Sukkot: A Time For Our Rejoicing

Sukkot, in our liturgy, is deisgnated as “Zman Simchatenu”-the time of our rejoicing. Yet, the Torah requires that we be joyous in all the festivals, so why designate specifically Sukkot as “Zman Simchatenu?”

Through the obligation to be joyous on all festivals is universal, applying equally to Pesach, Shavuout and Sukkot, apparently there is a special dimension of Simcha that relates exclusively to Sukkot. This particular joy in Sukkot is expressed by the biblical requirement of taking the lulov and etrog in the Temple for the entire week of Sukkot.

The Torah refers to the mitzvah using the phrase “Thou shal be joyous before God for seven days.” The lulov is, therefore, an instrument of joyous praise and thanksgiving to the Almighty. The inarticulate silent praise of the lulov is, therefore, linked to the Hallel.

What is the source of the special Simcha of Sukkot? There are, I beleive, three reasons that stamp Sukkot as “Zman Simchatenu.”

The first reason relates to the connection between Yom Kippur and Sukkot. The peak of religious ecstasy for the Jew is reached on Yom Kippur, when man stands before God in all His majesty, and through fasting, introspection and prayer, is granted atonement. Sukkot, which immediately follows Yom Kippur, is a celebration of the restoration of the intimate relationship between God and man.

Given the special theme of exultation on Sukkot, it seems ironic that the primary mitzvah, after which the festival is named, is the sukkah. One would have imagined that th eflimsy make-shift sukkah, which barely protects us from the elements, is incongruous with the theme of simchah. On the contrary, one’s home with all its comfort, and warmth would seem the more appropriate abode for this joyous time.

There is a basic truth which we can derive from this paradox, which is especially relevant to the contemporary American scene.

There has never existed a more affluent and powerful society in history than the United States. Yet we often find the American unfulfilled and frustrated. Evidence of this condition is the astronimicaly high divorce rate in America. In the midst of an abundance of freedom and wealth, we find tension, aimlessness and alienation. This unhappiness, I believe, stems from a sense of insecurity inherent to the nature of man, but especially accentuated by the grim specter of the nuclear age. As John F. Kennedy once observed, every person “lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles.”

Yet, more fundamentally, the sense of insecurity stems from our very mortality. Man is frail, weak, frought with fear and indecision, ultimately to be overcome by forces beyond his understanding and control. No matter how rich, powerful or influential man is, he is subliminally confronted by this stark reality.

In ontological terms one can only achieve serenity through faith in God. Because man’s source is in God, estrangement from God creates a sense of incompleteness and discord. It is only that feeling of His constant embrace which gives one a transcendant sense of security.

The Sukkah-A Sense of Divine Providence

The sukkah symbolizes this sense of divine providence. The sukkah commemorates God’s protection of the Jewish people during their 40-year trek in the desert, where they were protected by the “Clouds of Glory”. The security of a house of brick and mortar is fleeting and transitory and can not shelter us from deep existential fears. Only the sukkah, which is constructed of walls defined by Halacha, gives us this sense of security and well being. “If God will not build the house, its workers toil in vain, if God will not watch the city, its watchman wakes in vain.” It is from that faith perspective, that the great joy of the festival of Sukkot flows. It transforms the mere two and a fraction walls of the sukkah into a mighty fortress.

The Talmud tells us that in the end of days God will admonish the nations of the world for having rejected the mitzvah of dwelling in the sukkah. This metaphorical use of the sukkah, seeks to communicate that while the nations advanced civilization by constructing great buildings, bridges and by other technological feats, their acts were devoid of faith in God. Their civilizations were created solely for their own self aggrandizement, and not for the acknowledgement of God’s presence on earth.

Sukkot As the Manifestation of the Oral Tradition

There is another reason for the theme of simcha on Sukkot, which I heard from my revered Rebbe, Hagaon Rav Yosef Soloveitchick, shlita. Yom Kippur commemorates the giving of the Torah since the second tablets were given on Yom Kippur. This represented God’s forgiveness for the sin of the Golden Calf. Therefore, Yom Kippur was chosen as a day of atonement for all generations. According to the Bais HaLevi, the Oral Torah was given with the second tablets. The Mishnah in Taanith tells us that the grandest day of the Jewish calendar is Yom Kippur because te Torah was given on that day. Where is the celebration commemorating the giving of the Torah, partticularly the second tablets which the Torah Shel Ba’al Pe was transmitted? On Yom Kippur, itself being a day of fasting, no celebration is possible. That celebration, said the Rav, is postponed until Sukkot.

Because Sukkot is a celebration of Torah and particularly of the oral law, we see the particular emphasis of the oral tradition in interpreting the laws of Sukkot. The construction of the sukkah, itself is replete with Hala- chot I’Moshe M’Sinai, laws transmitted orally by Moshe from Sinai that have Biblical import, but were not written down.

The libation in the Temple on Sukkot was of water, not only wine, also a law that is Halacha L’Moshe M’Slnai. The Mishna records that the Zaduki Kohen, who denied the oral tradition, poured the libation of water on his feet, rather than on the altar. The people who were loyal to the Perushim, seeing this desecration of the oral law, stoned him with their Etrogim.

One of the cardinal rules of our calendar is that Hoshana Raba never fall on Shabbos, so as never to defer the taking of the arava. The reason for this, is that taking of the arava, being rooted in Halacha L’Moshe M’Si’nai, was denied by the Zedukim. To emphasize its significance, and the primacy of the oral tradition, the calendar was established so that arava is always taken.

This celebration of Torah reaches its peak on Simchat Torah. We now can understand why Simchat Torah, on Shminei Azeret, is the culmination of the Sukkot festivities. For the source of jubilation on Sukkot is the rejocing with the Torah.

The Mitzvah of Hakhel

This Sukkot, is the Beis Hamikdash will be rebuilt, we will fulfill the mitzvah of Hakhel. The Torah prescribes that on the Sukkot festival immediately after the Shmitah year, the king was to read from Deuteronomy in front of the entire assembly-men, women, and and children.

Why was this reading particularly linked to Sukkot, and why only after the Shmitah year?

First, given that Sukkot is a celebration of Torah, it is appropriate that the reading of the Torah in front of the entire assembly take place on Sukkot. The message inherent in the Shmitah year, is that the land, despite all of Man’s attempts to cultivate and subdue it, belongs to God. Man returns the land to God, recognizing His dominion over all. It is after the Shmitah year, that this essential faith perspective comes to the fore. Civilization, commerce and temporal power pause to be endowed with the renewed understanding that all is a gift from God. It is the king, the symbol of temporal power, who must bow his head before God in the Temple. Security for the nation collectively, and for man individually, cannot be found in mighty armies or advanced economies, but only through fidelity to the Torah, and faith in its transcendant message of peace and harmony.

The sukkah is the symbol of faith, and for the Jew that faith is concretized in the Torah. It is the faith of the Jew, rooted in the eternal Torah, which is the wellspring of joy and redemption.

“Behold, God is my deliverance; I will trust, and will not be afraid; truly the Lord is my strength and my song; he has delivered me indeed. Joyfully shall you draw upon the spring of deliverance.”

Rabbi Menachem Genack is the Rabbinic Administrator of the Orthodox Union’s Kashruth Division, Professor of Talmud at Touro College and spiritual leader of Congregation Shomrei Emunah, Englewood, New Jersey. 

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