In our liturgy, Sukkot is referred to as Z'man Simchateinu, the Season of our Rejoicing. Each of the pilgrimage festivals has its own liturgical name: Passover is Z'man Heiruteinu, the Season of our Freedom, and Shavuot is referred to as Z'man Matan Torateinu, the Season of the Giving of our Torah. The name attributed to Sukkot in the prayer book is the only one that comes from the Bible; it is derived from the Torah portion for the first days of Sukkot in which we are commanded "to rejoice" before the Lord during the week of Sukkot. While simchah, rejoicing, is understood to be part of all three festivals, there appears to be an added dimension of simchah on Sukkot. What is it about Sukkot that makes it different from the other holidays in the Jewish calendar? Why are we told to 'rejoice' specifically on this holiday? And how does one 'rejoice?' For contemporaries, joy and happiness are externally produced qualities; we have an entire industry whose purpose is to make us laugh and happy. It seems to me that the nature of simchah, as it is described in the Bible in later Jewish literature, is different. Let us see what we can learn about simchah from the sources below.
Compare the two descriptions of Sukkot above. How are they different from one another? Does "Joy" have the same meaning in both of them?
Is Rejoicing a physical or a spiritual concept according to Maimonides? In what way is it expressed through moral behavior?
P’shat – Understanding the plain sense meaning of the text
You shall rejoice before the Lord your God: This is the only festival prescribed in chapter 23 on which rejoicing is explicitly commanded. In the festival calendar of Deuteronomy 16, rejoicing is also mentioned in connection with the Feast of Weeks. Elsewhere we read that sacrificial worship in the Temple is an occasion for rejoicing. It is not clear just why the Sukkot festival is singled out here, although it may be because Sukkot was the most prominent of the ancient pilgrimage festivals. (Baruch Levine, The JPS Torah Commentary, Leviticus)
How is the joy we experience on Sukkot different from other holidays such as Passover, Chanukah or Purim? Do most Jews associate Sukkot with rejoicing - why or why not?
The Kotzker Rebbe maintained that joyfulness follows as a by-product of holiness. It is therefore natural after Yom Kippur, when we are cleansed of sin and sanctified to celebrate Sukkot, which is called “Season of Our Rejoicing.” (from the Sukkot and Simhat Torah Anthology by Philip Goodman)
In many ways, Sukkot has become the model for this worldly enjoyment, which is why it is called the time of rejoicing. The depth of the joy also grows out of its relationship to Yom Kippur. Sukkot comes just four days after Yom Kippur, the most ascetic, self-denying, guilt-ridden, awesome holy day of the Jewish year. On the Day of Atonement, Jews reenact their own death, only to be restored to life in the resolution of the day. Only those who know the fragility of life can truly appreciate the full preciousness of every moment. The release from Yom Kippur leads to the extraordinary outburst of life that is Sukkot. On this holiday, Jews are commanded to eat, drink, be happy, dance, and relish life to the fullest in celebrating the harvest and personal wealth. But making joy holy means being selective in the enjoyment of God's gifts, not worshiping those gifts or those who own them. The first and foremost expression of this insight is to share the bounty and the joy. Gifts from the harvest were given to the poor: "You shall rejoice before the Lord, you, your son and daughter, your male and female slave, the Levite, the stranger, the orphan, the widow in your community." (Deut. 16:11). (Rabbi Irving Greenberg, The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays)
Sod – The Meaning and Mystery of Faith
The story is told of a man who was deeply depressed. He went to see his doctor and after describing his despondency, the doctor said to him: "I can’t solve your problems but I might be able to ease your pain. I prescribe that you go to the circus to see Grimaldi the Clown. If nothing, else, for the brief few hours that you are there, Grimaldi will make you laugh and allow you to forget about your troubles." A solitary tear dropped from the man's eye as he sighed "I can't, Doc....you see, I am Grimaldi."
At the risk of sounding a bit preachy, I have to say that happiness is overrated. I often hear people say, “I just want my children to be happy,” or “I just want a little happiness out of life; is that too much to ask?” Even our Declaration of Independence focuses on this difficult: we are guaranteed, ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’ But that’s the rub, isn’t it? Happiness is something we constantly pursue but don’t often catch. In our Torah portion this holiday we learn that happiness is commanded. We are to “rejoice before the Lord.” No matter one’s state of mind, we are to celebrate the holiday with joy: through song, by giving thanks for life’s blessings, by enjoying the simple pleasures of life and sharing them one’s family and with the needy, by taking stock of life and by cleansing ones’ soul. What we learn above is that happiness is not something we get but a product of how we live. It is also a goal that we can strive for not simply by self-gratification but finding a balance between satisfaction and aspiration. It is also a product of seeing the world in context. Maybe that is why Sukkot is Z’man Simchateinu. It is the beginning of the year but also the end of the year. Although it follows soon after Rosh Hashanah, it also marks the end of the harvest and the coming of winter. We can sit back and enjoy of the product of our labor. We can give thanks for the goodness of God’s earth. Greenberg describes Sukkot (and Shemini Atzeret) as the coda, life’s postscript of joy. We have not spent the year pursuing happiness, but looking back we have gained it by choice and by the grace of God. I suspect that if happiness is what we set out to gain, we never would have found it.
Questions to Ponder
Why are we told to rejoice on Sukkot and Shavuot but not on Passover? What is it about Sukkot that makes it different from the other holidays?
What is the connection between Israel’s wilderness sojourn and happiness? What is the connection between happiness and the harvest?
Why are most Jews more likely to celebrate Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur which are somewhat somber holy days rather Sukkot which is a celebration of joy?
How is Sukkot connected to the High Holy Days and how is it connected to the larger Jewish calendar?
What makes you happy? How do you experience happiness on the festival of Sukkot?