Sukkot: The Festival of Double Joy

Sukkot is unique among the festivals for being referred to as זמן שמחתנו, the time of our joy. Why is this the case? Sir Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes about how Sukkot is defined not by one overriding symbol but two, both of which were referenced in this morning’s Torah reading. The first is to “take for yourselves a fruit of the citron tree, palm fronds, myrtle branches and willows of the brook, and be joyous in the presence of the LORD your G-d for seven days.”[1] Two verses later, the command is “You shall dwell in booths for seven days…so that your descendants will know that I settled the children of Israel in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt; I am the LORD your G-d.”[2] Rabbi Sacks writes that Sukkot is the only Jewish holiday which is part of both festival cycles: the festivals of the seventh month which serve as “a memorial of creation” and the pilgrimage festivals which “tell the singular story of Jewish creation.”[3] The four species, as Maimonides states, remind us of the fertility of the land of Israel,[4] as does the water-dwelling festival of Simhat Beit HaShoevah which I will discuss tomorrow. In contrast, the command to dwell for seven days in Sukkot presupposes the absence of rain, for if it rains we are exempted from the command to eat in the Sukkah.[5]

In encompassing both the universality of creation and nature and the historical story of our ancestors, Rabbi Sacks writes that Sukkot represents “the dual character of the Jewish faith. We believe in the universality of G-d, together with the particularity of Jewish history and identity. All nations need rain. We are all part of nature. We are dependent on the complex ecology of the created world. We are all threatened by climate change, global warming, the destruction of rain forests, the overexploitation of non-renewable energy sources and the mass extinction of species. But each nation is different. As Jews we are heirs to a history unlike that of any other people: small, vulnerable, suffering repeated exile and defeat, yet surviving and celebrating.”[6] That is why we have Sukkot, which will be observed as a universal holiday when the Messiah comes, and Shemini Atzeret, a day which is only for G-d and Israel. As Jews, we recognize our part in the larger world while concurrently our unique mission to follow the Torah and be role models for the other nations.

One can also see the dichotomy between universality and particularity by contrasting yesterday’s Haftarah with todays. Yesterday we read from the Prophet Zechariah who gives the universalistic message proclaimed thrice daily in Aleinu, “The LORD will be king over the whole earth. On that day the LORD will be One, and His name will be one.”[7] In contrast, today we read from 1 Kings about the creation of the Temple in Jerusalem. This just refers to our people, “all the men of Israel gathered before King Solomon at the Feast.”[8] On Sukkot we thus experience joy both from it being a holiday where we celebrate being human, the beauty of nature and the One who created it all as well as a holiday when we commemorate our ancestors’ journey through the Sinai Desert and their creation of a House of worship for G-d.

This Sukkot we should celebrate both forms of joy, the gift of life we feel from being human as well as the beauty of being born a Jew and getting to celebrate the achievements of our people. We need time to put our challenges aside and revel in the wonders of life. May we feel the double joy of the beauty of creation and the gift of Judaism each day of this festival, and may it lead us to feel only gratitude, appreciation and amazement for the gifts and opportunities life has to offer.

[1] Leviticus 23:40

[2] Leviticus 23:42-43

[3] Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Ceremony & Celebration: Introduction to the Holidays (Jerusalem, Maggid Books, 2017), p. 108.

[4] Maimonides, The Guide for the Perplexed, III:43

[5] Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Covenant and Conversation: Leviticus (Jerusalem, Maggid Books, 2015), p. 348-9.

[6] Ibid, 109-10.

[7] Zechariah 14:9

[8] 2 Kings 8:2

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