Sukkot: Finding Joy in a Tumultuous World
How the Sukkot holiday helps us navigate today’s chaotic times.
The world is by many measures in chaos: political polarization, racial tensions, economic uncertainty, inequality and intolerance of many stripes. On top of it, extreme weather and coronavirus strike widely and with seeming reckless abandon, leaving us to suffer the consequences and seeking solutions to the angst.
How does the holiday of Sukkot help us navigate these chaotic times?
The Simcha Solution
Sukkot is described as the season of happiness: “Rejoice on [the Sukkot] festival... and you shall have only joy” (Deuteronomy 16:14-15), and in the holiday prayers as “the time of our joy” (Z’man Simcha’teinu).
What is the key to happiness? And is it realistic to be joyful, even when we don't feel like it?
The Mishnah (Avot 4:1) reveals a simple yet profound answer:
“Who is wealthy? One who is happy with his portion.”
Happiness is not an externally-generated "happening" predicated on thrilling experiences or a happiness pill. Happiness is a state of mind. By mastering the art of noticing, appreciating and consciously enjoying what you already have, you will always be happy.
Let’s understand how the symbols and traditions of the Sukkot holiday lead us to a state joy.
Temporal Sukkah Huts
The Torah (Numbers 23:42) declares: “You shall dwell in sukkot huts for seven days.” Displaced from our usual creature comforts, the sukkah shifts our focus to greater spiritual yearnings that define our human essence.
It’s fine to have a nice home, nice car, and nice clothes. But we sometimes fall into a mode of considering this world a “permanent dwelling” – i.e., treating physical and material pursuits as life’s ultimate purpose. Moving into a frail, temporary dwelling – devoid of comforts and conveniences – reminds us that true, inner joy is a spiritual matter, coming with the recognition that this world is temporary.
The ability to rise above material considerations is uniquely pertinent to the Jewish people who – as "wandering Jews" uprooted from our homes and communities for millennia – have come to rely on the deeper joy of the spiritual realm, independent of material possessions.
Over the prior weeks of Elul, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, we’ve been ascending a spiritual ladder, working to connect with the “ultimate pleasure” of experiencing the Divine.
At the top of this ladder is Sukkot. Through all the High Holidays, we arrived at a place where we don’t need plumbing, air conditioning, or a comfortable bed. We don’t need locked doors and alarm systems. We only want to be with God.
A kosher sukkah requires two walls plus a partial third wall. Imagine an upper arm as one wall, a forearm as a second wall, and a hand as the third, partial wall. In the sukkah, we are completely immersed in the cradling arms of God.
Think of it as camping out under the stars, connecting beyond self. To be exactly where you want to be, totally surrounded by the joyous experience of Divine connection.
Joy of Harvest
Sukkot is described as “the harvest festival, at the end of the year, when you gather your produce from the field” (Exodus 23:16).
In what way does the harvest – symbolized by our waving the four agricultural species – relate to joyous celebration?
As explained by Rabbi Eliyahu E. Dessler (Michtav M’Eliyahu – vol. 5, p. 12), the juxtaposition of the "material joy" of the harvest with Sukkot’s "spiritual joy" teaches that material joy is a springboard to spiritual joy.
Material pleasures are not a be-all end-all. Rather, we examine our material possessions – money, car, home – and think how to elevate them for a higher purpose. In this way, these two elements work together, transforming our joy into a higher, complete level of joy.
This is a great differentiator between Judaism and other spiritual paths. Throughout history, diverse approaches have been proposed to the theological conundrum of physicality (eating, sleeping, cohabiting, etc.) coexisting with the spiritual enlightenment we’re trying to achieve.
Ascetics reject physical and material pleasures, viewing physical pleasure as a necessary evil, preferably to be avoided. Buddhist monks meditate alone on a mountaintop or retreat to an out-of-the-way monastery. Christianity looks askance at sex as an expression of man’s sinful nature; the truly "spiritual" person, the priest or nun, is to remain celibate.
Hedonists embrace materialism as an end unto itself. The Greek’s naked Olympics, and the Roman vomitoria and gladiator sports championed a worship of physical and material pleasure.
Torah charts a middle path, neither worshipping nor rejecting the physical-material realm. Rising above this, Torah views the physical world as the portal to higher, transcendent pleasures, where every item and moment is vested with creative potential to experience the Divine.
Rather than retreat from life, Jewish spirituality comes through grappling with the mundane world in a way that uplifts and elevates. We recite blessings before food as a means to connect. On Friday night, we raise the cup of wine – not to get drunk – but to make Kiddush and sanctify the Sabbath day.
Indeed, Maimonides (Shemoneh Perakim 5:2) explains the purpose of everything – from financial wealth to physical conditioning to the study of science – is for the purpose of noble endeavors like the acquisition of wisdom and refinement of character. As Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin writes (Ru’ach Chaim 2:12), the verse, “Know God in all your ways” (Proverbs 3:6), teaches that all one’s drives should be directed toward Higher Purpose.
The harvest symbolizes the idea that whatever our involvement in the physical activities of everyday life, whether interacting with family or in the check-out line at the supermarket, we can realign with this great truth by stopping in the moment to ask:
Right now, what can I do better (e.g., be kinder or more patient, etc.) to raise the level of this activity?
How can I incorporate more points of reflection and gratitude to elevate this activity to the higher, spiritual realm?
This is the great opportunity of Sukkot. In a world full of chaotic distractions, Sukkot is the spiritual rudder to help navigate the stormy waves, focusing our gaze toward deeper dimensions.
In memory of Moshe Bergman of Jerusalem, a father of 4 young children who died on Rosh Hashanah.
Photo Credit: Robert Collins, Unsplash