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Sukkot: Harvesting Joy

May 9, 2009 | by Dina Coopersmith

Why is joy the essence of Sukkot?

The holiday of Sukkot is referred to as "the time of our joy." The Torah, when describing this holiday, enjoins us particularly:

"And you should be happy before God for seven days." (Leviticus 23:40)

Every holiday has a special spiritual energy that best encapsulates the day – Passover is "the time of freedom" and Shavuot is "the time of the giving of the Torah."

What is so special about Sukkot that makes joy it's spiritual force more than any other holiday? Surely it is more than just the sense of relief we feel after the seriousness of the "Days of Awe" and the fasting on Yom Kippur.

Sukkot in the Desert

The Torah gives the following reason for building and dwelling in the Sukkah:

" that your generations will know that in Sukkot I placed the Jewish people when I took them out of the land of Egypt." (Leviticus 23:43)

On the surface, it seems that this is another holiday commemorating the Exodus from Egypt and the particular mode of accommodation or protection we received. Some commentaries say it was not actual huts but rather clouds of glory which protected the Jewish people from the elements, and that is what we are reenacting and experiencing each year during the week of Sukkot.

In that case, shouldn't the holiday be celebrated in the spring, along with Passover – the time we actually left Egypt? Why celebrate this Exodus-related miracle in Tishrei, the first month of the year? (It's pretty jam-packed with holidays already!) And why does this specific element of God's relationship with His people – the huts and/or clouds of glory – induce such happiness?

Source Of Happiness

Happiness comes from a feeling of completion. The opposite is also true – if one loses someone with whom he had a relationship, and he feels a lack, that something is missing, then he becomes unhappy and mourns. (Maharal, Netivot Olam, ch. 18)

When we sense we are lacking something, we are unhappy.

Perhaps Sukkot is the time of joy because it is then that we feel complete:

When you harvest your crops from your granary and your vineyard, you should be happy on your holiday, you and your children...(Deuteronomy 16:13)

Does our joy come from the feeling that we have so much grain and fruit and we have accomplished so much in the past year, that we are lacking nothing?

It seems an odd way to celebrate our wealth by leaving all sense of material stability behind, and stepping into a temporary hut made of wood covered by a roof of branches that doesn't even protect us from the elements. Where's all the wealth that should be making us happy?

This is exactly the point:

"No one leaves this world with half his desires fulfilled."
"A person who has one hundred wants two hundred." (Kohelet Rabbah 1:13)

We never feel we have enough material goods. The more "stuff" we have, the more we need. Physical pleasures for their own sake, leave us yearning, feeling empty and lacking. Even your most favorite food will quickly turn on you and become detestable if you eat too much of it.

Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, in his book Daat Tevunot, explains why this is so. He compares our soul to a fine princess married to a lowly peasant. The more he tries to appease her and shower her with the kinds of base pleasures to which he is accustomed, the sadder she becomes. She can't possibly bring herself to eat her husband's loathsome offerings, and all she remembers is how fine and sophisticated her life used to be by comparison.

So too, when we try and fill our lives with money, food, clothing, fleeting physical pleasures – all as an end unto themselves – our soul remains unfulfilled, yearning for the real pleasures she remembers: spirituality, meaning and a connection to God.

If, on the other hand, the princess slowly educates her husband and provides opportunities for him to experience the finer things in life – the arts, travel, theater, the opera (okay, maybe that's going a bit too far!) – she's satisfied, and the peasant is only richer and happier as a result.

When we eat, drink, wear nice clothes and enjoy the physical world as a means of relating to God, as part of a mitzvah, we elevate and sanctify this world, and create a "dwelling place" for God among us. This is what truly satisfies the soul and creates ultimate serenity and joy.

It's like buying a coffee and croissant "to go" and stuffing your face in the car as you negotiate the traffic on your way to work, versus dining out at a fine restaurant with a beloved friend or soul mate. The former is a mundane act done without any higher awareness, while the latter is a meaningful, pleasurable and often memorable experience.

It's the difference between the quick, fleeting pleasure of eating, and the longer-lasting, more real pleasure of love and relationship.

On Sukkot, the mundane acts of eating, drinking and sleeping become elevated - done in the midst of a relationship with God.

On Sukkot, we are commanded to leave our permanent dwellings and transfer our daily mode of living to the Sukkah. The mundane, neutral acts of eating, drinking and sleeping thereby become sanctified and elevated because they are done in the midst of cultivating a relationship with God.

When we leave our stable houses and solid roofs over our heads and go out into shaky huts under the stars, we are essentially placing ourselves under the protection of God's glory, or as the Zohar puts it:

"He who sits in the Sukkah, is in the shade of Emunah (belief) and no one can harm him because God is spreading His wings over him like a mother protects her children."

The belief that shields us is the trust in God's eternal direct supervision for each and every one of us and His continuous, constant love and care for His people. Everything we have, all the blessings in our lives, are from Him and He knows what we need and provides it for us. When we feel that, we can't be lacking.

This gives us a hint as to the root cause of the special joy on this holiday. It is a time when we re-experience that special protection we were given when we left Egypt.

It might be a good idea to sit in the Sukkah with our families and friends and verbally recount our blessings, tell stories of God's supervision and help in times of difficulty, talk of the numerous gifts God has showered upon us during our lives. This is one method to come in contact with the spiritual energy that is the essence of the holiday: our trust in God's care. This is the real happiness for which we are all yearning.

The Wedding Canopy

But why do we celebrate Sukkot now, after the High Holidays?

An understanding of the timing of this particular spiritual joy can be gained from the realization that in Kabbalistic sources, the Sukkah symbolizes the wedding canopy – the "chuppah" that hovers over the bride and groom as they enter into a covenant of mutual commitment and exclusivity. It is the time the Song of Songs refers to when it says:

"The King has brought me into His chambers, we will be joyful and happy together." (Song of Songs)

After Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, when we resolved theoretically to commit to God and enter into His covenant, with all its entailing responsibilities, now comes action – the joyous celebration of intimacy and communion – the wedding.

Joy can also be a barometer by which we gauge how much love and care exist in a relationship between two people.

The Slonimer Rebbe, in his work "Netivot Shalom," tells of an errant prince who left the king's palace and distanced himself for a while, and then decided to return. The king, of course, was delighted, but always entertained the nagging thought that perhaps his son returned out of fear of punishment and not out of true love – in which case, he may leave again at any time.

His worries continued until the day he noticed his son whistling and humming happily to himself as he went about his daily chores. Now he knew the son was happy to be home and had returned out of love.

We too, have spent more than a month in a spirit of repentance, returning to God, changing our faulty traits and correcting our past mistakes. But were we perhaps motivated by the fear of being sealed in the "Book of Death" or of being given a less than sweet year? When we engage in the mitzvot of Sukkot, busily decorating and shopping, happily searching for the finest "Four Species," we show God and ourselves that we have returned to Him out of love, that we truly desire a relationship with Him and we won't leave again.

Sukkot is a time when we solidify through action all the theoretical commitments and resolutions we took upon ourselves during the "days of awe." We shake the Four Species, symbolizing the main sources of desire and action:

  • Etrog – which resembles the human heart.
  • Lulav (Palm Branch) – the spine, which connects the brain's messages to the rest of the body.
  • Hadassim (Myrtle Leaves) – which look like eyes, symbolizing visual desires: "The eye sees and then the heart covets."
  • Aravot (Willows) – which resemble lips, connoting activities connected with speech and eating.

On Sukkot, we sanctify and use these powers and desires to grow and become closer to our Creator. We bask in His love and protection, trust that He takes care of all our needs and show Him how happy we are to be home.

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