When I was recently asked what makes Sukkot special to me, there was a word that immediately popped into my head, and that word was “happy”. Sounds very simplistic, I know. And the word happy is hardly an answer to what makes something important to me. It should be the answer to how something makes me feel or what kind of holiday it is. But nevertheless, despite the misplaced word structure and unforgivable grammar, it is the word that pops into my head, because for me, and for so many other that I know, Sukkot is ultimately about being happy and all things that make you happy. In a time when we may need it most, it might also help lead us to more unity, for nothing helps people feel more unified than pure joy.
While I have never been one to try to push someone into being more actively Jewish, I have always been comfortable sharing the positive things the practice of Judaism brings to my life. That being said, if I were to write a roadmap on how to make anyone feel better about being Jewish, be they completely unobservant or a daily participant, I would steer them towards the holiday of Sukkot, for it encompasses everything good about our Jewish faith. When it comes to most holidays, our prayers and actions in the synagogue are the primary celebration, usually followed by a festive meal with which we culminate the day. But Sukkot is different. The meal and all subsequent gatherings outside the synagogue are what dominate the days. Ultimately, what dominates Sukkot over everything else? The act of being joyful. Being happy.
So much of this joy takes place in the Sukkah, the hut that represents the structures that kept the Jewish people safe in the desert between the time they left Egypt and arrived in Israel. A Sukkah is a wonderful place to be, filled with decorations, an abundance of food and drink, and a pleasant, safe and comfortable environment. In fact, other than the occasional annoying bee or climate control issues, there is nothing about a Sukkah that isn’t good. Consistent with the theme of enjoyment and happiness, if the weather doesn’t make it possible to be comfortable, you are allowed to eat inside your home.
There was a time in which I fell off the path with my religious observance. As I began my return, I looked at many things differently than I had my entire life. Perhaps the most prominent of these philosophical adjustments was my perception of Sukkot. Spending more time in synagogue became important to me, but when Sukkot arrived, I almost felt like I was taking a mental vacation from those things more serious and solemn, despite the fact that Sukkot is a holiday to be taken seriously.
But maybe that is the lesson of Sukkot. Being happy is not an accident. It’s a decision. It’s a choice. Maybe what makes Sukkot so special is that it is used as a means of reiterating the importance Judaism puts on being happy. Ivdu et Hashem B’simcha. Serve God with happiness. Judaism’s teachings recognize that sitting back and waiting to be happy is not the right recipe for happiness. Making the effort to be happy and doing the things that bring joy to your life are what will bring you happiness. So as the most solemn day of Yom Kippur came to an end, and we celebrated the fact that we were given another opportunity to be forgiven and move on positively with our lives, we shifted gears and began getting ready for Sukkot, in whatever we way we could, knowing that soon we would be sitting in the Sukkah. The place where 5 days later we began to focus on 2 words. One which we could connect to the other. Happiness and unity.