Inside, Outside, All Year Round

The fall holidays keep on coming…. and there is an important lesson in contrasting the role of Yom Kippur’s Day of Atonement with that of Sukkot’s Festival of Booths.

The Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, is in our rearview mirror. But a 25-hour period of contemplation, prayer and fasting, should really be of lasting influence to help us focus on our individual improvement in the coming year. An important prayer on Yom Kippur provides us with a three-part suggestion to guide our behavior. “Stuff” will inevitably happen to each of us over time, but teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah—repentance, prayer and righteousness—can make a real difference in our lives. We may not be in control of what happens, but we can attempt to have control over our reactions and how it affects us.

Helen Plotkin in Tablet magazine defines the three terms as follows:

  • Teshuvah—repentance, response, return, truthful introspection—is the ability to move, to change course, to come back to center, to reconcile.
  • Tefillah—prayer, reflection, examining the ideal in human behavior—is the ability to let the world take your breath away, to hold onto and to articulate gratitude, hope and awe.
  • Tzedakah—righteousness—is the ability to pursue justice and to act from a fountain of generosity.

As Helen Plotkin points out, “Teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah changes the focus from our powerless suffering to our power of response.” We as individuals, after spending much time “inside” (either in synagogues or in personal reflection), come away with our Jewish “new year’s resolutions.”

BUT, life is not really lived “inside.” An imperfect world awaits us which will challenge our lofty goals and best intentions.

And, just in time, Sukkot arrives when the tradition asks us to live “outside” for a week. We build a booth with a roof that is open to the sky and walls that barely keep out the elements. And suddenly the reality of living in a fragile world, of appreciating what shelter should really mean, of seeing the needs of others when we are outside our walls, confronts our complacent selves.

Perhaps the three themes from Yom Kippur can help us as we emerge to the outside community.

Teshuvah– can we change course and return to a time when a community was based on mutual caring? Can we use a sukkah to become the “big tent” that Judaism was meant to be? Can a response to seeing need be an urgent sense of hospitality—of building Abraham and Sarah’s tent?

Tefillah– the harvest theme of Sukkot (the biblical root of America’s Thanksgiving holiday) is an opportunity to show gratitude for the “fruits (and vegetables) of our labor.” Blessings over our food can be paired with sharing our harvest with others. The way nature has been acting recently, we can all appreciate the importance of “rain in its time, for blessing and not a curse,” as the liturgy reflects.

Tzedakah- “If you see something, DO something!” Addressing the need for shelter for those displaced by nature or economic reasons, taking on the issue of food injustice or non-access to nutritional meals, visiting individuals who are home-bound or have limited mobility, help our communal tent be sustained on righteousness.

Each holiday may have its themes and rituals, but how we live our lives Jewishly between the holidays is the real challenge. The Yom Kippur-Sukkot juxtaposition asks us to reach upward and do better inside and out throughout the coming year. For some more ideas of how to move your New Year’s resolutions forward, visit: