True Jewish rejoicing
by Jonathan Rosenblum
September 24, 1999
'Last night he was hated by God, disgusting, distant, abominable [in His eyes]. . . . Today he is beloved, a delight, close, a dear friend."
So does Maimonides describe the great power of teshuva to transform a person and his relationship with God.
Yom Kippur is the most joyous day on the Jewish calendar. Reflecting on our actions of the past year, we find ourselves amazed at how alien they seem to us, how little they comport with our vision of ourselves as essentially good people. That sense of alienation from our own actions paradoxically makes us aware of something higher within us - a godly essence that is belied by our deeds.
Our horror at the disparity between deeds and essence fills us with a determination to live our lives in closer conformity with our true essence and a feeling of confidence that we have the power to do so. That determination leaves us feeling uplifted and once again worthy of sustaining a relationship with God.
Five days later, on Succot, we give concrete expression to that newfound feeling of closeness to God by leaving our permanent dwellings to sleep under the stars. The makeshift succa inspires a feeling of intimacy with God by reminding us of His protection and of the Clouds of Glory that sheltered our ancestors during 40 years of wandering in an inhospitable desert.
All the festivals entail rejoicing, but only Succot is called 'zman simhateinu - the season of our rejoicing." No other holiday creates the same feeling of intimate connection with God.
When the Temple stood, the height of the celebrations during Succot was the pouring of the water libation on the altar every morning. Today Jews still join together during Hol Hamoed to dance together until the early morning, in memory of the Simhat Beit Hashoeva, the festivities connected to the drawing of the water for the libation.
The water libation also expressed this idea of connection. When God separated the upper and lower waters during the six days of creation, the Midrash says, lower waters rebelled and threatened to destroy the world in their efforts to be rejoined to the upper waters. Only when they were promised that they would be poured on the altar in the Temple as part of the Divine service, were they placated.
The Midrash teaches us the necessity of connecting the lower, physical world to the higher world of spirit. The world of spirit is unitary, reflecting the unity of its source. Only through an awareness of the essential unity underlying all of existence is any real connection possible -whether it be to our fellow man or God. To the extent that we perceive ourselves as purely physical beings, we become conscious of our own boundaries and separation from others.
Interestingly, every event that Jews colloquially refer to as a simha marks the joining of an individual to something outside of him- or herself. Brit mila celebrates the entry of the infant boy into a covenant extending back over 4,000 years to our forefather Avraham. At the age of mitzvot, we rejoice that another young Jew has become a full-fledged member of the Jewish community, with all the mutual responsibilities that entails. And at weddings we join in the happiness of two formerly discrete individuals who become bound to one another in a union that allows for the fullest realization of their potential.
THE world was created in such a way that people experience some degree of mutual dependency and are forced to interact with one another. But the nature of that interaction is not determined.
It can be grudging, something forced upon us by external necessity. At best, relationships thus created are narrowly legalistic, contractual, based on an ongoing assessment of the quid pro quo for everything we do for someone else.
At worst, other human beings are seen primarily as competitors for limited pieces of the pie. Temporary bonds of mutual advantage may be formed, but exploitation of others for the attainment of personal pleasures is more often the rule.
Judaism, however, offers another model - one which recognizes our essential connectedness to others. It is a model based on being a giver and not a taker.
A taker experiences life as hunger, and convinces himself that his hunger can be sated by the acquisition of more and more material goods and pleasures. He seeks to expand his personal space, but he can never lose consciousness of his boundaries and all that divides him from others.
The giver, by contrast, is someone transcends his boundaries. By giving to others, he comes to love them and view them as an extension of himself.
One wise woman noted ironically: 'Nothing I acquired endured; everything I gave away lasted forever." What we attain is consumed and gone; even the pleasure of consumption is quickly forgotten. But what we give to another, even a smile on the street, endures, for it forms a bond between us.
That sense of relationship, of transcends the narrow confines of oneself, is the essence of Jewish happiness. Not by accident do our sages designate a large measure - a heaping tablespoon, for instance - as a 'laughing" measure.
'The soul that blesses grows fat,' reads the verse (Proverbs 11:25). The Vilna Gaon explains: One who brings joy to others and shares in their success, without jealousy, swells with joy, whereas 'envy causes the bones to rot" (Proverbs 14:30).
On Yom Kippur, we achieve a heightened awareness of the divine spark within us, even as we are shamed by the recognition of all that we have done to dim the light and betray the gift bestowed upon us. Once we recognize that spark within us, we are prepared to see it in our fellow human beings as well, and to connect with them and God over Succot - zman simhateinu.
Related Topics: Jewish Holidays, Succot
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