Succot 2023: Living With Joy
By Rabbi Susan Laemmle
I still remember, years ago, suddenly noticing the odd Hebrew construction that gets turned into a song: V’samachta b’chagecha, v’hayitah ach sameach. What is that odd ach doing, I asked myself? The answer to that question is both complicated and about complexity. As I’ve gotten more comfortable with life’s complexity, this turn of phrase has meant more and more to me.
Since my family built its first Succah back in the 1970s, following guidelines in the Jewish Catalogue, the Fall Harvest Festival has been my favorite among Jewish holidays. I’m grateful to have been able to have a home Succah nearly every place I lived so that it’s been possible to experience solitary breakfasts as well as festive lunches and intimate dinners right out the back door. It took me years to grasp how fast Succot comes after Yom Kippur so that it’s best to have the whole Fall Holiday sequence well in mind before it begins, and then I suggested that to Jewish newcomers.
In the midst of all our planning and shopping and cooking, all the davening and dressing up, inviting people and being invited, it’s easy to lose sight of the richly complicated joy that’s at the heart of the holiday. Like the other pilgrimage festivals, Succot has multiple layers: agricultural, historical/national, and spiritual/religious. Torah readings from Leviticus and Numbers, a Haftarah reading from Zecharia, and the megillah addition of Kohelet – this year on Shemini Atzaret rather than Succot’s opening day on Shabbat —all these help us tap into Succot’s layers of meaningful sweetness like maple syrup.
And yet, ours is certainly not the only family here that’s tasted sorrow in recent years as well as much joy. How can we tap into Succot and life’s positive bounty when our lives and families and feelings are so multitudinous, so tumultuous? This year for the first time I’ve asked myself that question and looked to see what answers the tradition could help me come up with.
The Hebrew adverb ach has biblical occurrences that confirm and others than restrict; it can mean something like “surely” and also something like “in contrast to.” The biblical dictionary by Brown, Driver and Briggs notes that “in some passages the affirmative and the restrictive senses agree equally with the context, and authorities read the Hebrew differently.” So it is that Ibn Ezra covers both bases, writing: “It is in fact a commandment to have joy on the Feast of Booths. But some suggest that the verb is simply a future tense, marking another result of the Lord’s blessing – that you will always have nothing but joy.” For Rashi too “in a straightforward reading of the text, this is not a commandment but a promise.” Whereas Sforno enjoins: “Let no grief be mixed in with your joy,” which sounds more like a commandment to me.
In a way, the ambivalent, Janus-faced quality of Succot joy is built into its place in the holiday sequence. Coming so fast after Yom Kippur — the most serious day on our calendar — Succot marks a new beginning, starting things off with a clean slate. And yet, no sooner do we breath in and out and move around, even if we’ve managed to improve ourselves, we are likely to fall into new, if not the old, errors. And so it is that Succot joy must surmount obstacles and root itself deeply if it’s to be full-hearted and real. As Yitz Greenberg puts this, “The joy of Succot reflects maturity. It is the happiness of the free person who chooses to live this way, who prefers this mission to all other alternatives. There is an inner joy even in the struggle against obstacles, the joy of choice and of anticipation of the goal” on what he calls “the Exodus Journey.”
Let’s consider Maimonides’ list of the 613 mitzvot and look specifically at what Sefer Ha-Hinnuch (a 13th century Spanish work) labels as “being happy on the pilgrimage festivals,” which comes as number 488. It’s anonymous author elaborates in a way I find most helpful: “At the root of the precept lies this reason: man was constructed in such a manner that his nature needs to rejoice at times, just as he needs food under all circumstances, and rest, and sleep. . . . God set certain times of the year as holy seasons for us to remember the miracles and kindnesses that God did for us. Then at those times God commanded us to provide the physical self with the materials for rejoicing that it needs, and the result would be a great healing medicine for us.”
Succot encourages — indeed requires — us to “play house” like children, to rhythmically move our bodies in all directions, to take up various plants as extensions of ourselves, to hang paper chains and other bits of decoration in our temporary quarters, and to create human circles that everyone gets drawn into. It urges us to eat and drink with the plenty and variety than our means allow; to sing and celebrate not alone or even just in our family, but while welcoming guests both symbolic and human, both alive and remembered.
From the rich Jewish tradition that is our inheritance, comes a promise: Succot will reciprocate all we do to make it ours. It will give us a joy that’s more than transient. In a beautiful gloss in his Trumat Tzvi Pentateuch, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch presents a vision of such enduring joy: “The behest v’hayitah sameach” turns your rejoicing into a permanent trait of your personality, and the words ach sameach mean that this joyfulness in your character will persist even under circumstances that would otherwise tend to cast a cloud over it. You will remain joyful nevertheless; that is, still joyful. Rejoicing is the most sublime flower and fruit to ripen on the tree of life planted by the Law of God. . . . It will extend beyond the festive season, accompany us back into everyday life. . . and remain with us through all its vicissitudes.”
Before concluding, I pause finally to ask myself – as you may have wondered — why we keep talking about joy rather than happiness since simcha also, maybe mostly, gets translated as with a variant of happy. If I asked you now if you are happy — if I asked myself — what reply would come? Many of us have our struggles, aspects of ourselves and our lives that make things difficult, sometimes near impossible for us to go forward physically, financially, emotionally or spiritually. We try to meet our obligations and do the right thing, we take satisfaction where we can and endeavor to make things better for ourselves and those we care about. But it’s rather like Tevya’s wife Golde being asked if she loves her husband. Do I love you? Am I happy?
It seems to me that Hirsch and much of Jewish tradition doesn’t care nearly as much about happiness as it does about joy. Happiness will, if we are fortunate, come at some point in our lives as an indirect benefit of our having been both lucky and worthy. Joy is something we can pursue directly by following Torah teaching as well as prudential wisdom. We need to make provision for it, plan toward it, reach out for it, and dig deeply into it. And then — hold onto it with all our might through the counter-indications, the suffering, the losses, and even the horror.
And we need to help one another, in our families and in our community, to enable everyone to experience the joy that is a “healing medicine” for our fragmented selves and world. Let’s try to do that, all together, in 5784.
Shanah Tovah ooh’metukah.