(Interrupting the story.)
Yesterday was Hoshanah Rabbah, the "great Hoshanah." After a final waving of the lulav and etrog, we circle the sanctuary seven times and chant, over and over again, "Hoshanah!" ("Please save us!"). Then, as a symbol of the separation of our sins from ourselves, among many other things, we beat the willow branches of our lulavim into the ground until their leaves fly off. We dance and sing with joy and relief as bits of green rain over our feet and pool onto the red floor of the sanctuary. The gates are finally, truly, closed. This custom seemed weird and pagan when I first learned about it a few years ago (my Hebrew School skipped over the whole plant-destroying thing). But with each season, and every time I listen for the crack of those branches as I strike them with all my power against the floor, I feel more and more emancipated from myself. Last year explodes into the air like dark confetti, and this new one becomes as eagerly anticipated as the hours of dancing soon to come. The ancient and psychologically astute rabbis who devised these holidays knew we needed to first live through the depths of Yom Kippur in order to fully understand the elation of Simchat Torah. The optimism of Sukkot and catharsis of Hoshanah Rabbah are rungs of a ladder that help us climb back up to our happiest and most hopeful ways of being.
Shemini Atzeret services are this morning, the eighth day of Sukkot and the holiday when we plead for rain to nourish and sustain us. (A confusing prayer, this year; water hasn't been very good to humankind these past months. And it's still pouring in New York.) Simchat Torah begins in the evening, with the verses that make me mute, followed by seven hakafot, circuits of dancing, until 10 or 11pm. (Some Orthodox shuls go all night long. Until 9/11, a mile of Upper West Side streets were closed off for the equivalent of a massive religious rave ten thousand strong. Tonight some congregations will venture outside for the first time in four years, but my synagogue will still opt for carpeting and warmth.) We go home for too little sleep before repeating the whole thing on Wednesday, and conclude after many, many hours with a Torah reading that connects Moshe's death at the end of Deuteronomy to the creation of the universe and first words of Genesis. The month of spiritual marathon ends, and our story begins anew.
Moadim l'simcha ("seasons of happiness"), and may your feet remain strong!