Sukkot and the Joy of Existence

 
The root ש-מ-ח is associated with the holiday of Sukkot. In the book of Vayikra (23:40) we read:

וּלְקַחְתֶּם לָכֶם בַּיּוֹם הָרִאשׁוֹן פְּרִי עֵץ הָדָר כַּפֹּת תְּמָרִים וַעֲנַף עֵץ עָבֹת וְעַרְבֵי נָחַל
וּשְׂמַחְתֶּם לִפְנֵי ה’ אֱלֹהֵיכֶם שִׁבְעַת יָמִים.

This chapter, which delineates the Jewish holidays, applies the term of simcha only to the holiday of Sukkot.

And in Devarim (15:13-15) –

חַג הַסֻּכֹּת תַּעֲשֶׂה לְךָ שִׁבְעַת יָמִים בְּאָסְפְּךָ מִגָּרְנְךָ וּמִיִּקְבֶךָ
וְשָׂמַחְתָּ בְּחַגֶּךָ אַתָּה וּבִנְךָ וּבִתֶּךָ וְעַבְדְּךָ וַאֲמָתֶךָ וְהַלֵּוִי וְהַגֵּר וְהַיָּתוֹם וְהָאַלְמָנָה אֲשֶׁר בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ
שִׁבְעַת יָמִים תָּחֹג לַה’ אֱלֹהֶיךָ בַּמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר ה’ כִּי יְבָרֶכְךָ ה’ אֱלֹהֶיךָ בְּכֹל תְּבוּאָתְךָ וּבְכֹל מַעֲשֵׂה יָדֶיךָ וְהָיִיתָ אַךְ שָׂמֵחַ

In this case, the holiday of Succot enjoys a “double portion” of simcha.

Why is Sukkot Considered the Holiday of Joy?

Why is Sukkot singled out as the holiday of joy? On the simple level, it would seem that we are joyous because we have completed the agricultural cycle of plowing – planting – harvesting – gathering the fruits of the season. We thank Hashem for providing us with this abundance, and we celebrate the successful culmination of our efforts. The sukkah, perhaps, is an extension of that endeavor, as it symbolizes our deep connection to nature. The schach of the sukkah must be made of natural materials, a principle derived from the term מגרנך ומיקבך,(see above) which itself relates to the harvest (Talmud Bavli, Succah, 12a). The arba’a minim that we shake on Sukkot reinforce the connection between this holiday and the natural world. The succah and arbaa minim express the idea that the bounty that nature produces for us is in essence a divine gift. We rejoice in the knowledge that Hashem has fulfilled the promise recorded in the Torah that the land will flourish.

I would like to suggest an additional dimension to the joy that we experience on Sukkot. We are commanded to dwell in a sukkah for the period of the seven days of Sukkot:

אמרה תורה: כל שבעת הימים צא מדירת קבע ושב בדירת עראי
(סוכה דף ב ע”א)

We leave the comfort of our homes and move into a temporary structure, which does not afford us the amenities of our permanent quarters. Nevertheless, we delight in this undertaking, and we beautify the succah with decorations and ornaments in order to fulfill the commandment of hidur mitzvah.

דתניא: “זה אלי ואנוהו” – התנאה לפניו במצות; עשה לפניו סוכה נאה
(שבת דף קלג ע”ב)

The Charm of the Sukkah

What is it about the sukkah that charms us? I would suggest that it is the very impermanence of the whole enterprise that captivates us. We step out of the routine of life and engage in a kind of adventure, knowing all the while that it will last for only a week. We enter into the spirit of the endeavor and try to maximize our pleasure from it.

In the book of Kohelet, which we read on Shabbat Chol Hamoed Sukkot, we learn from the author that when he sought happiness through the acquisition of possessions, wealth, and even of wisdom, he did not experience joy. Material gains in particular only emphasized his sense of the meaningless of life. Where did he find joy?

וְשִׁבַּחְתִּי אֲנִי אֶת הַשִּׂמְחָה אֲשֶׁר אֵין טוֹב לָאָדָם תַּחַת הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ כִּי אִם לֶאֱכוֹל וְלִשְׁתּוֹת וְלִשְׂמוֹחַ
וְהוּא יִלְוֶנּוּ בַעֲמָלוֹ יְמֵי חַיָּיו אֲשֶׁר נָתַן לוֹ הָאֱלֹהִים תַּחַת הַשָּׁמֶשׁ:
(ח:טו)

When a person understands that his time in this world is finite, he is motivated to seek happiness in his daily existence, in the little moments that enable him to rise above the drudgery and struggles of life.

Were life to stretch out indefinitely, one would not be driven to make the most of what he has been given.

Sukkot Jewish Holiday in IsraelThe sukkah, then, can be perceived as a metaphor for existence itself. The sukkah by definition is temporary, as is the holiday. It is flimsy, and cannot really protect us from the elements. But we do our utmost to beautify it, to enjoy the time that we spend in the succah doing simple activities: eating, sleeping, talking, singing. The sukkah is traditionally the place where families and friends share festive meals.

What connects the two sources of joy mentioned above is the realization that we can strip away the layers of “civilization” that we have accrued over time, and get back to basics. We can recognize the essentials that life offers us, and take pleasure in them. Lurking beneath the joy is the sober understanding that we are subject both to the vagaries of nature, as well as to our own mortality. But it is this awareness which spurs us to take advantage of the gifts bestowed upon us. The mitzvot of the holiday of Sukkot bring these truths home.

Rabbanit Ruth WalfishRabbanit Ruth Walfish holds a Ph.D. in Jewish Education from Hebrew University, and has taught Bible for over thirty years to Hebrew- and English- speaking audiences. She heads the Bible Department at Efrata College in Jerusalem, where she trains student teachers in the teaching of Bible, and she also serves on the editorial board of the Jewish Bible Quarterly. Rabbanit Walfish is a member of Beit Hillel.
 

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