Decorating the sukkah (Photo/Courtesy Hazon)
Decorating the sukkah (Photo/Courtesy Hazon)

As Sukkot ends, your last chance for compassion

Chol Hamo’ed Sukkot

Exodus 33:12-34:26

Ezekiel 38:18-39:16.

On this Shabbat Sukkot, we read about Moses and the second set of tablets. Having just returned from Mount Sinai with two tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments, he is angry at the Israelites’ act of idolatry when they created the Golden Calf. Moses throws the tablets to the ground, smashing them to bits. What incredible anger and disappointment Moses must have felt.

One might just think, “OK. That’s it. Our great leader has made a massive mistake and will be punished by God.”

But no. Instead, Moses gets a beautiful second chance. In partnership with God, Moses creates a second set of tablets for the Israelites. And this is the story we read on this Shabbat Sukkot, even as we sit in our Sukkot, the focus is on teshuvah, trying again. If Moses gets a second chance, shouldn’t we too? This is what the Torah reading seems to be teaching us.

The ancient rabbis wisely structure the season of teshuvah, or spiritual return, in such a way that it does not end with Yom Kippur. Rather, the season extends all the way through Hoshanah Rabbah, falling this year on Sept. 30. We still have time to turn back to wholeness, to repair our relationships, even during the festival of Sukkot, our most joyous holiday. God’s rachamim, or compassion, envelops us. The Hebrew word rachamim comes from the same Hebrew root as the word rechem, meaning womb. God’s compassion is a like a womb that helps us grow, granting a second chance to us in our spiritual development.

There is wisdom in being granted second chances, or in granting someone else a second chance. When we give others second chances, even when it is exceedingly difficult for us, we exercise compassion for them. When we grasp the opportunity for a second chance ourselves, we choose life. We choose a better path and forego beating ourselves up for having messed up in the first place.

What exactly is this wisdom that is associated with second chances? Ibn Ezra, the medieval Spanish commentator, tells us that wisdom is the ability of our brain to discern. This reminds me of one of the first blessings that we say upon awaking in the morning, in which we thank God for giving us the ability — binah — to discern between day and night.”

But another word for wisdom is chochmah. Rashi says that chochmah means what a person hears from others, and then learns. Rashi breaks down the process of accruing wisdom into two parts. First, we must open our ears and hear. We must heed what others are telling us. But then we must make it our own. We must absorb or take on this understanding in a way that makes this wisdom real to us. Without this final step in the process, we merely have someone else’s idea floating around in our head without our owning it.

Another way to think about this is to imagine that everyone has the capacity to be a God carrier. In the words of Ed Bacon, the author of “8 Habits of Love,” says that recognizing this capacity in every human being helps us become more compassionate ourselves. The hasidic masters call this the divine spark: everyone can be a God carrier. Seeing the divine spark in humanity cannot be conditional. How much we all struggle with offering compassion without conditions, without demands or terms that must be met by others. It is probably one of the most difficult things to do and yet this is exactly what God did by offering Moses a second chance.

As we come to these final days of teshuvah in the fall holiday calendar, let us keep Rashi’s advice close to heart. We need to make teshuvah our own. How are we going to bring wisdom into our second-chance moment? What guidance do we need as we make a fresh start, acknowledge what we have done wrong and begin again?

And just like God helped Moses to see that the Israelites could be “God carriers,” even though they weren’t perfect, may we also be blessed with this capacity for empathy and compassion in all the days of 5779 and beyond.

Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Susan Leider
Rabbi Susan Leider

Rabbi Susan Leider is the senior rabbi at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon. She can be reached at [email protected].