The Challenge of Being Joyful – Sukkot in 2020

A picture of our Congregation's Sukkah this year. Due to Covid-19, we put up the bare minimum required for walls in order to maximize airflow. We had restrictions on the number of people who could be in the Sukkah at one time, and social distancing and Covid protocols were followed. (Courtesy of David Baum).
A picture of our Congregation's Sukkah this year. Due to Covid-19, we put up the bare minimum required for walls in order to maximize airflow. We had restrictions on the number of people who could be in the Sukkah at one time, and social distancing and Covid protocols were followed. (Courtesy of David Baum).

This week, during Hol HaMoed Sukkot, I officiated at the funeral for my uncle (z’l). When speaking with my uncle’s family, I had to inform them of the Jewish practice of not sitting shiva during Sukkot. When someone passes on the holiday of Sukkot or during Hol HaMoed, Shiva is pushed until after the holiday. This is not easy for any family, but more so now, as we are still in the midst of so much sadness and isolation due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The question is, why not sit shiva? If you are in mourning, but the entire Jewish people are celebrating, why shouldn’t your family’s unique situation take precedent?

I will never forget the 7th of Av when my wife gave birth to our firstborn son. Two days later, we were discharged from the hospital, we brought our baby home, and I went to shul to observe the 9th of Av, the saddest day on the Jewish calendar. It is on this day when the entire Jewish people sit ‘shiva’, mourning the losses of the destruction of the Temple and many other calamities that have befallen the Jewish people throughout our history. The joy I felt during those days was a joy I had never felt before and it was hard not to smile! But I learned a lesson: there are times when communal mourning takes precedent over our personal joy.

Sukkot is the only holiday that has the distinction of being, Z’man Simchatenu, the time of our joy. I have often taught that Judaism is not about feelings, but about actions. Our actions bring us to feel certain ways. For example, we feel joyful by inviting guests into our home, both family and friends, and the needy in our community, and sharing our food with them. We actualize our joy by filling up our Sukkot with guests, guests from history in the form of the Ushpizin, and friends and family in our Sukkot. This year, due to COVID, it is not advisable to host many guests because our lives, our health and safety, take precedence over the custom.

This year, when we cannot actualize our joy in the ways we are accustomed to, we must remember and hold on to everything we have harvested over the years.

Sukkot ends on Friday, and on Shabbat, we will observe another holiday that is related to Sukkot, and yet different: Shmini Atzeret. The Torah states, “On the eighth day, shall be an ATZERET for you.” The meaning of the word Atzeret is hard to translate. The best explanation is that it comes from the root ATZOR which means “to hold back, to cling to, to try to retain.” After the close of the seven days of the Sukkot Festival, the eighth day is an Atzeret, a clinging to the joyous holiday that is passing.

In life, too, there are many crucial periods when we declare an Atzeret, and make a determined effort to hold on to the experiences and joys we were privileged to have when we could enjoy them together.

The joy that we hold on to during this holiday of Sukkot in 2020 is a joy that was stored up for months, years, decades, and millennia.

We cannot all be under the sukkah together this year, but we can share the feelings of a joy that has built up over our years together. I am confident that the type of joy that we are accustomed to will return again soon! In the meantime, I have found the joy in the experiences that I could have, sitting with only a couple of people in our Sukkah at our synagogue (Congregation Shaarei Kodesh), and at our home. We engaged in deeper conversation than we could have had we been around a lot of people. We spent quality time in the Sukkah with our immediate family, strengthening our bonds together, and creating new memories.

We begin every Birkhat HaMazon/prayers of gratitude after our meals on Shabbat, Yom Tov, and Chol HaMoed, the time we are in right now, with Psalm 126. A popular line from that Psalm is “They who sow seeds in tears shall reap with songs of joy.” The message to those who sing this line is that the suffering you are enduring now, the tears that fall from your eyes and hit the ground, will eventually lead to Simcha/joy and happiness. But perhaps we can look at this the other way around on Sukkot: the joy we feel during the good times can be stored up to help us persevere during the difficult times. Those who sow seeds of joy will reap during times of sadness and isolation.

When we sow in joy, when we engage in joy as a community during the good times, we can reap the benefits when there are seemingly only tears. Those tears can be transformed into the water that we pray for at the end of Sukkot, the water that was so key to the holiday of Sukkot as our people danced and sang during the Simchat Beit HaShoevah, the water drawing ceremony in the Holy Temple.

Now is the time to harvest all the goodness and joy we have stored up for years, and may we look for the glimmers of light even during this time when we are isolated to fill our holy containers for the next year.

About the Author
David Baum serves as rabbi of Congregation Shaarei Kodesh, a small (but mighty) Conservative Kehillah (community) in Boca Raton, Florida, sits on the Rabbinical Assembly Social Justice Commission, former president of the Southeast Region of the Rabbinical Assembly and Palm Beach County Board of Rabbis.
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