Among the seasons, autumn tends to be most dramatic in its changes, with rain and sun exchanging dominance and the thermometer playing yoyo with our sweaters and jackets. The days grow shorter, and the elegance of baseball swings is replaced with the intensity of football huddles. The impending chill and dreariness of winter creates an ominous aura. Pyschologists suggest sunlight type lamps – they don’t do it for me.
The days following Yom Kippur also tend to be a bit of a downer. Expectations of personal growth borne of High Holiday pledges rapidly fade as commitments to self-improvement fall short at the first or second challenge. Yet again, promises to be different, to be better, are exposed as mere fancies, and a defeated ego retreats to lick its wounds in a in a bowl of chocolate ice cream.
I once thought that the post-Yom Kippur Succos experience is calendered during the weather changes of autumn to accentuate the personal changes that the holiday season is available to facilitate. How quaint, I thought, that the weather shows that change is, indeed, possible. Alas, I am reminded that people barely change, if at all. And that the weather, itself, rarely changes either. Summer may turn to autumn, and then winter to spring. But then spring fades back to summer, and soon winter, once again. The changes are fleeting. The moment may be different, but the pattern all the same.
Perhaps, Succos is in the midst of the annual weather changes to remind us that we really will never change who we are. That gains perceived to have been acheived through Yom Kippur tears are seasonal, and that we will be back holding our Yom Kippur machzor next year, once again beating our chest in heartfelt atonement.
But, what then the effort? Why bother?
Perhaps the repeated patterns of seasonal weather signal that people never change, but despite that recognition, individuals may confront the challenge of coping with whom they really are. Awaiting the harsh winter, we learn to anticipate its challenges and develop methods of coping. Weather patterns may not change, but the experience can be changed by observing the patterns and altering the responses.
Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, the father of the musssar movement, focused the community on the need to work on personal growth. Rabbi Salanter is quoted by one of his lead students, Rav Yitzele Petterburg, as teaching that the hope of actually changing one’s personality traits fades as one reaches adolesence. From that age on, the goal is no longer to change one’s character, but rather to understand one’s own character and to learn to work with it. Perhaps Succos is not about changing who we are, but about dealing with whom we are.
Reports are that another hurricane may be approaching the United States. I am going to buy some boots.