5767

[2] Vayikra 23:36

[3] [Outside of Eretz Yisroel this is done on the second day of the holiday, called Simchas Torah.]

[4] Torah reading lectern

[5] Topic of Talmudic study

[6] literally- a lot of Hoshanos

[7] Joyous procedure of the ‘drawing of the water’

[8] The basis for this custom is the Gemarah Ta’anis which says that in the future, Hashem will make a circle with the righteous. The Divine Presence will rest inside the circle, and the righteous will point towards the center of the circle and declare, "This is my G-d, we will rejoice in His salvation.”

[9] Koheles is one of Shlomo Hamelech’s pseudonyms

[10] 55:10

[11] Tehillim 145:16

[12] i.e. the walls and the s’chach together

[13] A clear demonstration of this can be seen in watching elderly scholars who have spent their entire life engaged in Talmudic study, intently studying an open page, in a similar fashion to a young student studying the same page.

[14] a celebration for the completion of Talmud or Mishnah study

[15] although outside Eretz Yisroel the Shulchan Aruch writes that one does eat in the succah on Shemini Atezeres without a blessing, that is a Rabbinic decree

[16] Vayikra 23:36



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