There are many different ways to prepare for the forthcoming festivals. Some are contacting distant family and old friends, buying new clothes, preparing menus for stunning festive meals.
On the more individual, personal side, a person may think through what they have achieved in spiritual terms during the past year, and what could have been better. Did they patch up the quarrel with Cousin Jane? Did they get the mezuzot checked? Did they manage to get Daughter Sandra into a Jewish holiday camp? Following the pay raise in February, did they increase their level of charitable donations? This is called the "accounting of the soul." It is a preparation for Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, when G-d reviews His creation and decides the future for every person and each creature.
There is also another form of preparation, linked to the Torah reading of this week, Ki Tavo,1 which includes a frightening description of the horrors of suffering and exile. The baal koreh (synagogue reader) who chants the Torah recites this section very swiftly, in a low tone. It is a statement of the tragic outcome if, as a people, we disobey G-d. This is always read in the autumn, shortly before Rosh Hashanah.
There is a similar section in the Torah read shortly before the Shavuot festival in the early summer.2
The Talmud explains that the aim is to get rid of everything negative before the festival.3 Hence we make sure that the apparently gloomy sections of the Torah are behind us.
Chassidic teachings add a further level of meaning to this: in each case these serious and disturbing sections cleanse us, scouring out everything negative, preparing us for the beautiful experience which is going to come through the festival.
Can one measure the intensity of this positive experience? In a sense one can. Shavuot celebrates the Giving of the Torah. It is an event in which G-d was revealed to us from above, but our level of participation was relatively meager. Indeed, this is why we were able to fall into the colossal error of making the Golden Calf so soon afterwards.
By contrast, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur express our own strong attempt to come close to G-d. Every weekday in the month of Elul the shofar is blown, reminding us to wake up spiritually; we engage in spiritual accounting, we make decisions to improve our lives. It is a service from below upwards, and therefore leads to a greater level of spiritual reward.
For this reason, says the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the harsh section we read as we approach Rosh Hashanah is much longer than that before Shavuot. The Sages tell us it contains twice as many harsh statements. The cleansing and scouring process is more intense, because it is in preparation for a greater and more wonderful revelation of the Divine.
In the same way our exile, since the destruction of the Temple nineteen hundred years ago, has been longer and in many ways more intense than any previous period of exile of our people. We went through the exile in Egypt for 210 years, and the exile in Babylon for 70 years.
Our exile is longer because we are in a course of preparation for a far greater level of revelation of the Divine than ever happened before, on a global level. We endure a long list of tragic events, like that in our Torah reading, but this will be followed by the coming of Moshiach, bringing lasting peace and goodness to all humanity.4
Dr. Tali Loewenthal is Lecturer in Jewish Spirituality at University College London, director of the Chabad Research Unit, author of Communicating the Infinite: The Emergence of the Habad School and a frequent contributor to the Chabad.org weekly Torah reading section.
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