Jews Called to Act Quickly to Do Right

SukkahTishrei, the Jewish month in which the High Holidays fall, truly is packed with holiday action. Of course, most prominent are those holidays that bring the biggest crowds to synagogues: Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

However, there are plenty of others during this same month: (in order) T’zom Gedalia, Sukkot, Sh’mini Atzeret, and Simchat Torah. The second of these, Sukkot, falls only a few days after the close of Yom Kippur (the 10th of Tishrei), beginning on the 15th. With such a jam-packed month of holidays, our natural tendency might be to delay in the process of wrapping up one of these occasions and preparing for the next. After all, who really wants to get finished with Yom Kippur only to run outside and construct a sukkah?

However, always full of surprises, the Jewish tradition contains many teachings which try to convince us that such swift transitions are, in fact, not only not problematic, but instead are ideal. In the case of the transition between Yom Kippur and Sukkot, for instance, a common teaching suggests that we should actually begin to build our sukkah the very evening that Yom Kippur ends. Talk about no rest for the wicked! I know that I, personally, would rather wait at least until the next day before beginning this arduous task.

Nevertheless, Judaism contains a pair of teachings about why we are commanded to build our sukkot so promptly. The first and most commonly cited reason comes from a value called la-tzeit mi-mitzvah l’mitzvah: “to go out from one commandment [and on] to another.” In this vein, we are encouraged to avoid a lapse into a non-sacral period between Yom Kippur and Sukkot and instead to prolong our experience of holy time by moving straight from one holiday to the next.

The second reason—one that is fitting because each year on Rosh Hashanah we read the story of the Binding of Isaac—is that Judaism encourages us to emulate the model of Abraham who, having been commanded to sacrifice his son on Mt. Moriah, does not tarry in attempting to obey his command (and this remains true even though we may have qualms with the overall wisdom of Abraham’s judgment in this story). Instead, we read of Abraham in Genesis 22:3 that he rose up early in the morning to do what was expected of him. The Jewish value which comes from this is known as z’rizin makdimin l’mitzvot, a suggestion that “those who are truly committed arise early to perform mitzvoth.”

Put another way, it is clear that, as Jews, we are obligated to act to make the world right (to perform tikkun olam) as soon as we can identify ways that we are capable of doing so. There is no waiting or procrastination permitted in the doing of what is right. This echoes famous, well-known words which have resonated throughout many centuries of human history, specifically that “justice delayed is justice denied.” In view of the teaching above, this dictum clearly harmonizes with Jewish values, as demonstrated by this line from Pirkei Avot (5:8): Destruction enters the world through the delay of justice and the perversion of justice.

 As we celebrate Sukkot this year—whether we build our sukkah the evening after Yom Kippur or not—I think it important for us to consider what it means for us personally not to delay in the performance of mitzvoth. Given that this holiday is meant to encourage Jews to remember the experience of quasi-homelessness, to be aware of what life is like for those who lack permanent shelter, it would be especially fitting to consider our Jewish duty to those who are in need of a place to call home. Whether this means for you that you call a Congressman to ask him or her to prevent the dislocation of so-called Dreamers, that you give tzedakah to support those who have lost homes in recent natural disasters, or any other such act of compassion, the Jewish value of Sukkot really mustn’t stop within a physical sukkah in a synagogue courtyard or our backyard.

If we want to be truly committed, z’rizin, to the ideals that underlie this important Jewish holiday, it is our imperative to live up to our mitzvoth. Among other things, this means acting rightly and acting swiftly to help make the world a better place.

Rabbi Ari Ballaban