Sukkot: Joy with a Caveat

There is no festival more joyous than Sukkot, “The time of our joy”. True, all the festivals are times of joy. But joy is not mentioned in the Torah in association with Passover, joy is mentioned one time for Shavuot, while for Sukkot – it is mentioned three times. Sukkot is the last of the festivals of pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and actually the end of the festivals of the year (which begins with Passover). Hence, the joy of this festival reaches a climax.

What is the joy of Sukkot? The Torah highlights the agricultural aspect of the three festivals of pilgrimage. On a simple level, Sukkot is also called the Festival of Harvesting, and the joy of harvesting is obvious. All of our toil over the entire year has now been harvested and we are sitting peacefully in our homes.

In a more inner dimension: Following the atonement and purification of Yom Kippur, we can now rejoice. We emerged innocent from our trial and we declare victory (as the sages say that the Four Species symbolize victory). We can add the wealth of special mitzvahs on Sukkot, especially during the Temple era: Sukkah, the Four Species, the Pouring of the Water (Temple), the special sacrifices (Temple), the mitzvah of the willow (Temple), the mitzvah of hakhel after the shmittah year, and the simchat beit hasho’eva  (nightly celebration of the drawing of the water) in the Temple. The sages say that whoever did not see the joy at the simchat beit hasho’eva has never seen joy in his life. So Sukkot truly is the most joyous festival of the year.

Joy and Humility

Sukkot also has some aspects that balance the joy. It is not about boundless joy and it is not simply thanksgiving to God for all that He has given us. Sukkot has something else.

We leave our protective homes to live in the unstable sukkah, “So that your generations will know that I settled the Children of Israel in sukkot, when I took them out from the land of Egypt.”[1] According to the simple meaning. God wants us to remember that we were in the desert, with no land or home, so that we do not become prideful and arrogant. “So that your hearts will not become lofty because of the houses filled with all goodness, so that they will not say, ‘It is our hands that made all of this prosperity for us” (Maimonides). The sukkah saves us from false pride, ensuring that the joy is connected to humility. Don’t be full of self-satisfaction. Go out from your home to the desert, even to exile (as is written that going out to the sukkah can be likened to going into exile), and then internalize the humility, the simplicity and the dependence on God. In the sukkah, you live only in the shadow of faith.

More than the sukkah that balances our joy, Ecclesiastes, which we read on Sukkot, goes a long way in keeping the balance. Ecclesiastes completely nullifies all possessions in this world – so much so, that we may no longer be so sure that we have anything to be joyous about. After all, everything is vanity of vanities. What advantage does a man have from all his toil that he will toil under the sun? And so, “What is this joy?”[2] We are certainly happy, but after the sobering verses of Ecclesiastes, the joy of the festival seems completely different.

Even the simchat beit hasho’eva – the very pinnacle of joy, is not only all-encompassing joyous dancing, as it may seem. “Chasidim and men of action would dance before them with torches and say before them words of praise…Both they and they would say, ‘Happy is he who has not sinned, and he who has sinned should repent and he will be forgiven.’ They were saying words of arousal for repentance! This is not just wild dancing. It is a subtle joy that makes room for inner, sensitive speech.

Above and Below

The holidays are remedies for the soul. In recent generations, the awareness of mental illness and its complications has increased and we have many modern names for these illnesses. Every festival is a remedy for a particular mental illness.

We begin with Passover, which cures us of claustrophobia. We were in a narrow, closed place (Mitzrayim, Egypt – which in Hebrew means ‘narrow straits’) like a fetus in his mother’s womb, and that was truly frightening. But He Who inserted us into the narrow place also brought us out of Egypt.

The seventh day of Passover cures paranoia. The Children of Israel were pursued by the Egyptians, they cried out to God and then it turned out that there was nothing to be afraid of and that everything was truly for the best.

The festival of Shavuot cures general anxiety. The Giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai was a frightening experience – so much so that our souls left our bodies out of fear. But the fear was sweetened when it was transformed into fear of Heaven. The ultimate purpose of the experience is “So that His awe will be on your faces so that you will not sin.”[3]

Rosh Hashanah remedies and rectifies megalomania. The thought that I am the very best, I am the king and I have even created the world is necessarily set aside on this festival. God is the King and you are nothing more than one of His creations.

Yom Kippur remedies obsession. We open the holy day with the Kol Nidrei prayer, in which we unbind all of our extraneous commitments, continue with the confession of all our sins, and atone for them.

Sukkot remedies bi-polar disorder, extreme changes in mood from joy to sadness and depression. The remedy for this condition is in the true joy of Sukkot. The joy of Sukkot is a joy that does not ignore sadness, but rather, elevates it and includes it – a subtle joy that reads Ecclesiastes and thinks about returning to God.


[1] Leviticus 23:43.

[2] Ecclesiastes.

[3] Exodus 20:16.

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