Adin Steinsaltz

Sukkot: The season of our rejoicing

The Sukkot holiday experience of return to the primordial condition of deficiency and exile is a recipe for joy

Return to the wilderness

The Festival of Sukkot as the time of the ingathering is a festival of thanksgiving and rejoicing – thanksgiving of the farmer for his prosperity and thanksgiving of the land for Israel’s settlement in its midst.

Hence, in contrast to the agricultural attachment, we are to stress the other side of our existence. We are to stress our non-dependence on the land, which we subordinate to a greater and higher purpose.

On the Festival of Sukkot, a time of rest and contentment, mere commemoration is not sufficient. In order to deepen the rational knowledge, the factual commemoration, it is necessary to do things that will add an emotional dimension and real experience to this memory. On Sukkot it is not sufficient to be reminded “that I caused the people of Israel to dwell in sukkot when I brought them out of the land of Egypt.” Rather, “all citizens in Israel shall dwell in sukkot.” (Leviticus 23:42-3)

This explains the unusual use of the term “citizens.” Precisely the citizen – one who feels that he has struck roots in the land, that he has a connection with the place and the soil, that he is a permanent resident of the country – needs to go out and live in a sukka again, even if only for a few days. He specifically must be reminded of the wanderers coming from the wilderness; he must nullify the feeling that “we” are different and have more privileges; and he must re-experience the sense of the common destiny of all of us.

We go out to the sukka for the sake of a more exalted existence, in which we return to our original independent lives. We return again to the original state of the Jewish people, and relive the youthful devotion and bridal love.

The recipe for joy

One of the simple explanations for the commandment to dwell in a sukka on the Festival of Sukkot lies in the dual feeling that the experience creates. On the one hand, there is the sense of exile, of leaving one’s house to dwell in a temporary structure, but there is also a feeling of recollection as we remember the exodus from Egypt. In dwelling in the temporary structure of the sukka, we give up all our bounty and abundance; we return to the nation’s original condition, to the experience of wandering and deficiency, wherein there is only faith and hope for the future but nothing substantial in the present.

Indeed, if one can live temporarily in the wilderness and once again be a wandering, dispossessed exile, he can view his life in a different – joyful – way.

The time of the ingathering is a source of joy for some, who celebrate their success, and a source of frustration and despondency for others. On Sukkot, the Festival of the Ingathering, we are commanded to dwell in the sukka – the primordial state, in which one sees life’s simple and basic graces, and rejoices in what one has instead of making demands and recalling nonexistent rights.

This return to the primordial point, to the place from which things begin, is what enables one to attain joy. The days of Sukkot, then, are like a recipe for joy. Through the humility of putting oneself where one belongs, a person learns to appreciate life’s gifts – the blessings that exist. The less he believes in “I deserve better,” and the more he experiences the original condition of deficiency and the exile, the more he will appreciate all the bounty, and attain happiness from it.

This joy is perhaps not ecstatic, but it is true joy which will grow from day to day – from the joy of the festival to Simhat Beit ha-Sho’evah and to Simhat Torah.

About the Author
Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz is the founder of Shefa and The Israel Institute for Talmudic Publications. In 2012 he completed his monumental, 45 volume translation of the Talmud into modern Hebrew. The Steinsaltz Talmud has been translated into 29 volumes in French and 5 volumes in Russian. In 2012, the first volume of the “Koren Talmud Bavli” in English with Rabbi Steinsaltz's commentary was published. Adin Steinsaltz was awared the Israel Prize, the country’s highest honor, for his educational achievements in opening the Talmud and was was among the first recipients of the Israeli Presidential Award of Distinction, for his contribution to Israeli society and its standing in the world. In 2012, Rabbi Steinsaltz received a National Jewish Book Award for the English Koren Talmud Bavli from the Jewish Book Council (USA). He was also the recipient of the French Order of Arts and Literature.