Sukkot 5771 September 22 – October 1, 2010
“Sukkot and the Elements of Joy”
by Rabbi Mel Gottlieb, PhD
President, Academy for Jewish Religion, CA (AJRCA)
The holiday of Sukkot is known as ‘Zman Simchateinu,’ the time of our joy or happiness. Three times in the Torah the word happiness is mentioned in connection with this holiday. So we can learn from the particularities of this holiday how to acquire happiness. Many psychological experts have cited the following four themes as essential contributing factors to the state of happiness. Let me summarize them. First, there is the importance of relationship, a sense of belonging or the need for love; second, there is the sense of competence or effectiveness that is necessary; third, there is a certain way of seeing the world or what might be called faith in religious terminology, and fourth there is the citing of a feeling of reasonable confidence, well-being, inner unity and self-esteem. These four themes emerge when we study the holiday of Sukkot.
Let us examine how Sukkot promotes these values and thus why it is appropriately called the time of our happiness. With regard to the first principle of belonging and promoting relationship, it is clear that Sukkot promotes this sense of belonging as everybody is invited into our Sukkah in a warm atmosphere of hospitality. Moreover, the symbolism of the four species that we utilize on Sukkot suggests a similar idea of promoting relationship through acceptance of difference and diversity, and thus our sages attributed simcha (joy) to the arba minim (four species). Our sages point out that the four species represent four types of people, all of whom are welcomed into our community. The Bahir also points out that each of the four species is shaped like different features of the human anatomy which we utilize to serve G-d. The Hadas is shaped like an eye, which allows us to ‘see’ others and thus know them. The Lulav symbolizes the spine which gives us the firmness, rootedness and strength to be able to enter relationships, maintain boundaries and not feel overwhelmed by the other. The long thin leaves of the Aravah (willow) represent the lips, the source of communication and love towards others. And the Etrog (citron) is akin to the heart, the seat of emotions and understanding which is essential to cultivate in order to promote relationship.
Moreover, the theme of belonging and connecting within community is also emphasized on Sukkot by the expectation that all of Israel including women and children come up to Jerusalem (Hakhel). The word ‘Atzeret,’ which the Torah also uses in connection with Sukkot, also connotes a meaning of ‘congregation.’ This word refers to the last day of the holiday when all the light and holiness of the holiday becomes connected, and where a Simchat Beit Hashoevah, a party of celebration of the blessing of water and the unification of heaven and earth, and the unified community which promotes joy, is celebrated. The Talmud says (Sukkah 51B) ‘that one who has not seen the joy of this celebration has not seen real joy in one’s life.’ The description of this celebration in the Talmud is most unusual and striking. It says: “Jerusalem was lit up by the light of gigantic menorahs. The lyres, cymbals, horns, and drums played. The Rabbis entertained and clowned to add to the joy. Rabbi Shimon Ben Gamliel (the head of the community) did various gymnastic feats culminating in an incredible headstand. He also entertained by juggling flaming torches!” Perhaps this is why the Prophet Zechariah claims that in the Messianic era the whole world will come to celebrate Sukkot! Happiness, unity and belonging have a definite connection. Accordingly, on Sukkot the entire nation gathers in Jerusalem, the city of Peace, and offers 70 sacrifices, symbolizing the inclusion of the70 nations of the world at that time.
The second theme of happiness, competence and effectiveness is also found rooted in Sukkot, because this holiday demands more detailed mastery of practical mitzvoth throughout the holiday, than any other holiday. The very building of the Sukkah is quite a task, demanding focus, stamina, effort towards making it as beautiful as possible, and fulfilling the halachik details. The choosing of the correct, kosher species (arba minim), the moving out of our comfortable homes into a vulnerable, flimsy setting all demand competence and promote a sense of effectiveness as we succeed in achieving the proper standards. I recall as a child on the Lower East Side of New York witnessing with awe the efforts that pious people made to choose the best Etrog possible before Sukkot while examining dozens of Etrogim in the process. Large crowds lined up in order to fulfill the mitzvah of buying a proper, beautiful Etrog. So mastery and competence, achieving and succeeding in a difficult task creates happiness and self-esteem.
The third theme of seeing the world through the lens of faith is indigenous to this holiday. For, moving from a secure material abode, to a vulnerable Sukkah suggests that we are removing our source of faith from the illusory material realm, to the Creator who can protect us in any circumstance, even in a flimsy Sukkah. We recognize that the reason we feel secure in beautiful homes is only because Hashem is protecting us there as well. We are declaring through this shift in values, that what we rely on fundamentally is Hashem, and this faith creates a dependable joy, a firm foundation which leads to a positive, happy outlook in our lives.
And the fourth theme, the feeling of confidence, self-esteem and inner unity is prevalent and apparent in Sukkot, because it occurs right after Yom Kippur, where we are cleansed from sin and guilt, where we feel renewed and where we have moved from a state of potential non-being (death, the evil decree) to a state of being (life and anticipation of a wonderful year). There is no greater joy than this, redemption from the abyss. As the Rambam say, ‘Ein Simcha k’hatorat sfeikot,’ there is no joy greater than the resolution of uncertainty, of doubt. During the ten days of penitence we face all our inadequacies, all our creature consciousness, and walk with trepidation, till we reach the end of the journey, Yom Kippur, the day of forgiveness for our sins, and we are returned to our inner purity. We come to the conclusion that G-d knows us intimately, and that our core is holy, and we are blessed with the joy that we bring to Sukkot. We are no longer fragmentized, but are now whole and confident once more. We are in a state of joy.
May we continue to implement these four Sukkot values of joy in our community here at AJRCA, where our environment promotes a sense of belonging and acceptance of all the arba minim of our student body, where we accept diversity and difference, where unity is achieved through this acceptance, through our common goal of journeying toward G-d through the study of Torah, engaging in prayer, and cultivating good deeds; where our competence is strengthened through arduous efforts in our studies; where faith is strengthened through the study of the wisdom of our Sages and their faithful way of perceiving the world through the lens of G-d, where we learn from the models of our faithful teachers, and where we grow in self-esteem as we work on our dark places through our weekly Mussar studies.
We learn at AJRCA that it is only when we unify the disparate energies within ourselves, that we can also unify our nation. If we do not accept certain traits within ourselves we will not accept them in others and we will create discord within the community. Thus we pray today, ‘May G-d spread over us the Sukkah of peace and unity on all the people Israel, and on all the world, and we say Amen.’