You shall rejoice in your holiday. . . you shall be only happy. (Deuteronomy 16)
“Only happy?!” That’s a tough one.
I love the holiday of Sukkot, the holiday known to the Tanach and the rabbis as “The Holiday.” The Days of Awe are over, fall is (usually) truly upon us (sometimes too much, and snow is falling!!), and Sukkot invites us to come home again, to our families and friends, and relax. We build sukkot, small houses in our yards, porches, and balconies, and symbolically dwell in them for 8 days, dragging tables and chairs, dishes and hot food into the back yard so we can eat in these semi-indoor/semi-outdoor spaces, giving thanks to Gd for food, for each other, for Gd’s very presence. When my daughter was younger, she would sleep in the sukkah, happily pointing out the commandment was to “dwell” in the sukkah, not just by day, but all the time. I miss the days of making paper chains with her and her friends to decorate our little backyard hut.
At school, my daughter and her schoolmates would march around the building singing that we should rejoice in the holiday, that we should be only happy. While I loved the tune, I wondered even then about the sentiment. Pure happiness? Of course, we might want it, but, as a commandment, it seems out of reach for so many of us, so much of the time. How can the Torah command us to feel something, anyway?
In Deuteronomy 16:14, when Gd commands us to “Rejoice in your holiday,” (meaning Sukkot), we understand the mitzvah to be celebrating the chag, with all that entails: a festive meal (or two!), dwelling in our sukkah or that of a friend’s, waving the lulav and etrog, saying the festival kiddush, reciting blessings relative to Sukkot, and praying the festival services. There are so many ways of “celebrating” Sukkot that seem to fulfill the mitzvah of “rejoicing” that our emotional state does not seem to come into play.
But the next verse goes further:
שִׁבְעַ֣ת יָמִ֗ים תָּחֹג֙ לַיהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ בַּמָּק֖וֹם אֲשֶׁר־יִבְחַ֣ר יְהוָ֑ה כִּ֣י יְבָרֶכְךָ֞ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֗יךָ בְּכֹ֤ל תְּבוּאָֽתְךָ֙ וּבְכֹל֙ מַעֲשֵׂ֣ה יָדֶ֔יךָ וְהָיִ֖יתָ אַ֥ךְ שָׂמֵֽחַ׃
You shall hold a festival for the LORD your God seven days, in the place that the LORD will choose; for the LORD your God will bless all your crops and all your undertakings, and you shall have nothing but joy.
This translation suggests not that we should be happy, “you will be only happy,” but rather that at some point, when celebrating Sukkot (perhaps in the future, according to Rashi), we shall only rejoice; this is not a commandment, Rashi says, but an assurance of how we will feel. S’forno, another medieval commentator agrees, explaining that the mitzvah means “you will be completely joyful; no sadness will intrude on your happy frame of mind.” The first half of his comment sounds like a command to “be happy,” but then he softens it, saying essentially that, if we rejoice, help will be given to us, so that our pain and grief will go away and not be felt during this holiday.
Would this were true today, during our chag this very week. For those of us attempting to “rejoice in our holiday” right now, by celebrating with prayer and food, with family and friends (via social distancing, Zoom, and virtual outreach!), some help to feel happy would be greatly appreciated. Where is the joy of welcoming guests into our sukkahs, when we fear plague (OK, COVID) might accompany them? How do we gather together to sing Hallel, praises of Gd, when we can’t gather to pray, and should not sing in public, lest we spread the dread disease?
And so, we thank Gd for Zoom and Facetime live, and we make do with what we have: empty sukkahs, but lovely weather, family and friends available online and via phone. We sing into our computers and alone with our prayerbooks and we hope that it is enough. . . enough for Gd, and enough for us. We welcome the Ultimate Guest into our homes – the Divine Presence – and, for those of us who must weep with Gd for a while before we can rejoice with the Holy One of Blessing, well. . . we can only hope that Gd will understand.
And then, please, bring us some joy. We could all use it.