Welcome to The Season of Our Joy! Z’MAN SIMCHATEINU! And what are we so happy about, exactly! The guilt over our sins has, by this point in Tishre, been replaced by the guilt over our waxing waist lines. I imagine that when our ancestors were farmers the joy of the season was spontaneous and profound. But most of us find agriculture alien if not downright distasteful. My visits to farms tended to be disturbing. They usual end with me questioning my dietary choices. So, once more unto the breach to discover the joys of Sukkot.
We are generally aware that CHAGIM, Jewish holidays, obligate us in the mitzva of SIMCHAT HaCHAG. The most famous compendium of Mitzvot, Sefer HaChinuch explains that this joy is connected to the obligation for us to bring offerings in the Beit HaMikdash. Those offerings were consumed by the celebrants themselves. This brings us to the extension of that concept by the Sages, who inform us that SIMCHA requires the consumption of meat and wine. But is that enough?
No. The Talmud explains that profound joy requires the participation of the entire family (Pesachim 109a). The joy also extends to music and fine clothing. In other words, a family celebration with appropriate physical pleasures.
But what’s so special about Sukkot that it is considered the paragon of SIMCHA? The Chizkuni (Chezkiah ben Manoah, 13th C., France) explains that the extra joy is related to longer sojourns in Yerushalayim. On Pesach and Shavuot, most Jews had to rush home to either plant or begin gathering produce. By Sukkot, on the other hand, everything had been harvested. Proximity to the Beit HaMikdash and its KEDUSHA produces increased joy.
Fine. Again, but why is the term SIMCHA mentioned thrice by Sukkot (Vayikra 23:40, Devarim 16:14 & 15), however only once by Shavuot and never for Pesach? I’m going to suggest that even though the Pesach experience was wonderful, it was the beginning of an arduous journey, no smiles. Shavuot’s joy derived from receiving the Torah, history’s greatest gift. What are the three joys of Sukkot?
I believe that two of them are obvious. When you read the verses about Sukkot in Vayikra (chapter 23, verses 33-43), you’ll notice that the material divides neatly into two sections. The first emphasizes rest and offerings. This, I would suggest is connected to the previous sections about the other holidays in Tishre, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Sukkot is a celebration of our reconciliation with God after the days of judgment and forgiveness. We’re very happy to be back in God’s good graces. The first Sukkot in the desert must have been like that, too. The Jews were relieved to have been forgiven for the sin of the Golden Calf.
The second half of this section begins with the word ACH, perhaps ‘moreover’. This is translated by the new JPS as ‘mark’, ArtScroll ‘but’, Alter ‘yet’, and Kaplan just ignores it. This section discusses the Mitzvot of Lulav & Etrog and sitting in the Sukkah, but most importantly declares: when you have gathered in the yield of your land (verse 39). Clearly, we have a harvest festival. Perhaps, the most common reason for celebrations for civilized humanity.
Great, but what’s behind door number three? What’s the third SIMCHA? There are numerous approaches to this issue. Please, allow me a personal favorite. In parshat VaYelech, we read Moshe’s instructions to the nation that after they arrive in Israel, every seven years the whole nation shall assemble in Yerushalayim to hear Torah read by our king (Devarim 31:10-13). This awesome event is called HAKHEL, and in our modern State the President symbolically performs the role of king. But this section follows the assurance that the Jews will eventually return to Israel from harsh exile (30:1-6). What if Moshe is not really speaking to the Jews who are about to enter the Land, but to their descendants of the future return?
This might sound far-fetched if it weren’t for the prediction in the Haftorah which we read on the first day of Sukkot. Zecharia tells us that in the future there will be this scary apocalypse, including earthquakes, plagues, and strange weather events. Afterwards: And it will come to pass that everyone remaining of the nations who came up against Jerusalem will go up from year to year to prostrate himself to the King, the Lord of Hosts, and to celebrate the festival of Sukkot (Zecharia 14:16). In other words, Jew and Gentile alike will celebrate Sukkot. The third joy? Anticipation for the future GEULA SHLEIMA. On Sukkot, we can almost feel it.
Bottom line: there’s a lot to be happy about on Sukkot. God forgave us, the harvest is in, and these days will witness the Final Redemption, may it happen speedily in our days. Chag Sameach, Sameach, Sameach!!!