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What is the Joy of Sukkot?

My daughter alerted me to a New York Times essay by Bari Weiss, "A Dress Rehearsal for our Deaths".  The piece was revelatory for her because she had not understood the holidays in that way. I said to myself, "My daughter is now becoming an adult."


The essay is about Yom Kippur, highlighting an observation that has been made by others. I have in mind the original writing of the late Rabbi Alan Lew and his book, This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared.  It is a book you read slowly and absorb over many years of reading.


Rabbi Lew sees the months from TishaBaav in the summer through Sukkot in the fall as a time when we rehearse for our deaths. But this sobering experience ends with the joy of Sukkot which begins this year on the evening of 9/23/18. Sukkot is referred to in Jewish tradition as "the season of our joy-zeman simchateinu".  I use the word joy a lot when I describe the type of experience Panim Hadashot-New Faces offers.  I don't use the word flippantly.


I offer this passage from This is Real for you which illuminates the feeling of joy.


"When we speak of joy here (of the festival of Sukkot), we are not speaking of fun. Joy is a deep release of the soul, and it includes death and pain. Joy is any feeling fully felt, any experience we give our whole being to. (italics mine) We are conditioned to choose pleasure and to reject pain, but the truth is, any moment of our life fully inhabited, any feeling fully felt, any immersion in the full depth of life, can be the source of deep joy.'


I feel this joy as I sit in the sukkah drinking soup cooled by the rain. I will wave the lulav and the etrog, the four species we are commanded to take up during Sukkot. In my right hand I will hold the long spine of a palm branch, with two willow sprigs tied to its left and three sprigs of myrtle to its right. And in my left hand I will hold a yellow citron full of pocks and ridges, and I will wave these things twice, once as I sing hymns of joy and praise to God, and once as I march around the synagogue in solemn procession crying, “Save me, please! Save me, please!”


The sexual imagery couldn’t be clearer—the palm frond phallus with the myrtle and willow testes; the ridged and speckled yellow fruit—nor could it be more appropriate. What sex and agriculture have in common is that they point simultaneously to both the power and the impotence of the human condition. We have no idea how to form a human life. We can’t make it happen by ourselves, yet we are absolutely indispensable to the process. We have no idea how a seed bears fruit. We can’t make that happen either. Yet if we don’t plant the seed and nurture it and water it and harvest it, no fruit will ever come. These things can’t happen without us, but neither can we make them happen on our own.


And here at the core of our life, here at its paradoxical center, there is a mysterious, inexplicable, senseless joy.


This is the overwhelming, senseless gratitude we feel when we are finally fully awake. And it makes no difference what we awaken to, whether it is to pain or to pleasure, to life or to death; it is all of a piece, all the ground of a deep joy when fully inhabited, when wholly attended to."


I wish for you the openness and the capacity to experience this joy so beautifully describe. Find a Sukkah to meditate in during this coming week and let the joy of the festival sprinkle over you like the rain that falls through the partial openings of a Sukkah roof.


Hag Same'ah,

Rabbi Dov Gartenberg