Sukkot: The Season of Our Joy?

While each of our central festivals have been given a rabbinic tagline used for when they are recalled in our teffilot, Pesach is called ‘the time of our freedom’, Shavuot ‘the time of the giving of the Torah’, Sukkot’s tagline is ‘the time of our joy’. While the Torah itself highlights the joy of the Sukkot holiday, it is not clear why this holiday is particularly joyful. The Torah teaches two central themes associated with Sukkot, the agricultural “When you have gathered in the yield of your land, you shall observe the festival” – the momentary elation when fresh produce emerges from the land, as well as the historical association in commemoration of the way that we travelled in sukkot while wandering in the desert after having left Egypt. While the celebration of the land’s produce does offer some pronounced joy, the historical association stands in jarring context to the transformational experiences of the exodus or the giving of the Torah offered by the other central pilgrimage festivals. Sukkot neither commemorates the beginning or culmination of our journey, but our transition. Where’s the joy?

The Torah teaches two central themes associated with Sukkot, the agricultural “When you have gathered in the yield of your land, you shall observe the festival” marking the momentary elation when fresh produce emerges from the land, as well as the historical context commemorating the shelter provided as we wandered in the desert after having left Egypt. While the celebration of the land’s produce does offer some pronounced joy, the historical association stands in jarring context to the transformational experiences of the exodus or the giving of the Torah offered by the other central pilgrimage festivals. Sukkot neither commemorates the beginning or culmination of our journey, but our transition. Where’s the joy?
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The Torah provides the holiday of Sukkot with two central themes, the agricultural “When you have gathered in the yield of your land, you shall observe the festival” – the momentary elation when fresh produce emerges from the land, as well as the historical association in commemoration of the way that we travelled in sukkot while wandering in the desert after having left Egypt. While the celebration of the land’s produce does offer pronounced joy, the historical association stands in jarring context to the transformational experiences of the exodus or the giving of the Torah offered by the other central pilgrimage festivals. Sukkot neither commemorates the beginning or culmination of our journey, but our transition. Where’s the joy?

“Every citizen of Israel should dwell in sukkot in order that your generations may know that I provided shelter the children of Israel in sukkot when I brought them out of the land of Egypt.” One might think that in commemorating our shelters of God, we would build formidable structures. However, the laws of the sukka demand a temporary and insubstantial one. The structure must be built no more than 30 days before the holiday. The sukka’s roof must be simply crafted from a natural source with minimal fabrication so that the stars can peek through. We don’t even hang a mezuza on our sukka, as it is deemed too tenuous and transient. When the Talmud raises the possibility of choosing to dwell in it beyond the timeframe of the holiday, it becomes the rabbinic paradigm of the prohibition against adding to mitzvot. And yet, for a week we call it home.

The commandment to take the four distinct species of lulav, etrog, hadas, and arava together represent many beautiful ideas; however, they too have a rather surprising necessary condition. The mitzva requires that we first disconnect them from their life source. We hold them in our hands, wave them, take in their scents, all in a race against the clock. While we sing and celebrate, we hope that they stay alive long enough to serve in our performance of the mitzva.

Perhaps each of these central Sukkot ideas contributes to the enhanced joy of the holiday. Each part of our celebration is a celebration of this moment. We celebrate the fruit of the land when it is ripe and ready. We celebrate the journey-to rather than the ‘are we there yet’ destination. Our sukka will last a week. Our lulav and etrog will eventually wilt. Joy is an intense emotion, but it too is a moment in time. The mitzvot of Sukkot come together with a focus on their vitality and life now. We celebrate them as they stare back at us with the knowledge that they too will come to pass but the essence of their celebration is their presence now.

About the Author
Rabbi Yair Silverman is the director of Moed- actively investing in the Jewish life of modern Israel.
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