Today at Heschel we celebrated the seventh day of Sukkot, also known as Hoshana Rabbah. Hoshana Rabbah literally means, ‘Great Saving’. Hoshana Rabbah is celebrated through a special prayer service in which we walk in ‘hakafot’ — circles around the Bimah holding the Lulav and Etrog. As we walk we call out ‘Hoshanot’ — recollections of how we have been helped and saved over the generations. Hoshana Rabbah is also the day that the Gates of Teshuva are officially closed. According to the The Zohar , the judgment for the new year is sealed on Yom Kippur, but it is delivered on Hoshanah Rabbah. So even though we usually think that Yom Kippur is the last day to seek forgiveness, we actually have until Hoshana Rabbah.
In order for our ‘Hoshanot’ to be especially meaningful, we connected them to our learning from the first weeks of school. For instance, our grade two class, which has learning about water, thought about how God protected Moshe when Yocheved place him in the Nile river. Our grade fours, who have been learning all about sound, thought about how Avraham saved Yitzchak when he perceived the sound of God’s voice as instructions. Our grade five students noticed how the Torah uses metaphors — such as God’s “outstretched arm” — to describe the ways we have been helped and saved.
As each class made a circle around the Bimah chanting, “Hoshanah,” other students beat aravot (willow branches) on the ground. The dried leaves that fell off the branches symbolized leaving behind the last remnants of the previous year, as we enter freshly into a new year. On Thursday night, the new Torah reading cycle is officially ushered in with a celebration of Simchat Torah. On Shabbat we begin reading the first parshah of the Torah: Bereshit– “In the beginning.” And so we begin, again…