October 5, 2012: Sukkot

Shabbat Sukkot

“After the ingathering of your grain and your wine, you shall hold the Feast of Sukkot for seven days. You shall rejoice in your festival… only be joyous!” (Deuteronomy 16:13-15) Of course, the joy of Sukkot reflects the abundance of the fall harvest. But still…what an impossible commandment: “only be joyous!” No other holy day in the Jewish ritual calendar, not even Shabbat, calls specifically for joy. How can the Torah mandate happiness? Some of us live in constant pain and depression. Others happen to be dealing with emotional crisis this week, like the person whose dearest loved one died the other day. To them, “only be joyous” sounds like a slap in the face. As for the rest of us—well, we’re not usually capable of conjuring up feelings upon demand.

Another even more basic commandment seems to stipulate an emotional state: “love your neighbor as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:18) Its fulfillment is predicated not upon adopting a certain attitude, but upon performing certain deeds. From the Biblical perspective, love is not a feeling, but a commitment. When a person welcomes guests, visits the sick, lends money to the poor, gives tzedakah and performs other acts of gemilut chasadim, then by definition she loves her neighbor, regardless of her inner disposition. As Millard Fuller said: “It’s easier to act your way into a new way of thinking than to think your way into a new way of acting.” If that’s the case, what actions are prescribed for inducing joy on Sukkot?

Three distinct commandments characterize Sukkot—netilat lulav (taking up the “four species”), lesheiv ba-sukkah (dwelling in the Sukkah), and simchat beit ha-sho’evah (rejoicing in the water libation celebration). The first two commandments derive from Torah, and we still practice them today, but the last commandment was instituted for the Temple and remained in force only as long as the Temple stood. (It is a reflection of the Rabbis’ inextinguishable longing for Temple worship that the Talmud devotes pages and pages describing the details of the Sukkot water ritual, although the practice vanished centuries earlier.) According to the modern Chassidic sage Netivot Shalom, all three commandments serve the ultimate goal of Sukkot: “to rejoice before Adonai your God.” (Leviticus 23:40) How do they lead to joy?

The various interpretations that I have heard for netilat lulav all emphasize the gathering of disparate elements to form a cohesive unity. According to one, each of the four species represents a different part of the human body: the lulav (palm) is the spine, the hadas (myrtle) is the eye, the aravah (willow) is the eye, and the etrog (citron) is the heart, which all come together for worship. Then there’s the obvious sexual imagery suggested by holding together the lulav and etrog—the union of the male and the female. On its most basic, non-symbolic level, netilat lulav richly combines all the senses—smell, taste, touch, sight, even sound (the rustling of the palm branch)—in one all-engrossing physical action. No matter how you look at it, the ritual entails immersion in purely sensual experience, in stark contrast to the rarified spiritual plane attained just several days earlier. On Yom Kippur, we seek to transcend earthly enjoyments; on Sukkot we immerse ourselves in them.

The injunction lesheiv basukkah adds the element of simplicity to the experience of joy. My friend Randy recounts a story from Hebrew School. Once, his childhood Rabbi announced a contest for the best model Sukkah in the class. Randy constructed a lavish palace, with moats, and turrets, and fancy decorations. The prize went instead to the little girl who stuck four popsicle sticks in the sand and suspended a handkerchief over them. The Rabbi explained: “this one, the simple shelter with nothing extraneous, is the most authentic.” (I said to Randy that his Rabbi must have been a gifted teacher for imparting a lesson that has stuck with him for forty years.)

We delude ourselves into thinking that fancy possessions, electronic gadgets, the latest technology, climate-controlled houses, and all sorts of accumulated stuff will make us happy. Sukkot forces us outside to feel the wind in our hair, the sun on our skin, and the rain on our faces, with nothing between our bodies and the open sky but a leafy covering that must remain porous to the elements. Netivot Shalom writes: “only when one shakes off material attachments to all matters of this world can one attain the level of true happiness.” (part 2, page 192) The joy of the Sukkah is the joy of a young child running naked through the sprinkler on a summer’s day. In this regard, Sukkot extends and completes the process of atonement. It is precisely the spiritual catharsis of Yom Kippur, when we are cleansed of all our sins, that enables us to reemerge into the material world like a newborn infant and immerse ourselves in the sheer joy of being alive.

The third commandment related to Sukkot, simchat beit ha’shoevah, adds one final dimension to our experience of joy—faith. Every day of the festival, the priests descended to the ancient spring of Shiloach in the City of David below the Temple Mount, accompanied by the entire congregation. There they filled a golden flask with pure water. As they climbed back up to the Temple precinct through the Water Gate, they were greeted by the fanfare of trumpets and the blasts of the shofar, while the Levites chanted the verse from Isaiah: “amid jubilation shall you draw water out of the wells of salvation.” (Isaiah 12:3) Then the priest would climb the ramp to the center court and empty out the flagon of water at the base of the sacrificial altar. Of the now defunct Temple ritual the eyewitnesses declared: “whoever has not seen the rejoicing of the water drawing ceremony has never seen rejoicing in his life.” (mMishnah 5:1)

Imagine the end of the dry season in Israel. It hasn’t rained since last winter. Water is being rationed to conserve the precious resource. (Remember that the ancient world lacked sophisticated storage reservoirs.) Every day, people anxiously scan the horizon for the first hint of moisture (as reported in I Kings 18). Now, against this backdrop, imagine that you are scooping up the water and pouring it out in front of God’s altar. As you perform the libation, you are not trembling in fear, but dancing in exaltation. You’re saying more than “God will provide” with your gesture. You’re saying that since you have stood before God in the fullness of your being, including all your strengths and shortcomings, then you can throw yourself on God’s beneficence without a care in the world. On Yom Kippur you were stripped bare, so now on Sukkot you have nothing left to lose. On Yom Kippur you died and were resurrected, so now on Sukkot you are on borrowed time and all life is a gift.

What is the singular joy of Sukkot? It is the joy of the Lulav—immersing in the physical world with all our senses and our entire body. It is the joy of the Sukkah—stripping away all extraneous possessions and reemerging into the world carefree and secure, purging away all guilt and reemerging into the world innocent and reborn. It is the joy of the water libation—giving up on trying to save ourselves from death and reveling in the sheer magnificence of being alive. We are now in a position to resolve the paradox of the Torah’s summons to joy—even when we don’t feel joyful. The joy that the Torah demands does not necessarily equal pleasure and fun. Rather, it is a deep release of the soul. The book This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared, by Rabbi Alan Lew, which tracks the entire penitential season from Tisha B’Av to Sukkot, ends as follows: “This is the overwhelming, senseless gratitude we feel when we are finally fully awake. It makes no difference what we awaken to, whether to pain or to pleasure; it is all of a piece, all the ground of a deep joy when full inhabited, when wholly attended to.”

My Sukkot blessing of joy to you and to all of us: mayy we feel the wind in our hair, the sun on our skin, and the rain on our face; may we find delight in the simplest pleasures— the beauty of a tree changing colors, the laugh of a child, the touch of a loved one; finally, may we imbibe deeply the draught of life in all of its richness, fullness, and complexity.