Hol Hamoed Sukkot: Any time is fitting for tshuvah

Shabbat Hol Hamoed Sukkot Exodus 33:12-34:26

Numbers 29:17-31

Ezekiel 38:18-39:16

Have you ever noticed how many words of prayer are exchanged between people during the High Holy Days? I don't mean the liturgical words of prayer, the words of the pages of the machzor. I mean the heartfelt blessings and hopes that accompany what might otherwise pass as a simple New Year wish, "Shanah Tovah."

I first noticed this phenomenon many years ago, when I belonged to a shul that I didn't particularly like — a formal sort of place where no one would dare bring tears or admit to a genuinely prayerful moment. But suddenly, come the end of Elul, a simple "Shanah Tovah" turned into real words of blessing.

Now, I have the good fortune to live in an especially warm, genuine, and soulful community where people are caring and tender with one another. But come Tishrei, and the blessings exchanged are even warmer, deeper, more prayerful. One says to a person whose children have struggled with illness during the past year, "a Shanah Tovah — a good healthy year for you and the kids." One says to a person who is newly married, "a Shanah Tovah — a year of mazal and joy." One says to a person who has known loss in the past year: "a Shanah Tovah — a better year than last year." These are not fancy words, not the words of poets or rabbis. Just simple words of caring people. It is such a blessing to give and receive such words.

It is as if the gates of the heart are open throughout this season. At this time, we permit ourselves to notice what we most long for, to dare to hope that our wishes might be granted, that our prayers might be answered. For a moment we look into the eyes of others and bless them with a good year, a year that will fulfill their longings. Is it the traditional image that suggests that the gates of heaven are wide open at this season that encourages us to open the heart as well? Or does the open heart break open the normally locked gates of heaven, so that God is too moved not to answer our prayers?

What would it take to keep the gates open just a little more often, throughout the year?

Here we are, past Yom Kippur, past the closing Ne'ilah service that takes its very name from the image of the closing gates. We will soon pass the seventh day of Sukkot, Hoshanah Rabbah, when, according to one tradition, most of us have our fate for the year finally signed and sealed. (According to this tradition, only the wholly righteous and the wholly evil are actually inscribed and sealed by Yom Kippur; for the rest of us, the final day of judgment is Hoshanah Rabbah.) Soon even this deadline will have passed. How I long for another taste of the open gates, the open hearts of the High Holy Days.

I find just such a hint — an echo of the High Holy Day spirit of prayer, in the Torah reading for this Shabbat. "O God, O God, a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin" (Ex. 34:6-7).

This majestic description of God's compassion and goodness, called by the rabbis the "shelosh esrei middot" — the 13 qualities of God's essence — are repeated again and again throughout the traditional liturgy, beginning at Selichot, and returning as a constant refrain through the services of Yom Kippur. I believe it is no accident that the biblical source of these words appears in this week's Torah reading, just when we thought that the open-heartedness of the holidays was gone for another year.

Why is this description so central to the liturgy of the High Holy Days? Why is it so central to the dynamics of tshuval repentance?

Without a listening ear, it is impossible to do the deep soul work of repentance. Without the compassionate presence of another, who would have the strength to turn inward with a penetrating eye? Without knowing that one's self-critique will be met with love, who could dare to undergo the profound work of growth that the holidays demand of us? Without love, how can we ask for forgiveness?

Actually, the same dynamic appears in the daily prayer book. In every Amidah prayer, recited three times a day, the fifth blessing praises God as the one who delights in tshuvah-repentance. Only then, having assured ourselves that God loves our capacity for self-examination, only then can we ask for forgiveness, the content of the sixth blessing of the Amidah. Without knowing that God is listening, without knowing the reality of being heard and held and cared for, how could we have the strength to face ourselves every day?

Today's reading, reminding us once again of God's presence, bids us to know that the gates are not only open on Yom Kippur. Any day that we know we are heard, we can do tshuvah. Any day that we feel that we are loved, we can work to make our lives better. Any day that we see another, we can offer our own loving blessing. May we be there when the moment comes.