A Fresh Start
"You shall take for yourselves on the first day." (23:40)
The Tur records a custom among Ashkenazim to fast on the eve of Rosh
Hashana. As the source for this custom, he cites a Midrash which
questions why the Torah identifies the time for taking the lulav as "the
first day" - "bayom harishon"; should the day not be identified as the
fifteenth of the month? The Midrash concludes that the first day of Sukkos
is "rishon l'cheshbon avonos" - "the first day for the accounting of our
sins" and therefore Sukkos is identified as "yom harishon".
The Midrash offers the following parable: There was once a city that owed
the king a large sum of money in taxes. As a result of the residents'
failure to pay, the king marched against the city with an armed garrison.
Prior to reaching the city, a delegation consisting of the elders of the
community was sent to appease the king. After meeting with the delegation
the king discharged one-third of the debt, but still continued to advance.
Fearing for their safety, the city sent a second delegation comprised of
common-folk to meet with the king. They succeeded in convincing him to
discharge another one-third of the debt. However, the king continued to
advance towards the city. Finally, all of the residents of the city emerged
from their homes to beseech the king, who had already reached the city
gates, to deal with them kindly. Moved by this display, the king discharged
the remaining one-third of the debt. Similarly, the Jewish people amass a
large number of sins throughout the year. On the eve of Rosh Hashana the men
of distinction fast and Hashem absolves the nation of one-third of their
sins. During the "aseres y'mei teshuva" - "ten days of repentance", another
one-third of the sins are absolved. The entire nation fasts on Yom Kippur,
absolving them of their remaining transgressions. With the onset of Sukkos a
new account of sins for the year begins.
Why is Sukkos, rather than the day immediately following Yom Kippur
identified as the "first day for the new accounting"? Furthermore, Sukkos
appears to play no part in Bnei Yisroel's atonement. Why does the Midrash
use this parable to extol the virtue of Sukkos?
The Beis Yoseif asks why the fast on the eve of Rosh Hashana appears to have
the same efficacy as the fast of Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year,
each one discharging one-third of the sins.
The Bach notes that there are three chapters concerning aspects of Sukkos
recorded in the Torah, sitting in the Sukkah, bringing the festive offerings
and finally, taking the four species. Why does the Torah specifically choose
the four species to relate the message that Sukkos is the "first day for the
In English common law a person who defaulted on a debt was subject to
incarceration. However, in the modern era almost every civilized society has
bankruptcy laws which allow a person to discharge debts that he is unable to
repay by declaring bankruptcy, protecting him from his creditors. What is
the logic behind the institution of bankruptcy? Why would society allow a
person to sidestep accountability for his actions?
A person who is mired in debt, unable to extricate himself from his
predicament, eventually ceases to be a productive member of society and
becomes a liability. By allowing this person to discharge his debt either
partially or completely, we are enabling him to stand on his own two feet,
once again contributing as a productive member of society. Great care must
be taken however, to ensure that this institution is not abused. The
potential danger of a person using bankruptcy as a crutch to protect him
from his own negligence and irresponsible behavior always exists.
It is a mistake to think that Hashem forgives us only because of His great
benevolence. What we must realize is that His absolution is not a crutch
upon which we can continuously rely, to discharge our irresponsible
behavior. Rather, we are given a respite so that we can become, once again,
functioning members of society, earning our keep, unburdened by our great
number of transgressions. If we fail to view atonement in this manner,
instead of being a tool which allows us to become responsible for our
actions, it will have the opposite effect. Atonement becomes a crutch which
If a person is responsible for at least a portion of his debts, the danger
of bankruptcy being used to encourage irresponsible behavior is smaller than
if the entire debt were discharged. Therefore, although Yom Kippur
discharges the same amount of sin as Rosh Hashana eve, there exists a great
difference between the two absolutions. After Rosh Hashana a person is still
responsible for a portion of his sins. On Yom Kippur, when complete
absolution occurs, the danger of misusing atonement is greater, and only a
day such as Yom Kippur can afford such a service to the Jewish people.
For atonement to be complete it must be accompanied by a commitment to begin
paying our debts and accepting responsibility for our actions. Sukkos is the
time when new responsibilities are placed upon us and therefore serves as
the litmus test for the veracity of our commitment. Consequently, Sukkos is
identified as "the first day for the accounting of our sins".
The Ran cites the Yerushalmi which disqualifies a dried-out lulav based upon
the verse "lo hameisim yehallelu kah" - "the dead cannot praise Hashem".
The lulav is a symbol of freshness and vitality, reflecting the new lease on
life that we have gained following Yom Kippur. We therefore use the lulav as
the tool to praise Hashem for His beneficence. The Torah most appropriately
delivers the message concerning the beginning of a new accounting in the
chapter of the four species which symbolize this concept.
1.Orech Chaim #582 2.Ibid 3.Ibid 4.Sukkah29b