20 Tishrei 5783
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Sukkot is without a doubt the most colorful of the holidays in the Jewish calendar. This festival lasts seven days during which we are to live in a Sukkah. Throughout our history, our sages have developed a variety of ways to celebrate and to appreciate the joy of Sukkot. Simchat Torah, for example, was added to the celebration of Shemini Atzeret, which is the eighth day after Sukkot, expressing the joy of reading and studying the Torah through song and dance. According to them, the first two days of Sukkot are holy convocations; that is, Yamim Tovim (holy days which are a Shabbat). However, they do not consider the last day of the holiday to be a Yom Tov, it is simply regarded as a part of Chol HaMoed (the other days of the holiday where work can be carried out); however, this does not mean that this seventh day, Hoshana Raba, does not have its importance as the last day of the Sukkot holiday. To be clear, the Torah states in Leviticus 23 that the first and eight days shall be holy convocations where we are to do no manner of servile work”.
The main purpose of Hoshana Raba, the seventh day of Sukkot, on the 21st day of the month of Tishrei, is joy. It is the celebration of thanksgiving for a bountiful harvest. For the people of Israel, it is a reminder that, just as God was with the people when they wandered in the desert, so today He is our source of protection and determines what the rest of the year will bring. “Hoshana” means “please save us,” and “Raba” means “great” which leads us to say that this is the Great Day of salvation.” In other words: “We pray to you, O God, for our great salvation.”
Our sages say that Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur have just passed, in which, we hope to have been inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life, for health, sustenance, and good things, and we hope to have done the tefilot (prayers), and the correct teshuva. But if not, there is still one last chance to change a bad decree, and that is on the last day of the Sukkot holiday, just before Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. Hoshana Raba is known as the last of the Judgment Days which began on Rosh Hashana. Our destiny for the entire year is determined, and so to speak, the final verdict is produced that takes place from Rosh Hashanah (the day of judgment), through Yom Kippur (day of forgiveness), to then be sealed on this significant date in our calendar.
It is a custom to walk around the bema (the pulpit), as was done in the Beit Hamikdash (The Jerusalem Temple), carrying the Arbaat Haminim (the four species): an etrog ( fruit of a citron tree), a lulav (palm branch) and two separate bouquets of hadass (myrtle leaves) and aravah (willow branches), which represent the four types: those who study the Torah, those who do good deeds, those who only do one of those two things, and those who do neither of them. Also, according to their tradition, God, in His infinite goodness, had promised Abraham Avinu forgiveness for His people on Rosh Hashanah, having another chance on Yom Kippur, and finally and as a last chance, the night of Hoshana Rabbah, to atone for all our sins and thus be sealed in the book of life and health. The Midrash tells us that God told Abraham: “If your children don’t get forgiveness on Rosh Hashanah, I will grant it on Yom Kippur, and if they don’t get it on Yom Kippur, it will be given on Hoshana Rabbah.”
Seeing that it is an especially important day, when the seal and the final decree for each human being are “sealed”, it is a custom in many communities to stay awake all night studying the book of Devarim (Deuteronomy), specifically what is related to the precepts of our relationship with the Master of the World and the love and attachment that we should all feel for our Creator. Then, starting at midnight, the entire book of Tehilim (Psalms) is read, until the dawn of the new day. This custom is known in many Sephardic synagogues the night of the “meldado”, a Ladino word referring to a memorial in honor of someone, during which the doors of the heaven are finally closed, and with them our opportunity to beg and be forgiven.
The night of Hoshana Rabbah is similar to the call that is heard when boarding a train, when a friendly but energetic voice warns us that the doors are closing and therefore, we must make sure we are inside, in order to continue our journey and reach the final destination, that is, to fulfill the purpose of this journey called life. That wake-up call to be alert, when boarding the train, resembles the voice of God who, in his infinite goodness, offers us one last chance to get on the train of sincere repentance, teshuva and good resolutions, in order to have a pleasant and happy trip in the year that has just begun. In short, this is the night and the day that we beg God to save us and seal us in the book of life and that we reaffirm our confidence that, whatever happens, we will always be sheltered by divine protection. So, it is a very special day, during which we must make the most of it, ask God to forgive us, once again, and to send us the rains upon which our basic sustenance depends, in its quantity and at the right time.
May it be His will to accept our repentance, our sincere desire and willingness to change. May we be sealed for a year of health, abundance, peace, and blessings, as we travel on the “train” of Torah observance, study and maasim tovim (doing good deeds), as we are led and guided by our Creator.
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