A Jewish Sense of Happiness in Light of Tragedy

Our tradition teaches us that the days between Yom Kippur and Sukkot are happy days.  Our sins have been forgiven, and we are free to joyously prepare for the upcoming holiday, busying ourselves with the myriad of mitzvot including building a sukkah and acquiring our lulav and esrog.

In today’s world, both nationally and personally, these days have taken on a different color. The day after Yom Kippur started slightly different from how I had planned. My wife asked me to come home early from the gym. As soon as I came home, I felt that something was off.  

“What is it?” I asked her.

She informed me that one of my kids had knocked over the flowers I had bought for shabbat, spilling water all over my brand new laptop. Right away, I posted on Facebook that I got the special opportunity to test my patience. The psychological effect of not being a hypocrite helped me keep my cool.

Later that night, I twisted my ankle and cut my foot. Then we found out my kids had lice. Ok, new year is off to a great start!  Nothing is insurmountable, I thought. Until I read the news the next morning.

Tragic. Shocking. Terrible. No words really capture the bloodbath in Las Vegas. Unfortunately, as Jews, and as people of the world, we are not strangers to heartbreak and the incomprehensible tragedy of terror.   What challenges me is how do we try to understand the message in light of the upcoming holiday of Sukkot?  On one hand, we no longer have prophecy, so this and every occurrence is obscured in its broader meaning. On the other hand, nothing is happenstance, and it is incumbent on us to reflect.

Sukkot is the time of our happiness when historically the ancient Israelite farmers could reflect on their bountiful harvest.  In contemporary society, we count our blessings, and celebrate having come through the high holiday season now free of sin with a new focus and meaning in our lives.  But there is a deeper idea going on here; a story of security and vulnerability, and our fragile psychological state.

One of the recurring themes of Sukkot is the cataclysmic struggle between Israel and the nations that will precede the final redemption.  R’ Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that the ideological root of the conflict is represented by the solid roof of the nations, versus the temporary and flimsy schach (roof of the sukkah), under which the Jewish people dwell during the seven days of sukkot.  

Our nation was born in uncertainty.  For forty years we survived in the desert.  G-d took care of our every need.  He provided us food from the heavens, shelter from the elements, and a clear direction of where to go and how to proceed.  It took this forty year period to impress into our DNA that we were entirely dependent on G-d for our survival and our direction in life.  

Compare this to the fact that each generation after the flood of Noah had to deal with the existential reality that the world could be destroyed.  The subsequent generation sought to wage war with G-d to calm this existential reality of man’s vulnerability.  A revered rabbi of mine once commented that ever since the flood, the human race has worried about the reality of the world coming to an end (black plague, nuclear war, etc) and sought to build protective measures to in someway convince themselves they weren’t so frail.

This was never the approach of the Jewish people.  We say explicitly on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur that mankind is very frail, and completely insignificant compared to the eternal nature of G-d.  The root of the happiness of Sukkot is recognizing that our greatest certainty is that we can’t protect ourselves, and instead we must rely on G-d.  

There is no question that this ‘happiness’ is at times very scary.  We can only achieve complete security when we leave our homes and brave the elements in our flimsy huts.  But, as the Torah tells us Sukkot and its lessons are “an eternal decree for your generations.”

Our generation is characterized by tragedy and random acts that could drive a person crazy.  Social media makes us feel the violence in its immediacy and detail in ways never before possible in human history.  However, the lessons of Sukkot remain the same; the world was never meant to be secure.  Life is, as R’ Nachman of Breslov says, a very narrow bridge.  The most important thing is not to be afraid.  

And more than not be afraid.  On Sukkot we have to be happy.  The Goan of Vilna writes that this is one the most difficult mitzvot.  Happiness isn’t a cheap smile or laugh.  It’s a profound realization that G-d has and will always be there for us, no matter how stormy the world appears.  And as we go into Sukkot with this heavy news nationally, and with some of the now completely inconsequential issues in my personal life like the loss of property and some physical pain, it’s a lesson that couldn’t be more relevant.

About the Author
Rabbi Rupp grew up as a reform Jew. He began to learn more about his heritage while in college, which lead him to Jerusalem where he became an orthodox rabbi. Having come from a broken home, Jacob was fixated on the idea of how to build a happy home life, which also pushed him in his mission. After becoming a rabbi, he lost 100lbs, and developed a life mission to bring Jewish values and concepts to Jews and humanity.
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