The Mishnah (Sukkah 50b-51a) describes the festivities associated with the Water Libation Festival as a unique and unforgettable celebration. The most pious of celebrants wound dance with torches and the Tosefta, cited by the Talmud (Sukkah 53a), details the words of song that accompanied the dancing. Some would say: “Happy is our youth that did not embarrass our old age.” Others would say: “Happy is our old age that atoned for our youth.” And all would say: “Happy is the person who never sinned and should the person who sinned repent, God will absolve that person.” The lyrics are hardly the stuff of what would constitute popular music today, but the message is significant.
With Sukkot comes the end of the penitential period. The self-scrutiny that began in Elul and intensified during the Days of Awe has reached its denouement. Sukkot offers the last chance for self-reflection and repentance. As much as Sukkot is a reminder of God’s protective care for our ancestors in their journey to the Promised Land it is a reminder of our moral frailty and vulnerability. Humanity cannot shield itself from exposure to either temptation or sin just as the sukkah cannot shield its residents from all inclemency.
Rare indeed is the person who can avoid lapses in good behavior. This is particularly true with young people who, as the old expression goes, “sow their wild oats.” Later in life, youthful indiscretions seem embarrassing. Those who avoided youthful excesses give themselves reason to celebrate. But all is not lost for those who succumbed to the foibles of immaturity. Recognizing the errors of their ways and correcting them is a source of satisfaction for the old. And those who never sinned should be especially gratified but sinning is not a fatal flaw, being the natural condition of humanity (Ecclesiastes 7:21). Repentance is always available as a remedy. And God is always ready to forgive the penitent.
Coming at the end of the penitential period as it does, the song of the pious is an emphatic message. If the key sentence of this season is “Sin is avoidable but repentance is operable” then the song of the pious is its exclamation point.