It’s difficult to contemplate Z’man Simchateinu, The Time Of Our Joy, in the midst of a plague such as we are experiencing this year. Not only are we surrounding by illness and death that has touched almost everyone world-wide–whether you’ve lost someone in your immediate family or circle of friends, it’s almost certain you know someone who knows someone who has. Many of us are more occupied with preventing the spread of this disease than we are with our usual preparations for the chag.
Here in Jerusalem, for example, we’re in the midst of an almost total civilian lockdown. Not only has the traditional Arba Minim Shuk, the various open markets where we can purchase our etrogim and lulavim been prevented from opening, and not only are most synagogues closed or severely limited, public Sukkot are outlawed. Not only is it illegal to visit a Sukkah that’s not your own, inviting a non-immediate-family member is also illegal, bearing a 500 shekel, currently about $150, fine!
Of course we can, on our own, pray the seasonal prayers, read the yearly Torah portions, and if we previously procured a lulav we can wave that and, if we have the possibility of our own Sukkah we can eat in it, but otherwise these days look to be pretty empty, especially of joy and happiness.
Most rabbinic leaders, even of the strictest haredi, ultra-orthodox, groups, have issued halachic proclamations to avoid Sukkot that aren’t you’re own, to not pass lulavim from person to person (technically, the lulav is supposed to be owned by the person waving it, so it’s customary to “give away” yours to someone who, for whatever reason, lacks their own).
In this situation, one actually fulfills the mitzva by not fulfilling it.
“Sacrifice” is a terrible translation for the word and concept Karbon, which are the offerings we would make in the Temple, daily, and on special days. Interestingly, Sukkot is the holiday with more Karbanot, more sacrifices (that word actually does convey the concept I want to use in this instance) than any other period. There are a number of traditional reasons discussed for this, but none of these traditional explanations of Torah and halacha are specifically based in our current situation of pandemic, lockdown, isolation and transforming mitzvot from their observance to refaining from fulfilling them.
Stretching and bridging two separate languages, perhaps we still can learn that this year, and hopefully it will be confined to this year and that a vaccine and other effective treatments will soon be found, we offer up our usual joy and happiness of our traditional mitzvot of Lulav and Sukkah with the aware intention of sacrifice, perhaps not understanding why, but accepting that at this time this is what we’re called to do.
Chag Sameach and Shabbat Shalom.