There is a mitzva of rejoicing on each of the three pilgrimage festivals of the Jewish calendar. We are encouraged to have festive meals, with meat and wine, and husbands are enjoined to buy their wives new clothing or jewelry for the holiday.
Yet of the three festivals only Succot is specifically known as zman simhateinu - the time of our rejoicing.
When the Temple stood, this rejoicing was expressed in the dancing and celebrations connected to the water libations throughout the festival. And even today, Succot retains a special place in the hearts of Jews in Israel, as attested to by the succot going up everywhere, in religious and secular neighborhoods alike.
But what exactly is the special connection between Succot and joy? A hint to the answer lies in a puzzling midrash. The midrash asks why we begin building our succa immediately after the our judgment for the coming year was sealed on Yom Kippur. The midrash answers that perhaps the Jewish people received a judgment of exile, but in lieu of exile God accepts our leaving our homes and entering the succa.
To understand this midrash, we must first understand the meaning of galut, exile. Our nearly 2,000-year exile began as a consequence of sinat hinam, causeless enmity, between Jews. Exile follows from sinat hinam not as a punishment, but to repair the failure of vision that gave rise to a lack of unity in the first place.
Sinat hinam, the habit of viewing our fellow Jews with a jaundiced eye, arises out of a view of the world as essentially an arena for competition over scarce goods. If we view the purpose of life as the acquisition of the largest possible slice of a fixed pie of material goods, then life becomes a zero sum game, in which someone else's victory is of necessity my loss.
In such a world, we are all competitors. The world of the spirit, by contrast, is not characterized by scarcity because its source is infinite. As a consequence, those whose primary focus is on spiritual matters do not experience life as unceasing competition.
In a yeshiva, for instance, the most respected students are those at the most elevated spiritual level. Rather than arousing jealousy, they arouse gratitude, for there is a recognition that every act of spiritual growth by one individual makes such growth easier for everyone else. In the world of the spirit, one person's attainments do not impose limits on others; they increase the spiritual potential of everyone.
Exile is God's way of redirecting our focus from the material to the spiritual world. It deprives us of our sense of security in the material world in the most dramatic fashion possible. Exile thus serves as a corrective to the hatred engendered by viewing the world solely in terms of competition over material goods.
Entering the succa is itself a miniature exile. Halacha requires that the succa be an impermanent dwelling. We leave a dwelling of ostensible security for one lacking that quality. By diminishing our connection to the material world, we thereby deepen our awareness of our relationship to God.
The Talmud explicitly connects the succa to reduced emphasis on the material world. It interprets the verse 'I caused the Children of Israel to dwell in booths when I took them out of Egypt' to mean that poverty suits the Jewish people. Only by throwing off our bondage to the physical world do we escape the spiritual depravity of Egypt.
Peace and unity are an outgrowth of the redirection of vision that we experience by dwelling in the succa. Every night in our prayers we express this intrinsic relation between succa and unity when we request God to 'spread over us Your succa of peace.' That unity is, in turn, related to the special simha, rejoicing, of Succot.
Hebrew is not a language rich in synonyms, yet it has 10 terms for happiness. Simha, says the Vilna Gaon, refers to a constant internal state - a sense of well-being that derives from awareness of a connection to God.
Simha also describes a breaking down of barriers, of expansion through unification. Even our colloquial speech reflects this linkage of simha to expansion beyond our own finite boundaries. When we refer to smahot, we primarily mean weddings and births - i.e., the joining of two formerly separate individuals and their transformation into a family.
The physical world is one of boundaries, of finite objects. By contrast, the spiritual world is one of unity, because it is linked to one infinite source. Awareness of that unity is the greatest source of joy in life, and at no time of the year is it more accessible than on Succot.
Our Sages say that one who never experienced Simhat Beit Hashoeva in the Temple never saw true rejoicing. Even today at a large Simhat Beit Hashoeva, with thousands wending around the room in concentric circles,hand in hand, shoulder to shoulder, one can feel some hint of the melding of individuals into a collective unity that took place then.
The climax of the Simhat Beit Hashoeva in the times of the Temple was the pouring of the water libation on the altar, from which it flowed back to the same spring from which it was originally drawn - a never-ending cycle representing the connection to the eternal God, the well- spring of all existence.
May we all merit to learn the lesson of Jewish unity this Succot, so that we can experience it in the coming year.