Hoshana Rabbah Exercises
There are actually two cycles of Rosh Hashana, Ten Days of Repentance and Yom Kippur. The first is the obvious cycle, the one we recently finished. However, the prophet, Ezekiel (40:1) describes Yom Kippur as Rosh Hashana. Ezekiel hinted to the second cycle of the Days of Awe, in which Yom Kippur is Rosh Hashana, followed by Ten Days of Repentance, concluding with Hoshana Rabbah as Yom Kippur. This second cycle is understood as a gift for those who did not take full advantage of the original set. (See Zohar, Volume 1, 202b)
However, there are others who understand the second series of Days of Awe as a challenge and opportunity to repair a deeper level in our relationship with God. (Shelah HaKodesh, Masechet Succah, Amud Hashalom, Torah Or. See too Rosh at the conclusion of Tractate Yoma, Rabbi Shlomo Kluger, Kehillat Yaakov, Final Days of Succot #4)
Happiness as Tikkun:
Hoshana Rabbah is the conclusion of the festival of Succot, a.k.a., “z’man simchateinu,” “our time of happiness”. Hoshana Rabbah is the climax of Succot. It should be the highest expression of our joy. We can use the joy of this day to repair two important ingredients in our relationship with God:
We can repair the damaged caused by the joy we experienced when we sinned.
We can reenergize all the prayers recited, the Mitzvot performed and Torah studied over the past year without joy.
Tools: The main focus of the day should be to live with great happiness. Absolutely everything we do should be done with great joy.
The Source of Our Joy:
Hoshana Rabbah is the climax of Succot. It embodies the purpose of the festival, which is to imbue our service of God with joy. We walk around the synagogue seven times to hint to the circles Joshua and Israel made around Jericho before destroying the city. Our circles symbolize our intent to destroy all evil influences. The people who lived in the Temple period would circle the main altar once a day for six days and seven times on Hoshana Rabbah, just as Israel marched around Jericho. (Rabbeinu Bachya, Kad HaKemach: “Willow”)
Jericho holds a special place in Judaism. It was the first city captured by Joshua and Israel. It continued to play a role in Temple life for both Temples. (TBTamid 30b) There were some early commentaries that compare Jericho to Jerusalem. (Ra’avad in the name of his teacher.)
The battle for Jericho was the first battle for the Jews who entered the Land of Canaan. It was also their first battle without Moses at the helm. Everything was different for Israel. They no longer had a prophet who spoke directly with God. The era of the Five Books of Moses ended. They were adjusting to living without the daily miracles of manna, water from a rock and protection from the Clouds of Glory.
The people did not know what to expect. How were they supposed to fight to conquer this land? Were they supposed to go to war without relying on miracles? Were they supposed to learn how to live as a “normal” people and fight as everyone else did? Or, would God’s miracles going to continue? If yes, at what level would they continue?
Jericho was the first indication of how their new relationship with God, now that they were about to conquer and settle the land and create a functioning society. They successfully conquered the city. Their victory was miraculous. However, they had to act in order to trigger the miracle. They were no longer simply recipients of great miracles. They experienced how their actions were now necessary to trigger the miracles. They were no longer recipients. They were partners in the miracle. They fought along with God.
Tools: Did I do anything this past year that triggered great change?
II. Oral Law
Jericho represented an entirely new relationship with God. The miracle that followed their circles empowered them for the future. Joshua was so moved by the experience that he composed the “Aleinu” prayer when the battle was over. (Kol Bo 16) This development of the relationship between God and Israel was fundamental to the development of the process of Oral Law. We would no longer receive direct instruction on how to act and what to do; we would no longer receive direct answers to our questions. We became a responsible party in the development of the law. We became partners with God.
The Mitzvah of the Willow, or Aravah, with the circles we make, the Hoshanot and the custom to hit the ground with a Bunch of Willows, are all derived from the Oral Law. (I include prophetic mandates as part of Oral Law.) Hoshana Rabbah is a festival of the Oral Law. It is a celebration of our partnership with God and how that connection empowers us. This partnership should be the source of our greatest joy.
Tools: Did I use my Torah study over the past year to transform my life?