We are at a very interesting time in the Jewish calendar (I recognize I say that quite frequently, but alas, the wisdom of the rabbis and their intentionality behind our communal festivals), as we enter the final two days of Sukkot tonight (Hoshana Rabbah/Shemini Atzeret), with Simchat Torah on Saturday night.
Have you forgotten the past two weeks? Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We just had our High Holidays; why are we continuing another seven days with the festival of Sukkot, followed by Simchat Torah on the eighth day? Can’t we just relax and take a long needed break after the grueling work of Cheshbon Hanefesh (accounting of the soul) and Teshuvah that we’ve been engaged with for the last forty days!
Why does God seem to be so sure, demanding even, that we need another holiday?!?!
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch points out:
Rosh HaShanah, which is a day of supplication and broken-heartedness, is fixed for only one day. Similarly, Yom Kippur, which is a day of fasting, forgiveness and atonement, is only one day long. However, Sukkot, which is the time of our rejoicing [z’man simchateinu], the Torah says to celebrate for seven days. Because the desire of The Creator is that Israel persists with joy, as it is written, “Serve God in Joy.”
What else is all that teshuvah for if we cannot rejoice?! What Rabbi Hirsch points out is that the goal of our internal work is a life of joy! Plus, he illustrates the significance of joy to God – that God wants our relationship with (service to) God to be joyful to us!!! What’s more, that the ratio of joy to broken-heartedness be seven to one!
What I believe our calendar is hinting at is this: if we don’t celebrate Sukkot immediately after the intensely internal and necessary work of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, we might forget about the true goal that our Creator wants us to experience. Happiness!
In fact, the theme of joy – specifically communal joy – is so powerful during Sukkot that it overrides all individual mourning rites. For instance, if a loved one dies and is buried just before the festival, once Sukkot begins, the seven days of shiva is nullified.
But Rabbi, how can I be happy in this time of uncertainty? How can I be happy with covid, with the uncertainty of our election and leadership, with racial injustice and civil unrest, with climate change and natural disasters, and especially, if I just lost someone dear to me?
Part of the beauty of the traditions of Sukkot is that we leave the comfort of our “safe and secure” homes and dwell in temporary booths at the mercy of the elements. Just as the weather begins to shift to the rainy season and the days are getting shorter and colder, we are meant to camp out under the stars and remember that safety is really an illusion. We are never truly safe; we are always vulnerable. We are always in pursuit of a sukkat shalom, a shelter of peace.
So exactly at the time when we are most vulnerable, we practice rejoicing. We eat outside and welcome guests to festive meals of the new harvest.
Moreover, Sukkot in my opinion is a trial run for probably the greatest spiritual practice. In his book, The Untethered Soul, Michael Singer describes what he calls, The Path of Unconditional Happiness:
Billions of things could happen that you haven’t even thought of yet. The question is not whether they will happen. Things are going to happen. The real question is whether you want to be happy regardless of what happens. The purpose of your life is to enjoy and learn from your experiences. You were not put on Earth to suffer. You’re not helping anybody by being miserable. Regardless of your philosophical beliefs, the fact remains that you were born and you are going to die. During the time in between, you get to choose whether or not you want to enjoy the experience. Events don’t determine whether or not you’re going to be happy. They’re just events. You determine whether or not you’re going to be happy. You can be happy just to be alive. You can be happy having all these things happen to you, and then be happy to die. If you can live this way, your heart will be so open and your Spirit will be so free, that you will soar up to the heavens. (p. 143)
Life is hard, with many challenges and unforeseeable events that shock us to our core. But they don’t define who we are and how we can respond to them. That is the true nature of our power – our power to choose our response. And I don’t know about you, but I want to enjoy the ride while I’m in this world!
Sukkot asks the question: How can we, as a community, practice a path of unconditional happiness?
I’m super grateful that I’ve had some wonderful role models in my family whom I’ve witnessed practice this. One of my fondest memories of my grandfather was accompanying him to one of his cancer treatments just weeks before he died. He was in terrible physical pain; his body had grown more decrepit and weak. Yet while we drove to the hospital that day, he was full of laughter. We joked and we danced in the back seat of the car together. He even gave me a few dance tips along the way.
My baba-joon embodied the “both/and” of joy and sadness. Despite seeing the imminent end of his life, he chose joy. He chose to dance and be playful. He chose bravery over wallowing. He chose laughter over misery. He chose life.
As Michael Singer points out:
…you have to realize that you really only have one choice in this life, and it’s not about your career, whom you want to marry, or whether you want to seek God…Do you want to be happy, or do you not want to be happy? It’s really that simple. Once you make that choice, your path through life becomes totally clear. (p. 141)
Just less than two weeks ago, I learned of the deeply sad news that my childhood best friend had died. His death has slowed the skip in my step. It has at times completely debilitated my desire to dance through life. It hurts. Grief hits hard, and I feel like I can’t breathe.
I want to choose happiness, and at times it is too effing hard. The sadness tears a hole in my heart and sidelines me. I don’t even see it coming except in retrospect, when I realize I’ve been angry at my wife and kids and anyone else who comes my way.
It’s during these moments that I have to remember to be kind to myself. To be forgiving and loving and allow the waves of grief to run their course. And to do my best to find the courage to keep on dancing, despite the pain.
Which is why I believe we complete the cycle of our high holidays with Simchat Torah, which literally means, the Joy of Torah. As we finish our annual Torah reading and begin anew, the question is not how the text changes, but How have I changed? What do I need to learn this year? How will I grow this year? How do I continue to immerse myself in wisdom?
This year, I hope to continue to learn how to honor my pain instead of just pushing it away or sweeping it under the rug. To learn to love the pain and continue to dance. To continue to choose living a joyous life at a 7:1 ratio!
Isn’t our calendar lovely?!
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach!