Sukkot: The Season of Our Rejoicing

The Festival of Sukkot as the time of the ingathering is a festival of thanksgiving and rejoicing – thanksgiving of the farmer for his prosperity and thanksgiving of the land for Israel’s settlement in its midst.

Hence, in contrast to the agricultural attachment, we are to stress the other side of our existence. We are to stress our non-dependence on the land, which we subordinate to a greater and higher purpose.

On the Festival of Sukkot, a time of rest and contentment, mere commemoration is not sufficient. In order to deepen the rational knowledge, the factual commemoration, it is necessary to do things that will add an emotional dimension and real experience to this memory. On Sukkot it is not sufficient to be reminded “that I caused the people of Israel to dwell in sukkot when I brought them out of the land of Egypt.” Rather, “all citizens in Israel shall dwell in sukkot.” (Leviticus 23:42-3)

This explains the unusual use of the term “citizens.” Precisely the citizen – one who feels that he has struck roots in the land, that he has a connection with the place and the soil, that he is a permanent resident of the country – needs to go out and live in a sukka again, even if only for a few days. He specifically must be reminded of the wanderers coming from the wilderness; he must nullify the feeling that “we” are different and have more privileges; and he must re-experience the sense of the common destiny of all of us.

We go out to the sukka for the sake of a more exalted existence, in which we return to our original independent lives. We return again to the original state of the Jewish people, and relive the youthful devotion and bridal love.

One of the simple explanations for the commandment to dwell in a sukka on the Festival of Sukkot lies in the dual feeling that the experience creates. On the one hand, there is the sense of exile, of leaving one’s house to dwell in a temporary structure, but there is also a feeling of recollection as we remember the exodus from Egypt. In dwelling in the temporary structure of the sukka, we give up all our bounty and abundance; we return to the nation’s original condition, to the experience of wandering and deficiency, wherein there is only faith and hope for the future but nothing substantial in the present.

Indeed, if one can live temporarily in the wilderness and once again be a wandering, dispossessed exile, he can view his life in a different – joyful – way.

The time of the ingathering is a source of joy for some, who celebrate their success, and a source of frustration and despondency for others. On Sukkot, the Festival of the Ingathering, we are commanded to dwell in the sukka – the primordial state, in which one sees life’s simple and basic graces, and rejoices in what one has instead of making demands and recalling nonexistent rights.

This return to the primordial point, to the place from which things begin, is what enables one to attain joy. The days of Sukkot, then, are like a recipe for joy. Through the humility of putting oneself where one belongs, a person learns to appreciate life’s gifts – the blessings that exist. The less he believes in “I deserve better,” and the more he experiences the original condition of deficiency and the exile, the more he will appreciate all the bounty, and attain happiness from it.

This joy is perhaps not ecstatic, but it is true joy which will grow from day to day – from the joy of the festival to Simḥat Beit ha-Sho’evah and to Simḥat Torah.

This essay was first published in The Times of Israel on September 15, 2013.

For even more insights into Sukkot, explore the Koren Talmud Bavli, tractate Sukka, with commentary and translation by Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz.

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