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Sukot: The Festival of Joy that Cures Bipolar Disorder

Just a few days after Yom Kippur, we reach the joyful festival of Sukot.[1] While all three pilgrimage festivals mentioned in the Torah are joyful occasions, the verb “joy” (שׂמח) is repeated only with regard to Sukot.[2] The fact that Sukot merits a triple command to rejoice[3] indicates that the joy of Sukot is higher than that of the other festivals mentioned in the Pentateuch.[4] For this reason, in our prayers we call Sukot the “time of our rejoicing” (זְמַן שִׂמְחָתֵנוּ).

The Water Celebration

We begin to mention rain in a unique prayer that is recited on the eighth day of Sukot, the festival ofShemini Atzeret, with the full expectation that God will grant us rain throughout the winter season and satiate the land with a generous supply of water. While the whole year wine was poured on the altar, on Sukot in addition to the wine, water was poured.

The water was drawn from the Gichon spring that flows beneath the Temple Mount, and was brought up to the Temple. The joyful water-drawing procession and its subsequent celebrations continued all night, every night of the festival, in the Temple courtyard.

The sages teach us that the joy experienced in the Temple during these celebrations was so great that anyone who did not experience them, never truly experienced joy in his entire life.[5] The joyful water-drawing ceremonies were in fact a particularly auspicious time for drawing down Divine inspiration from above.[6] Indeed, the prophet Jonah, whose book is read on Yom Kippur, received his prophecy while rejoicing in the Temple on Sukot.[7]

The Perfect Cure

Since the joy of Sukot is in contradistinction to the awe experienced on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the soul experiences the two extremes of awe and joy in close succession. In bipolar disorder, the fine-tuned balance between awe and joy is disturbed, and the highs and lows are totally out of proportion to normal emotions. The symptoms are such that a sufferer is liable to experience a distorted connection with reality on the unrestrained highs, or become dangerously suicidal at the extreme lows.

In Kabbalah, the metaphor that describes the delicate balance between the highs and lows of life, are the words of the Divine bride with reference to her groom, “His left hand supports my head, and his right hand embraces me.”[8] The left hand beneath the head relates to the ousting out of evil that is accomplished on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur; while the right hand draws us closer in the joyful celebration of Sukot.

Returning from the Abyss

The first stage of the Days of Awe, when we are judged regarding the fate that will befall us during the coming year, nullifies our ego, and puts us in a proper state of lowliness. As we say explicitly at the high point of our prayers during the Days of Awe, God decides, “Who will live and who will die… who will be lowered and who will rise.” (מִי יִחְיֶה וּמִי יָמוּת… מִי יֻשְׁפַּל וּמִי יָרוּם).[9]

Yet, even as the Days of Awe suppress our ego, like the groom’s left hand, they also simultaneously support our head (the intellectual faculties) from beneath. This indicates that God never allows us to fall completely into an abyss of despair, but only desires that we rectify ourselves through our own heartfelt return to Him; a conscious process that is initiated in the mind.

Sukot follows quickly as the right hand that embraces us, resulting in an experience of closeness to God. This elevates our emotions spiritually from the extreme low of selflessness and lowliness, to the extreme high of ecstasy and a joyful return to God. This two-sided coin is the positive counterpart of the bipolar experience and is thus the perfect cure to balance and heal that disorder.

Adapted from Rabbi Ginsburgh’s class on Torah and Psychology, Chile, 5769

[1] Yom Kippur is the Day of Awe; Sukot is the time of joy. The four days between Yom Kippur and Sukot allow for the spiritual transition between these two polar opposites.

[2] The word does not appear at all for Passover, and only once for Shavuot.

[3] Leviticus 23:40; Deuteronomy 16:14, ibid. v. 15.

[4] On Purim we reach an even higher level of joy. However, Purim is a rabbinically instituted festival and not one of the three pilgrimage festivals mentioned in the Torah.

[5] Sukah 51b.

[6] Ibid 50b. See also, Maimonides’ Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah, 7:4, that prophecy can only be achieved through joy.

[7] Sukah 50b.

[8] Song of Songs 2:6.

[9] From the Unetane Tokef liturgical poem, recited in the repetition of the Musaf prayer on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

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