Sunday, September 22, 2013

Why and How Rejoicing on Sukkot Is a Mitzvah

There was a time when I thought of Sukkot as some antiquated agrarian celebration. However, after spending this past Sukkot with some great friends, I realized that Sukkot is more than just a harvest holiday, "The Feast of Booths," or even a pilgrimage holiday. My friends showed me why Sukkot is known as "the time of our rejoicing" (זמן שמחתינו). The simplest reason for Sukkot being considered a time of rejoicing comes straight from the Torah:

ושמחתם לפני אדני אלהיכם שבעת ימים
"And for seven days you shall rejoice before G-d." -Leviticus 23:40 (also see Deuteronomy 16:14

Knowing me, "because the Torah says so" has never been a satisfactory explanation unto itself because it leaves a lot to be desired, particularly on a level of spiritual meaning. When I hear that "rejoicing on Sukkot" is a mitzvah, it brings up a few issues. One, how can G-d command any emotion, never mind that it's happiness, for an entire week? Two, we are explicitly commanded to live in a simplistic, temporary construct for the duration of the holiday, during which one is to "endure Mother Nature at her finest." That doesn't seem all that joyful. Three, this holiday does not commemorate any major event in history. If I were to designate a time of year for rejoicing, it would be Purim. The Jewish people avoided genocide, which is something worth celebrating. We eat, dress in costumes, and even have a few drinks. So how did Sukkot end up being the Jewish holiday for rejoicing?

Going into further detail of what exactly a sukkah is can help answer these questions. A sukkah is a temporary dwelling constructed for Sukkot. The sides of the structure is typically made of wood (although the sides can be made of metal or other materials), and the roof covering is made of material that grew from the earth, but is disconnected from it (e.g., wood, palm leaves, bamboo sticks). The sukkah is ideally a construct au naturel, derived from natural and organic materials. The sukkah is to be constructed under open skies so we can be exposed as possible to the elements of nature. With that brief description in mind, let's list some reasons as to how Sukkot is a festival of rejoicing, and how it can be construed as a commandment:
  1. Ancient Israeli society was an agrarian society. Since the fruits of one's labor have been gathered, one rejoices for a good harvest, regardless of how it turned out, because one is thankful for the sustenance that G-d provides.
  2. Sukkot comes right after the High Holy Days. On Yom Kippur, we contemplate the importance of teshuvah and how we should prioritize our lives. The juxtaposition of Yom Kippur and Sukkot gives us joy because G-d gave us a positive judgment, and we are able to start off with a clean slate (R. Shlomo Wolbe). Additionally, if we are to start the year "with a clean slate," especially if it is meant to be a joyous year that was better than the last, we cannot end with the holidays with chest-thumping and guilt-tripping. G-d placed Sukkot where He did so that we can both start the New Year and finish the holidays on a positive note.   
  3. The sukkah becomes a metaphor for life: fragile, uncertain, ephemeral. Our exposure to nature illustrates just how little control we can have over life. The rejoicing comes from the fact that "everything is in G-d's hands (Rashbam's commentary on Leviticus 23:43)."
  4. Since I don't believe in a personal G-d, I don't personally buy #3, although there are a good amount of Jews that do. Yes, the sukkah becomes a metaphor for life: fragile, uncertain, ephemeral. Given the nomadic nature of the Jews wandering in the desert (See Point #6), the sukkah can be interpreted as a manifestation of the "wandering Jew 'in exile," which is symbolic of how we should never be complacent in our surroundings. Even so, the message ultimately is that we don't need to be afraid of anything external. Rather than life live in a self-enclosure (i.e., the home), we become exposed to the elements (i.e., the ups and downs of life) in order come to terms with and be at peace both with who we are and with our environment. (R. Yitzhak Berkovits). This realization brings us joy, which is the ultimate antidote to fear.
  5. The sukkah represents the simplest form of living, which is the entire point. On Sukkot, we are not supposed to live in luxury because we are to realize that happiness does not come from material goods. As Hillel said (Pirke Avot 2:8), "the more possessions, the more worry," which is to say that people either fear loss of their material possessions or worry about the jealousy of others. We should not put such emphasis on our homes or material possessions, but in something more transcendent. And we should do so because people have a tendency to conflate physical fulfillment with spiritual fulfillment. In Judaism, most acts are not intrinsically mundane. Sukkot is a great reminder that we are able to elevate the physical and mundane into something more holy, and for that opportunity, we should be happy, even when inhabiting the simplest of constructs. As Ben Zoma points out (Pirke Avot 4:1), "Who is rich? The person who is happy with their lot."
  6. The festival of Sukkot commemorates the forty years spent in the desert. Part of having been freed from Egypt and being free person endowed with free will is to accept the daily challenges of existence, and to do so with a sense of fulfillment and joy.
  7. Happiness is not something we acquire; it is a byproduct of what we accomplish, and to what and to whom we connect. Within the mitzvah to rejoice, G-d is not commanding us to feel an emotion. G-d knows that it is not easy to be happy because there will always be stress in life. Rather, G-d gave us an opportunity to create our own happiness during Sukkot or any other time of year for that matter. G-d is commanding us to partake in certain actions, i.e., externalities [that we Jewishly call mitzvahs], to induce happiness. During the holiday, we enjoy time both at synagogue and at home. We are engaged both with our family and friends. We even give tzedakah and pray for guests (אושפיזין) to come to the sukkah, as a gesture of hospitality. To quote R. Avraham Weiss, "Spirituality means encountering the moment, being conscious of the moment, while recognizing G-d's role in the moment." What does this R. Weiss quote have to do with Sukkot? The mitzvah of living in the sukkah is one of the only mitzvahs that utilizes the entire body (the other one is walking in the land of Israel). This mitzvah involves the entirety of our physicality. Much like with the mitzvah of living in the sukkah, being happy entails our entirety. By pursuing the mitzvahs pertaining to Sukkot and spending time with others, what it helps us recognize is that by realizing our purpose in life and opting to pursue that purpose, we can choose to be happy and partake in actions that increase our overall happiness.

Regardless of which reasons work best for you, I hope that you find happiness and joy during this Sukkot.

חג סוכות שמח!

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