Succot--the time of our rejoicing
by Jonathan Rosenblum
September 29, 2004
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 simchateinu, the time of our rejoicing. What exactly is the special connection between Succot and joy?
Like all the pilgrammage festivals, Succot has a connection to the agricultural cycle: It is the harvest festival. In an agrarian society, the harvest is the happiest time of the year. The farmer can finally rest from his work and contemplate with satisfaction the fruits of his labors. The harvest also arouses feelings of special closeness to G-d, as the farmer acknowledges that all his backbreaking efforts would have been for naught had G-d not caused the winds to blow and the rains to fall in sufficient amounts and at the right time.
Succot, of course, is not just part of the cycle of pilgrammage festivals; it is also the culmination of the process of repentance that begins with Rosh Hashanah and continues through Yom Kippur. On the spiritual plane, we experience something parallel to the satisfaction experienced by the farmer as he surveys his harvested crops.
On Rosh Hashanah, we confront G-d in absolute solitude and are forced to ask ourselves: What is the task for which I was uniquely created? Based on the answer, we set our course for the future. With a vision of our ultimate goal squarely before us, we then looked backward during the Ten Days of Repentance to ascertain all in our behavior that must be repaired if we are to attain that goal.
We emerge from the scorching self-scrutiny of Yom Kippur, feeling that we have become not just a better person but a new person. As Maimonides describes the power of teshuva (repentance): "Last night, he was hated before G-d, disgusting, distant, and abominable [in His sight]. And today, he is beloved, a delight, intimate, a close friend. . . . "
With the emotionally draining work of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur behind us, we enter the succah to be enveloped in G-d’s closeness. The succah reminds us of the Clouds of Glory that surrounded and protected us in the howling wilderness on our exodus from Egypt. After the Sin of the Golden Calf, the Clouds of Glory disappeared. Only after Moses received the second tablets on Yom Kippur were we fully reconciled, and on Succot the Clouds reappeared.
The halachah requires the succah to be an impermanent structure. For seven days we leave the security of our homes, and place ourselves directly under His protection, just as we did in the Desert. By so doing, we transform even our most mundane activities – eating, sleeping, and drinking -- into mitzvoth.
Our heightened sense of dependence on G-d diminishes our connection to the physical world and redirects our focus to the spiritual. The Talmud explicitly connects the succah 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 between Jews is an outgrowth of our renewed focus on the spiritual. For those who dwell in the world of spirit, life is not perceived as a zero-sum game, an endless competition for pieces of a limited pie. Every night in our prayers we express this intrinsic relation between succah and peace when we request God to 'spread over us Your succah of peace.'
That unity between Jews is also related to the special simcha of Succot. Simcha, in the Holy Tongue, describes a breaking down of barriers, of expansion through unification. Even our colloquial speech reflects this linkage of simcha to expansion beyond our own finite boundaries. Those events we refer to as simchas – brit, bar mitzvah, marriage – all have this aspect of joining a solitary individual to something larger – whether it be the covenant of Abraham, to the collective Jewish people, or his or her spouse.
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 Simchat Beit Hashoeva in the Temple never saw true rejoicing. Even today at a large Simchat 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.
May we all merit to truly experience Succot this year as zman simchateinu, the time of our rejoicing.
Related Topics: Jewish Holidays, Succot
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