Sukkot is a particularly festive and beloved holiday, and indeed, the Torah specifically commands us to be joyful on these days [Deut. 16:14]. The uniquely celebratory nature of Sukkot is perhaps best demonstrated by the special water-drawing celebration in the Temple, Simchat Beit Hashoeva, which took place during the intermediate days of Sukkot.
Our Sages taught that the impact of this event was such that “there wasn’t a courtyard in Jerusalem that wasn’t illuminated by the light of the Simchat Beit Hashoeva.” This and other elements of the event led the Sages to declare that “one who hadn’t witnessed the ecstatic joy of that moment never experienced true joy” [Mishnah, Sukkah 5:1-3].
So great was this joy that our rabbis had to institute the reading of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes), which questions the very efficacy of joy: “What does this accomplish?” In other words, how do we explain this joy, and more specifically, how is it connected to the holiday of Sukkot? Logic would have it that we would find it difficult and tiresome to move from our permanent homes to a makeshift booth. Why, then, should this evoke any joy in us?
I would like to share two explanations, which are not necessarily mutually exclusive.
One is that for forty days, between the beginning of the month of Elul and Yom Kippur, we all undergo a complex and trying process of soul-searching and self-exposure, waking up at the crack of dawn for Selichot (penitential prayers) and exclaiming what we feel in our hearts, sometimes tearfully.
The days before Yom Kippur are filled with fear and apprehension of an imminent verdict. Finally, we reach a turning point – justice has been finalized. We hope and believe that we were inscribed for life, and that, God-willing, we will merit a good and meaningful life. This is our reason to rejoice.
Another explanation is that we relate to a permanent home, with its four concrete walls and its steadfast ceiling, as our personal fortress, protecting us from our surroundings. Occasionally, though, this structure can obstruct connections between us and our environment, including relationships with other people, with the outdoors, and even with ourselves. In this generation, technology has completely enveloped us, often preventing us from listening to ourselves and the voice of our souls beckoning deep within us.
Leaving that fortress and going out to the Sukkah allows us come back to ourselves and to nature, spending time with friends and hearing the birds chirping overhead. It restores our confidence in our ability to coexist with the rest of the word. This is the real source of our joy.
The High Holy Days were never meant to keep us in a constant state of fear and apprehension. The Torah wants us to go back to living, but only after “recalibrating” ourselves. Returning to nature is not a cliche; it is a compass that the Torah has given to human beings to enable us to go back to who we are.
For good reason, our rabbis felt that living within a Sukkah is akin to being taken under the wings of faith and the Divine Presence. In doing so, we break down the screens and the walls in our lives, and focus on living with ourselves and our values, drawing strength for an entire year to come. This is truly a season worthy of rejoicing.
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