Sukkot is called in the liturgy “the season of our joy”-zman simchateinu. Honestly, it does not feel in the world as a season of joy. Our hearts go out to the devastated inhabitants of Puerto Rico and to the victims and their families of the horrific mass shooting in Las Vegas. (Please continue to donate tzedaka to help them.) Everyday we are confronted with a leadership crisis we never could have imagined last year at Sukkot. And so many more events around the world challenge any sense of joy we could attain.
However, the traditions around Sukkot exhibit an understanding about how troubled our world is as well as the need to dig deeper for the joy that is at the heart of this festival. The “book” of this festival is Ecclesiastes-Kohelet which is easily one of the most dark books of the Hebrew Scriptures. It’s tone of weariness about the world seems completely out of synch with the description of the holiday as a period of joy.
Many have reflected about the asymmetry of reading Kohelet during Sukkot. My take on this pairing is that Sukkot asks us to find joy through simple gratitude while we acknowledge the realities of the world we live in. We find joy in the appreciation of shelter, of our enduring relationships of family and friends, of the joy of sharing our bounty with strangers and guests. The humbling act of building or eating in or even residing in a temporary booth-sukkah can bring to us an awareness of the basic conditions that enable us to live with gratitude. “Who is rich? Ben Zoma asks in Pirkei Avot, “those that are content with their portion.”
Sukkot is the festival of hospitality-hachnasat orchim. It is a great mitzvah to invite guests into the Sukkah. Our tradition considers hospitality the joy of doing a mitzvah-“simchah shel mitzvah.” I believe this relational dimension of Sukkot is key to understanding joy. We find joy in active connection with others. Sharing our table, our homes, our sukkot is a basic ingredient for joy.
Panim Hadashot-New Faces is an organization that is centered around Jewish hospitality practices. We view hospitality all year around as not only an way to personal joy, but a practice that improves the world and brings joy to others. I love Sukkot for this reason. It demands that we acknowledge the world around us, but that we not succumb to despair. We start building the joy from within most temporary structures and build outward from there. Similarly, we build the joy within ourselves and extend it to others in an ever expanding circle.
I wish you a joyous festival and the strength to build resistance to despair from the difficulties of the world.
May you be worthy of a Sukkat Shalom, a Sukkah of peace,
Rabbi Dov Gartenberg