“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.1 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.2
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 new accounting”?
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 breeds irresponsibility.
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”.4 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