Parshat Sukkot

Torah Reading for Week of September 23-29, 2018

“Joy for the Jews”
by Rabbi Michael Menitoff, PhD, AJRCA Professor of Jewish Thought

In order properly to celebrate the festival of Sukkot (Booths or Tabernacles), we are told that you must exude joy and happiness. If you do not, you are said to be missing the essence of the holiday.
Can we be commanded to be happy? Well, the Bible seems to do just that. In Deuteronomy 16: 13-15, we read, “After the ingathering of your threshing floor and your vat, you shall hold the Feast of Booths for seven days. You shall rejoice in your festival, with your son and daughter, your male and female slave, the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and widow in your community. You shall hold a festival for the Lord your G-d seven days, in the place that the Lord will choose; for the Lord your G-d will bless all your crops and all your undertakings, and you shall have nothing but joy”.
According to the Jewish Publication Society Torah Commentary, it is because of the totality of the all-encompassing blessings that the celebration is to last as long as seven days. Parenthetically, the week-long Sukkot is subsequently followed by the concluding days of he holiday season which are considered separate observances, namely Shemini Atzeret (The Eighth Day of Assembly) and Simchat Torah (The Joy of Torah). These latter holidays are compressed into a single day in the State of Israel.
One might ask why it is necessary to emphasize the joy of Sukkot. Indeed, the rabbis even refer to the holiday as z’man simchateinu (the time of our rejoicing). Perhaps it has to do with the fact that Jews will have so recently gone through the rigors of intense introspection and soul-searching, associated with the High Holy Days. The tone of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services and the demands of the season are more pensive and spiritually/emotionally intensive. One cannot and probably should not sustain that disposition indefinitely. The feeling of Sukkot needs to be very different. People simply have fun.
After services, much time is spent outdoors, taking one’s meals in the sukkah (booth), visiting and comparing other sukkot, waving and blessing the symbols of the season, the lulav (palm branch-along with willows and myrtle twigs) and etrog (citron-resembles a lemon). The very building and decorating of the sukka is interactive and engaging, especially if done well and right. So, the more cerebral High Holy Day activities give way to the holiday that makes us profoundly happy.
What if we are not feeling up to it? What if we have experienced a setback or a tragedy? What if we are in the midst of a personal struggle? After all, the Biblical verses quoted above talk about rejoicing on Sukkot in response to G-d’s bountiful blessings. What if the situation is otherwise? In response, Jewish tradition would enjoin us to look at the half-full glass instead of the half-empty one. We all have something for which to be thankful. If we have a positive attitude and at least go through the motions of celebrating Sukkot, maybe we can come to actually feel and do a little better. But one would be a dilettante, denying life’s complexities and challenges, were he or she to say that this would necessarily be so.
A final observation: While Sukkot is one of the most joyous holidays, truth to tell some of that happiness is also intended to permeate the bulk of what we do Jewishly in our daily lives. Study, prayer, family life, the observance of mitzvot, the performance of good deeds are never intended to be overly burdensome and lugubrious. At best, they are joyous affirmations of our connection to Jewish tradition, and to countless generations of Jews, past, present, and future. Chag Sameach. A joyous Sukkot!