The Sfat Emet on Sukkot

The Sfat Emet on Sukkot

This piece was originally written in 5777/2016.
The Sfat Emet has many teachings about Sukkot which intersect well with his description of Yom Kippur as being like a mikvah.

We are required to dwell in the Sukkah for the seven days of the holiday of Sukkot (as well as Shemini Atzeret, which many Hasidic masters liken to the very pinnacle of the festival because it’s the day that God devotes especially for the Jewish people because there’s the one sacrifice, rather than the seventy bulls for Sukkot).

In many respects, the sukkah serves a similar function as a mikvah spiritually-speaking. Just as we are wholly immersed in the grandeur, ritual, spirituality and prayer of Yom Kippur, so, too, when we are rejoicing in the sukkah as we are commanded to do, so, too, is our physical body wholly immersed in the act of rejoicing. This act of rejoicing is as spiritually significant as is the act of contrition and repentance. The Sfat Emet teaches us that dwelling in the Sukkah is quite literally dwelling with God. The divine dwells in the Sukkah, so, too, are we truly unified with God. The Sfat Emet is very interested and concerned with achieving this divine mystical union with the Holy One. The sukkah is a flimsy physical structure but dwelling within it allows us to reach greater spiritual heights. When Sukkot is upon us, we have passed through the awesomeness of the Yamim Noraim, but yet are still very aware of our fragility, as is exemplified by the hoshanot. We are holding two emotions at once—fragility and joy. We sing Hallel joyfully, and engage in the supplications of the hoshanot. Thus, this results in us yearning for that total union with God, which the Sfat Emet teaches us we achieve when we dwell in the sukkah. That dwelling is something that is available to all Jews, not merely the tzadikim. Therefore, it is radically decentralized—God is quite literally in our dwelling places. We are always aspiring to greater spiritual unity and wholeness.

The Sfat Emet on Yom Kippur

This drasha was originally written in 5777.
One of the most beautiful teachings I have encountered about Yom Kippur is from the Sfat Emet. The Sfat Emet uses the symbology and metaphor of a mikvah to talk about what Yom Kippur is and how it functions. Yom Kippur is this day of total immersion, total unity with God. On Yom Kippur, we are forgiven, as God has spoken, which we say multiple times, so we know that at the end of the holiest day of the year, we will have a clean slate as it were, able to begin again. Yom Kippur is also very much about coming close to God. Just as a kosher immersion in a mikvah is an immersion in which the total body is submerged and there’s no barrier between the physical body and the waters of the mikvah, and just as mikvah waters are mayyim chayyim—living waters, on Yom Kippur, we ask repeatedly to be written and later sealed in the Book of Life for the coming year. And we don’t merely ask to be sealed in the Book of Life. We also ask God to write and seal us in the book of long life, good deeds, etc. We are immersed not only in reflection about the year which has past but we look forward to choosing life in the New Year. When we experience that day of complete unity with God, we are completely immersed in prayer and confession, supplication and fasting. These spiritual and ritual acts are the vehicles through which we achieve that unity with God. Yom Kippur has a unique character all its own. On other days, though we hope that our avodat hashem will get us there, on Yom Kippur, our tradition gives us particular ritual and spiritual tools that we can use in achieving that unity. We have a particularly special access to God on Yom Kippur that, though God is with us always, we don’t have the same level of immediacy. The difficulty, however, is that as beautiful as the Sfat Emet’s teaching is here, it is so aspirational. How many of us can truly say that on Yom Kippur we are achieving this unity all of the time? I think that perhaps a balanced way to think about this is that we are always striving for this unity, that even if we achieve this unity for only a few moments, we have still gotten somewhere spiritually significant and important.