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Unleashing Maximum Joy

We are the willow
How can we face doom with ecstasy?

Table for Five: Hoshana Rabbah Edition

In partnership with the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles

 Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist

But today we are not fearful. The very opposite!

These are the days of our joy, the season of rejoicing.

These are days when we sense the bounty of

Your world, the richness of harvest, the wealth of resources we have been given.
We shout Hosha-na! out of joy and not out of fear.

-Meditation on Hoshana Rabba prayers.

Rabbi Abraham Lieberman, Judaic Studies, Shalhevet HS

On the final day of Sukkot (before Shmini Atzeret begins) is Hoshana Rabbah.

The Zohar teaches that on this day the final seal is placed on the verdict issued on Yom Kippur, hence Hoshana Rabbah also has been named a Mini Yom Kippur. The Chazan wears the white Kittel, the numbers of prayers is increased, some of tunes invoked resemble the Yom Kippur tunes.

Yom Kippur, a very solemn day of repentance, would naturally bring with it a sense of trepidation and fear. This beautiful positive prayer posits the opposite. It brings forth in us a sense of humility as we realize the blessings bestowed upon us. On Hoshana Rabbah, as we take leave of the Arbah Minim (the Four Species), we lift the Arava, the simple willow. Unlike the other three species it has nothing to show – no smell, no taste, just leaves, just the willow. Yet it is the willow that allows us a sense of security on this day. The great Hasidic Master, Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter of Ger, the author of the Sefat Emet, writes that that lonely simple willow represents The Jewish People. We arrive to the final seal of judgement not with our actions and deeds, not with a sense of arrogance, but plain and uncomplicated, in our transparent selves, in humility. Hashem’s love for the Jewish People does not depend on actions.

It is an unconditional everlasting love simply for who we are. Hence we can shout with joy Hoshana!!

David Porush, Student, Teacher, Writer

These Great Pleas for Salvation are our very last chance. We circle with willows, take out all the Torahs, and as Rambam said, “exuberantly dance and sing.” In some traditions, we’re supposed to study and pray all night, read all of Deuteronomy and Psalms. It’s a busy day with a dramatic contradiction in its heart: How can we “beg not with fear but joy”? How do we face the most dreadful doom with an ecstatic soul?

The Hoshanot poetry itself is the answer. Read the longest version you can find – probably Sefardi or Chabad’s. It preserves deep connections to our agrarian roots, to Temple rites, to the mysteries of willow and water. We plead for rain. We invoke our heroes and the many instances of divine beneficence in our history, a long soul-lifting list of G’d’s bounty. Transcendent “geshem” flows through the verses. We acknowledge the singular miracle of Israel’s survival. This poetry, sung together, is designed to unleash maximum joy.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe asked how we can achieve climactic joy and still fulfill the other obligations on this day. “The greatness of one’s joy is not dependent on time…,” he said. “A brief episode can have very intense strength … the greatest possible.” He was showing us how to activate The Maximum Joy Hoshana Rabba app and let it flow into our busy smartphone lives: Be grateful for every moment.

I’m on the floor, gazing into my infant granddaughter’s knowing eyes. Rain patters the window…

Aliza Lipkin, Writer and educator, Maaleh Adumim, Israel

Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are known as Yamim Noraim, literally translated as “Days of Awe”. We acknowledge God’s sovereignty at the onset of the new year and seek atonement throughout the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, the ten days of repentance. These are awe-inspired days replete with devotion and dedication to repairing our relationship with God and His Torah.

The days of awe are not intended to be fear-based. They begin with recognition of God’s sovereignty. The acknowledgment that He is the ultimate Source of everything that exists compels us to subject ourselves to His will in order to extend our own existence. God’s will is that we walk in His ways and follow the Torah, thus “lengthening our days” by imbuing them with meaning and value. This recognition causes feelings of remorse for the times we strayed. Recognition and regret are vital components of teshuva that aid in connecting our soul to its Source. This connection gives rise to a sense of vitality and joy that is unparalleled. The God within is the life force that gives us meaning and purpose. Thus it is with renewed spiritual vigour and fervour we feel a more complete sense of awe for God. One that finds us not simply crying “save us” out of fear of lack but “save us” from a life of futility by keeping us connected to haKadosh Baruch Hu, For it is this connection that makes the bounty and resources of this world truly blessed!

Dr. Erica Rothblum, Head of School, Pressman Academy

The Rabbis believed that Hoshana Rabba was a day during which we are all judged by God, similar to Yom Kippur, as God decides whether we are worthy of the rain. To show God we are indeed worthy, we declare our joy. In other words, a criterion of our worthiness is our joyfulness. While on Yom Kippur we receive redemption by confronting our wrong doings and asking for forgiveness, on Hoshana Rabba, we receive redemption by acting with joy. These two sacred days are in fact a pair, each in need of the other. Our tradition is teaching us that ultimate redemption is not possible without both self-reflection and joy.

Dr. Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist, writes about the origins of joy and about how emotion, especially joy, is a collective act. There is research that people laugh five times as often when they are with others as when they are alone, that exchanging pleasantries with a stranger on a train is enough to spark joy. Dr. Grant writes “You can feel depressed and anxious alone, but it’s rare to laugh alone or to love alone. Joy shared is joy sustained.” While on Yom Kippur, we spend the day engaged with our own minds, hearts and souls, the true mitzvah of joyfulness on Hoshana Rabba must happen within community. And in this there is another lesson from Judaism: ultimate redemption is only possible both when we care for ourselves and when we engage with the wider Jewish collective.

Rabbi Natan Halevy, Kahal Joseph

Tishrei is the month of high holidays. ‘Tishrei’ rearranged spells “Reishit,” signifying “the head of our year,” when we draw down the energy and blessings required for the upcoming year. Our traditions help elicit these blessings.

King David states “HaShem is your shade on your right side.” HaShem reflects our actions back to us.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur atone for the past, helping us ascend from lower to higher levels. We become vessels for the energy revealed on Hoshana Raba through Succot, when we begin integrating these lofty blessings into our physical realm.

Joy is integral to serving Hashem and crucial to this process. Living with an abundant mindset helps our brains see opportunities all around us. When the mind is relaxed it can reach higher states of functioning.

Faith and trust in Hashem reveal goodness and blessings in our lives. Our prophets taught us this. “The blessing of the Lord will bring riches, and no sadness with it.” “Blessed is the one who trusts in Hashem; Hashem shall be their refuge.” “Those who hope in Hashem will renew strength.” “For one shall be like a tree planted by the water, that sends out its roots by the stream.”

With thanks to Rabbi Abraham Lieberman, David Porush, Aliza Lipkin, Dr. Erica Rothblum, and Rabbi Natan Halevy

Photo by Menahem Kahana.

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