It was nonstop partying, day and night, for days on end.
There was pageantry, with musicians playing countless musical instruments. The greatest rabbis danced before the assembled crowds of men, women, and children. They also juggled torches and performed daring acts of acrobatic prowess.
That was how it was done at the Beit Shoeva celebration during the Sukkot festival, in the Temple period.
Our celebrations today are more subdued, but they are no less joyful. We gather family and friends to partake in festive meals al fresco, in the temporary booths — called sukkot — that we’ve erected outdoors. The occasion is an experience of pure joy. There is much for which to be grateful. We’ve prayed, fasted, performed acts of contrition, confessed, repented our sins, and through God’s perennial gift of Yom Kippur, been forgiven.
We survived and have a new lease on life.
Gratitude is a powerful emotion. It may be defined as a person’s recognition that the good he or she experiences is due, at least in part, to something outside of his or her self. It is the subject of a number of scientific studies, which analyzed some of the benefits resulting from expressing and feeling gratitude. They include better physical and mental health; greater mental strength and resiliency; a sense of overall well-being, happiness, and reduced depression; forming and building stronger relationships; and connecting to something larger than the person, like a higher power.
One of the studies found scientific evidence that these positive effects of gratitude are long lasting and sustainable. Interestingly, this required more than just an unexpressed feeling of gratefulness; it had to be combined with some action. The study relied on the act of expressing gratitude by recording it in a journal. It found that repeatedly expressing gratitude and the resulting good feelings experienced, in effect, caused the brain to be rewired. In essence, the more gratitude practiced, the more attuned the person becomes to it; and correspondingly, the more the person could enjoy the psychological benefits it engendered. It became a self-perpetuating feature.
These are extraordinary benefits. Who would have thought that by simply expressing gratitude such overwhelmingly good results could be achieved? Is it any wonder then that we are commanded to begin the new year by showing our gratitude through the joyful celebration of the holiday of Sukkot?
I remember well when we first arrived in New York City, in the late 1950s. We lived in an apartment on Eastern Parkway, in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood. We didn’t have our own sukkah and shared the use of communal sukkot with others. There we would meet members of our extended family, friends, fellow members of the synagogue, and strangers. Everyone was cordial, in keeping with Sukkot’s festive nature. We all became one happy family, enjoying the setting, the holiday atmosphere, and each other’s company.
The simplicity of the setting fostered an informal and relaxed atmosphere. As children, we much appreciated the freedom it afforded. Apartments were small and eating areas even more so. We would feel so constrained when our parents entertained company and we had to sit quietly and not spill or break anything at a formal meal. In the sukkah, there was no wallpaper to stain or fine furniture to scratch. We were encouraged to sing and enjoy the occasion, like everyone else.
Sometimes we visited the great sukkot of the Lubavitcher and Bobover rebbes nearby. These were special occasions. As young children, it was difficult to see above the crowd. My father, of blessed memory, would raise us up above his head to glimpse a peek of the rebbe and take in what was going on around us. The rhythmic swaying and singing of the masses of people gathered to celebrate mesmerized us.
I also remember the presents that my dad, of blessed memory, gave to mom and each of us on Sukkot and the other Jewish holidays. It was only much later when I studied Talmud, that I learned that this was an ancient custom. It was designed to provide a tangible means for sharing the joy and creating a spirit of happiness in the home. It gave everyone a reason to rejoice on the holiday.
The meals also were special and included wine for kiddush, gefilte fish, meat, and a cake mom baked for dessert. On Simchat Torah, during the second day of Sukkot, there was also homemade stuffed cabbage. Mom also stocked up on nuts, dried fruits, chocolates and other store-bought sweets for the holidays. We didn’t get treats like this every day and we were very grateful. It fostered our sense that the holidays were a special time and encouraged our observance. It created an atmosphere of excitement and helped bring joy into the home.
Maimonides discusses the special commandment to be exceedingly joyful on Sukkot. It certainly is about enjoying the festive meals, but he cautions that there is more than just that. It is important to invite the less fortunate to share in the holiday meals. Limiting the experience to the personal pleasure of digesting a good meal is not the joyful observance of the commandment; it’s about sharing the joy with others.
There are also other boundaries on behavior that must be observed. Thus, drunkenness, levity, and foolishness are inappropriate. At the same time, he cautions that a person not be too haughty and dignified to express joy. Each day of the holiday observance should also be divided so that a part is devoted to prayer and Torah study too. The combination of all these wonderful experiences is a part of what makes Sukkot so special.
The Talmud states if you do something wholeheartedly, then God will help you to succeed. The divine presence rests on a person because of his or her joy in performing a commandment. The psychic reward of doing something joyfully, with all your heart, is enormous.
I do believe that this is one of the distinguishing characteristics of Torah observance. It requires that both the mind and body be engaged in doing something. Thinking about it alone doesn’t do the trick. Mindlessly doing something is also not as satisfying. It’s the combination, which yields a wonderful feeling of accomplishment and pure joy. It truly is one of the secrets of life.
Let’s spread the good vibrations by inviting one and all to share in festive meals in the sukkah. Spice it up with a pithy d’var Torah and the singing of upbeat holiday tunes. When we were young, we participated in sukkah hops, walking from sukkah to sukkah to bring the exultation of song and good cheer to everyone. Don’t miss the opportunity to experience the joy of Sukkot.