by Tamar Rabinowitz, Dean of Jewish Studies

I have always loved Sukkot. When I was a child, it always felt like the adults were less somber and tired after the heaviness of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and an excitement would pervade our home and our shul community.  After the many profound words and prayers of the High Holidays, Sukkot offers a very different holiday mode.

There are several mitzvot associated with this festival .The most famous are dwelling in the sukkah and taking the Four Species.  But Sukkot holds another mitzvah, possibly among the most difficult mitzvot we have, and that is the mitzvah of being joyful. “On the first day, you shall take the product of hadar trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before Hashem your God seven days”. (Lev. 23:40) ּ Similarly: “After the ingathering from your threshing floor …you shall hold the Feast of Booths for seven days. You shall rejoice in your festival, with your son and daughter, your male and female slave, the [family of the] Levite, the stranger, and the widow in your communities…you shall have nothing but joy… (Deut. 16: 14-15) 

The main theme of the holiday is pure joy. Why is this season particularly joyful? If we’ve really been forgiven on Yom Kippur, if the world is truly renewed and freedom is real, then Sukkot is the culmination of all we’ve ever dreamed of or prayed for—it is a climactic moment. The source of this joy is simply the reality of freedom and the possibility of a radically different future. Emerging out of many hours of prayers, deep internal reflection, and a lot of time inside, we leave the synagogue walls and the walls of our homes into the great sukkah outdoors. Now that we’ve declared the new year, repented, and declared our intentions, we must set out to embody who we want to be as people, a community, and a force for good in the greater universe. There is no better way to embrace our place in the larger universe than leaving our secure dwellings and going outside and embracing it as a reality. Moving into the world with confidence is definitely a potential source of great joy. Redeemed from Egypt, purified by Yom Kippur, we are free to determine our journey and our future. Rabbi Yitz Greenberg writes in The Jewish Way that “Only those who know the fragility of life can truly appreciate the full preciousness of every moment…. The release from Yom Kippur leads to the extraordinary outburst of life that is Sukkot”  

I want to suggest that the Torah is also making a radical claim about joy and happiness. The culture most of us live in has taught us that in order to be happy, we have to do things, get things, or have certain things happen. We learn to think that, one day, when everything is exactly how we want it, then we will be happy. The Torah on the other hand seems to be suggesting that joy can be a choice, that we can choose to behave and act in the world that will bring joy.  We are told that more of our happiness is in our own hands. As we move into this z’man simchateinu (our season of joy), I challenge us all to consider ways in which we can make choices that will bring happiness into our lives and the lives of others. 

Hag Sameach.