The lowest point in Death Valley, and in the Western Hemisphere, is Badwater, at 282 feet (85.95 meters) below sea level. The highest point in Death Valley National Monument is Telescope Peak at 11,049 feet (3,367.7 meters) above sea level. The highest point in the contiguous United States, Mt. Whitney is 14,505 feet (4,421 meters) above sea level. The distance between Mt. Whitney and Badwater (both in Inyo County, California) is a mere 84.6 miles (136.2 km). Every July for the past 34 years there has been a race for runners from the lowest to the highest points. But then, is it any wonder that the two extremes in the “lower 48” states of the U.S. would be so close. After all, we find that true in our lives as well.
Often when we hit the lowest point in our lives, it is followed shortly thereafter by a high point. Pessimists would put it the other way around. When you hit a high point in your life, you can count on a crash to follow shortly. Our lives are rarely on an even keel for a long period of time.
God seems to have recognized this fact about us. In fact, he even incorporated it into the Jewish calendar of holy days. Five days that change the world; those are the five days between Yom Kippur and the beginning of Sukkos. (In 2011, Yom Kippur falls on October 8 and Sukkos, the Feast of Booths, lasts from October 13 to 18.)
The Day of Atonement may be the lowest day of the Jewish calendar. The day itself is a reminder of everything wrong that we have done throughout the year. Granted, it is not a total bummer, because it also offers the hope of a better year to follow; but it is generally a reminder of sin. By that day every Jewish person is expected to go to those that they might have wronged during the year and ask for forgiveness. On that day, according to the rabbis, God seals a person’s fate for the coming year. It is a day of fasting, which makes it a low point in many people’s lives. Actually, it is more than a day of fasting. All luxuries are forbidden (which in a generation before the current one, that meant no wearing of leather shoes—something few of the young people do today at any time).
The day after Yom Kippur is marked by the beginning of the construction of the sukka, a temporary hut in which meals are to be taken during the next holiday. The strictest interpretation would even demand living in the sukka throughout the holiday, not just eating in it. One would almost think that this would be a continuation of the low in life; giving up your house for a week and sleeping and eating exposed to the weather. In truth, it is a build-up to the high point of the year. The Feast of Booths is sometimes simply called “The Feast.” (1 Kgs 8:2; Jn 7:10-11) Everyone seems to know that this is the party of the year. Purim may be characterized by more drinking and hijinks, but this is seven days of celebration and partying. The five days of the building of the sukka, therefore, are five days in which all of life seems to change. Mourning is turned to joy. Low becomes high. Death Valley to Mt. Whitney in a matter of five days.
Yes, God knows his creation well. We cannot understand the lows without the highs to compare them to. We cannot stay on the high points, because then we will not know them as highs. “And I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and joy in my people: and the voice of weeping shall be no more heard in her, nor the voice of crying.” (Isa 65:19)