Sukkot Drash

Sukkot 5772 October 12-21, 2011

“Happiness, Faith, and Peace”
By Rabbi Mel Gottlieb, Ph.D. President, AJRCA  


The holiday of Sukkot is known as ‘Zman Simchateinu,’ the ‘time of our joy.’ Three times the word ‘happiness’ is mentioned in conjunction with this holiday. There are many classical reasons given for this. One reason is that Sukkot occurs right after Yom Kippur, when we feel cleansed of our sins, renewed, and relieved from the burden of guilt or uncertainty. We have reached an inner sense of clarity, and commitment and purpose for the year ahead, and a conviction of our special goals based on the gifts that Hashem has bestowed upon us. We have come in touch with the special destiny that was set out for us before our birth, and feel empowered to actualize our destiny, even with the labor required to do so. Thus the Rambam says: “Ein Simcha k’Hatorat Sfeikot,” there is no greater joy than the resolution of doubts. So we begin with alacrity, and zeal to build the Succah, plan our guest list, invite family and friends, unseen but felt guests (The Energies of the Holy Ancestors called the ‘Ushpizin’), and the Shechinah who comes to dwell with us under the stars. Sometimes uninvited guests show up unexpectedly as well, such as crickets, hungry dogs that smell the sumptuous feast and, most significantly, people who wander the streets hoping for a serendipitous invitation and it is considered a mitzvah to invite them to join us. Thus giving to others also creates joy within on Sukkot.

Another reason given for its joyous energy is that Sukkot promotes a sense of unity, and when we feel harmony within and social connection to others, a sense of joy is born. The mitzvah of ‘Hakheil’ (gather together as a congregation) is unique to Sukkot. In this mitzvah all units in Israel are commanded to come to Jerusalem, men, women, and children. So the entire nation gathers together in the city of peace, for the purpose of serving G-d in joy on the holiday, making it a time of abundant happiness. Many of us have experienced Sukkot in Jerusalem where Sukkot are seen throughout the city, and masses of people march to the Kotel to pray together. There is a spiritual charge as we feel a sense of peoplehood with a common goal, to celebrate the gift of life and love while imbibing from the sparks of humanity, and our innate loneliness and alienation are assuaged. We recognize that we subliminally always yearn for the ‘touch of the Other,’ be it G-d directly, or the image of G-d residing in the love and acceptance of the other who sees our special humanity as well. So when there is unity, there is abundant happiness.

The mitzvah of the ‘Four Species,’ as well signifies the unity that we experience during the holiday, and thus joy. For we take four different types of species, the Lulav, the Etrog, the Willow and the Myrtle, which the Rabbis point out all have different energies, each of which make up a unique part of the Jewish people and the world. At that moment of the mitzvah, we are able to experience what it feels like to accept or feel the acceptance of others who are different from us; that we can see their humanity and they can see ours; that it does not matter whether one is an Orthodox Jew, or a Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal, or Humanist Jew. We see beyond the labels and experience that in the depths of the heart of each one is the same desire to connect to G-d, to the Jewish People, to the gift of the Torah, and to all humanity. This is an exhilirating moment of unity, which the bringing together of different groups of fruits or people suggest. Somehow, at that moment, even the opposing forces within ourselves as well, find harmony: the Lulav, (spine), the Aravot (lips), the Hadassim (eyes) and the Etrog (the heart) all operate in symphonic union. We find the courage (spine) to say (lips) what the heart (Etrog) sees (Hadassim)! In actuality, only when we find unity within, can we find unity without and not project our discord onto others. Only when we are Yashar, (the Hebrew word meaning ‘straight’), can we engage in Shir (the Hebrew word for ‘song’). The Rabbis created this teaching because Yashar and Shir contain the same exact letters!

Furthermore, the Hebrew word associated with the last day of the holiday is Atzeret (Congregation-connoting unity), and it is the day when all the special light and joy of the holiday comes together. In our days, we celebrate it as Simchat Torah where we dance in ecstasy with the Torah scroll, singing and dancing and drinking and our souls reach a state of unity with each other, G-d and the Torah. It is the favorite holiday of so many young Jews, who expend boundless energy in ecstatic dancing. I remember in the days of my youth, when the entire community in Washington Heights in upper Manhattan outside Yeshiva University would pack the streets and dance with the Torah for hours, rising higher and higher in spiritual exaltation, from that moment of unity. The niggunim would never end, until the head Rabbi would signal that it was time to move on to the next circle dance (Hakafa).

In ancient days, the last day of Sukkot was spent celebrating the water libation ceremony, the pouring of water on the sacrificial altar, accompanied by music and song. This ceremony celebrated the recognition of the gift of water (nature), and also the attempt to unify the heavenly and earthly worlds.  For according to our sages, this pouring of water comes as a fulfillment of the promise to the waters on earth, appeasing them because the waters originally belonged to the Heavenly world but they were brought down here by G-d in order for the earth to flourish. The waters were promised that they would be raised to their heavenly state again, and this occurred on the last day of Sukkot. So this unification of the upper and lower worlds was accompanied by such joy, by the experience of the unity of both worlds, and the recognition that we are each heavenly as well as earthly beings, souls within bodies. The bond between both worlds are strong, we know who we truly are and feel sublime happiness because of this knowledge. Thus the Talmud in Sukkah 53 teaches us that on this day the most serene and modest scholars, danced in ecstasy and did cartwheels and spontaneous outlandish dancing as an expression of soulful elation. These festivities were called ‘Simchat Beit Hashoe’vah.’ (‘The joy of the water drawing’, where the spirit of holiness was drawn, for the spirit of holiness rests only on a heart filled with joy). The Talmud says : ‘One who has not seen the rejoicing at the place of the water-drawing has never seen rejoicing in his or her life.’ It was held in the outer Temple courtyard; a small space where tens of thousands of people miraculously fit in. There were enormous lamps lit in this place as well, and the people danced with these lit torches in their hands and sang as the Levites played their harps, trumpets and other musical instruments. This is the joy of Sukkot, a moment of great connection to Hashem and G-d’s manifestation in nature.

A final reason for joy is the foundation of FAITH that the Sukkah is built upon. We leave our secure homes to live in a flimsy Sukkah, affirming that G-d is the loving protector of each of us even in the most temporary, weak structure. We intuit that the security that we derive from strong structures is only an illusion, for there too it is only through G-d’s protection that we thrive and survive. This FAITH is the true secret of happiness. When we feel G-d’s love for us in nature, and deep in our soul, we are filled with both gratitude and confidence. The clouds of glory above the Sukkah are always there protecting us, so we open up in gratitude to the love that hovers above us, to all that we have in our lives, and do not yearn for what we do not have. G-d’s bounty is always with us, if we but open to it. So the holiday of Sukkot teaches us the secret of joy though faith, gratitude and connection to others.

Let us feel G-d’s love on this holiday, and learn to LOVE ourselves as a result. Let us really CONNECT to the people whom we invite to our Sukkah, and derive joy from honest communication and intimacy. Let us be GRATEFUL for the sumptuous feast we are imbibing and remember all that we are grateful for every day. Let us MOVE OUR BODIES and dance up a storm on Simchat Torah, and feel energized. Let us HELP OTHERS, by inviting those who may not have a place to eat into our Sukkah, and extend our giving energy to other communal institutions. Giving enhances living. And let us GO OUTSIDE to Mother Nature, dancing outside the shul on Simchat Torah, looking up at the stars. This will make you feel energized, enthusiastic and very Happy!

So ask yourself this holiday of Sukkot, what makes YOU happy? And be sure to follow your discovery the rest of the year! Happy Sukkot!