Parshas Bereishit (5773)
Many have a tradition to mark the end of each of the “Three Festivals”, Passover, Shavuos and Sukkos, with a Neilas HaChag (lit. “locking” of the festival), a small celebratory meal replete with food, drink, singing and shared words of Torah.
The name chosen for this traditional meal - Neilas HaChag - is a bit difficult to understand. It’s one thing to refer to the fifth and final prayer on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, as Neilah, since our tradition teaches that the Gates of Repentance are “locked” at the end of the long fast day. Furthermore, the name Neilah also alludes to the fact that after the fast is over, we are once again allowed to put our leather shoes back on. [Neilah is related to the Hebrew word na’al, shoe; thus Neilah can also mean “wearing shoes”.]
But there are no gates that I am aware of that are being locked at the end of Passover, Shavuos or Sukkos, nor is there any prohibition against wearing shoes during these festivals. So why choose the name Neilas HaChag for this end-of-holiday party?
In Shir HaShirim, the “Song of Songs” – one of the 24 books of the Jewish Bible – King Solomon writes the following verse, describing how the nations were impressed with the Jewish people: “How lovely are your steps in shoes, O daughter of nobility!” (Shir HaShirim 7:2). This verse needs an explanation, as it sounds like King Solomon is trying to sell shoes! (I can just picture this pushy Jewish salesman telling some lady, “You look absolutely lovely in those lavender pumps, and they fit you perfectly!”)
Some Bible commentators explain this verse as follows: The Talmud in Berachos 54a teaches that is forbidden to enter the Temple Mount (the area just behind the Western Wall in Jerusalem where our Holy Temple once stood, and which is presently off-limits to Jews for Halachic and political reasons) while wearing one’s shoes. This is learned from the verse in the Torah where G-d tells Moses: “Remove your shoes from your feet, for the place upon which you stand is holy ground” (Exodus 3:5).
The idea behind taking off one’s shoes when entering a place like the Temple Mount is that shoes are what allow us to get around in this world, thus they represent our being rooted in the mundane, physical world. Upon entering a holy place, we lift ourselves out of our shoes as if to symbolize our neshamah’s (soul’s) desire to transcend the physical world and to connect with G-d and the spiritual world.
In such a rarefied and spiritually charged atmosphere as the Temple Mount, it is quite easy to be a good and even holy person. Therefore, the Jewish people’s high spiritual level and evident holiness while basking in G-d’s Divine Presence in the Holy Temple during the thrice-yearly pilgrimage to Jerusalem failed to impress the nations of the world. After all, who could possibly sin and behave badly in such a holy place?
It was only after the Jews left the Holy Temple and put their shoes back on as they returned to their homes – yet they took all the spiritual lessons they learned during the festivals with them and they maintained their level of holiness and sensitivity even though they were no longer in a holy place – that the nations were moved to say: “How lovely are your steps in shoes, O daughter of nobility!”
With this we can now understand why we the traditional end-of-the-festival meal is called Neilas HaChag. It is only now, at the end of the long and spiritually-charged festival, when we are leaving this holy time and place and “putting our shoes back on” (i.e. the neilah at the end of the chag), that we need to gather together and recap all the lessons that we learned over the festival so that we can take them with us as we return once again to the physical and mundane world in which we live.
In light of the above, I would like to share with you a few essential lessons that we learn from the High Holidays and from Sukkos and Shemini Atzeres/Simchas Torah, in the hope that we can take them with us into the long winter ahead, and fortify ourselves with their spiritual message:
(1) Rosh Hashanah – on this Day of Judgment we proclaim G-d as King over the entire world, and we remind ourselves that, as His subjects, each and every one of us has a special and unique mission to accomplish here on earth that can bring G-dliness and goodness into the world – and we pray that G-d give each of us the physical health, spiritual strength, and moral courage to fulfill that special role successfully.
(2) Yom Kippur – on this awesome Day of Atonement we repent before G-d for the errors that we made over the previous year and we humbly ask G-d to forgive us and to wipe our slate clean. We believe in the power of our teshuvah (repentance) because we know that no matter how far we might have strayed or how low we might have sunk, our neshamah (our soul and true essence) is pure and incorruptible – and G-d will always take us back if we sincerely want to return to Him.
(3) Sukkos - on this beautiful holiday which comes just after Yom Kippur, we feel the great joy of G-d’s having accepted our repentance and forgiving us for all our sins. And we unite with G-d by leaving our sturdy and well-protected homes to dwell for seven days under thatched schach (roof covering) in G-d’s house, the Sukkah. The beauty of the Sukkah - as well as the Four Species, representing all types of Jews, which we hold together as one throughout the holiday - is in its message of unity for the Jewish people. All Jews, no matter what manner of Sukkah walls they erect for and between themselves, sit equally under the same meager thatched roofs on the festival of Sukkos, unified under G-d’s protection and enveloped in His love.
(4) Shemini Atzeres/Simchas Torah – this short holiday at the end of Sukkos which involves no sukkah or any other ritual object, is really just a special intimate, joyous moment that we spend alone with G-d before going into the long winter months ahead. And there is no better way to rejoice with our Father in Heaven than to dance with His Torah, the Book that He authored and gave to us, and that is full of so much beauty and wisdom and truth which can help us lead deeply meaningful and fulfilling lives.
As we leave this (Jewish) holiday season and put our shoes back on for the long winter ahead, let’s remember to take all these beautiful lessons with us and to internalize them, as they were intended to be.