Sukkot is the only holiday in the Hebrew calendar that is said to be “The Festival of Our Joy.” What exactly is the joy that is being mentioned though? After all, building the Sukkah requires quite a bit of effort and buying a lulav, etrog, willow, and myrtle is not the easiest task either. Some people even sleep in their Sukkah, which is not the most comfortable activity, for seven nights. So what joy can be found in this holiday? And more importantly, how do we achieve joy when we’re being made uncomfortable in the process?
First, we must analyze what joy really is. Joy is interpreted as the fulfillment of our wishes and desires, starting with small happenings like finding lost keys to more important events like finding a life partner. In order to be happy, there has to be a certain lack of something and when that void is filled, then we experience joy.
So where can joy be found in the holiday of Sukkot? We can find the answer through Gematria, a Kabbalistic method of interpreting words and ideas based on the numerical value of Hebrew letters. The word Sukkah is related to two names of the Creator: יהוה (Yud-Hay-Vav-Hay [the Tetragrammaton]), which in Gematria connects to the number 26, or 13 multiplied by 2, and אדני (Adonai), which in Gematria connects to the number 65. When the Gematria of the Tetragrammaton (26) is divided by 2, we’re left with two 13s. The number 13 is representative of both mercy and love. Meanwhile, the Gematria of Adonai (65) is representative of desire. When adding the Gematria of these two names of the Creator, 26 and 65, we conclude with the number 91, which is the Gematria of the word Sukkah.
When we dwell in the Sukkah, we are exposed to its influences. Therefore, when we enter the tent, we are exposed to our desires and also to the mercy and love of the Creator, Who fulfills all of our desires. Ancient Kabbalists suggest that the Sukkah contains dormant desires and their fulfillments; for example, someone who enters the Sukkah this year with the desire for their spouse may soon realize that they’re starting to desire children too. But it is not enough to just reside in the Sukkah for us to truly experience the joy of holiday…
Now that we know that joy does in fact exist during Sukkot, our next step is actually feeling the joy, or rather achieving the fulfillment of our desires. We can accomplish these tasks through performing the mitzvot associated with Sukkot. The holiday requires us to build a Sukkah, dwell in it (which includes eating in the Sukkah, praying in the Sukkah, and even sleeping in the Sukkah), and to take the Four Species: the lulav, etrog, myrtle, and willow.
On Sukkot we take the Four Species in our hands and shake them (except on Shabbat). We’re to shake them to the east, west, north, and south, and in an upwards direction and a downwards direction. We learn this from Psalm 96:12 which states, “Then the trees of the forest will sing with joy.” The Kabbalistic understanding of why we shake the Four Species is because through the act, we are “sweeping” away the past to make room for the new desires that we’re to have, and the fulfillments of those desires.
The last night of Sukkot is Hoshana Rabba. On this night we are to perform the water libation ceremony, a ceremony that took place in the Temple (to commemorate this service now, please reach out to your local Orthodox rabbi and synagogue). These last hours of Sukkot are known as the “Handing Over of Notes.” On Rosh Hashanah it is determined what will happen with each of us in the coming year. On Yom Kippur, another opportunity is given to us to change an evil decree. On Hoshana Rabba, we have the opportunity to tear up a note of evil decree and we do this by staying up all night and studying Torah.
There is a way to see if our dwelling in the Sukkah and performance of mitzvot have benefitted us in the year to come… With the company of a Kabbalist, one can study their shadow at midnight in a white light and be told what the year awaits for them.
In conclusion, although we face uncomfortable challenges in building a Sukkah and in dwelling in the tent for a long duration, we can reap the beautiful, magnificent, and heavenly benefits of the chag through the performance of its specific mitzvot.