Just a few days ago, on the holiest day of the year, we spoke about the essence of Judaism and perhaps even the meaning of life: Gratitude + Obligation + Joy. Rosh HaShanah comes every year to symbolize gratitude and Yom Kippur to remind us of our obligations. And on Sukkot, the holiday we prepare to begin now and continue for the next week, we will celebrate z’man simchateinu: the season of our joy. Yet, it is significant that the season of our joy is also the holiday on which we embrace the fragility of life.
Throughout the week of Sukkot we are commanded by the Torah to dwell in booths, eating and sleeping in these temporary shelters just like our ancestors did thousands of years ago. “… [A]nd you shall rejoice before the LORD your God for seven days,” the Torah tells us. “You shall thus celebrate [Sukkot, the Festival of Booths] as a feast to the LORD for seven days in the year. It shall be a perpetual statute throughout your generations; you shall celebrate it in the seventh month,” which is the month of Tishrei (Leviticus 23:40-42). Celebrating Sukkot in this way, by living our lives consciously and intentionally subject to the winds and rains of life, we are reminded of our ancestors’ 40 year journey through the Wilderness; we are reminded of the fall harvest and the hope that it will provide enough food to last the winter; and we are reminded as well that there are no certainties in life other than God Himself.
So how, then, could the “Season of our Joy” coincide with such reminders of the fragility of life that Sukkot and all its mitzvot contain? The answer is, I believe, that once we accept that only God is the only One truly in control, then we can truly begin to feel free. Life is certainly full of choices, and we are responsible for the choices we make. But in reality we only control such a small fraction of the world that peace can be found in accepting our limitations. We are in control of how we respond to life’s winds and rains, but the winds and rains come. So we give thanks to God for the blessings we do have, and we hope that the mitzvot we perform mitigate the effects of life’s storms. This is the extent of our control in the world, and there is strength and comfort in accepting life’s realities.
This is truly z’man simchateinu: the Season of our Joy. We will parade with the lulav and etrog (except on Shabbat); we will sing Hallel, psalms of praise; and we will smile, laugh, and enjoy sharing in each other’s company. And we will do so not in spite of Sukkot’s reminders that our lives are fragile, but because we are keenly aware of life’s fragility and how important it is to be joyful throughout.
Rebecca, Caleb and Ayal join me in wishing you chag Sukkot sameach(Happy Sukkot) and Shabbat shalom!
-Rabbi Aaron Starr