“This Is Water” and This Is Joy
A number of weeks ago, David Foster Wallace, a favorite author of mine, tragically passed away. A visionary with words, his presence in American literature will be missed. A number of years ago, in a commencement speech to Kenyon College, Foster Wallace began his charge to the graduates with the following pithy parable:
There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an
older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says. “Morning, boys.
How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually
one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”
His point was relatively simple: “the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.”
There is an almost organic progression from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur. However, when we get caught up in preparations for the holidays, we risk missing the intended effect. From Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur we work on deconstructing ourselves and our worlds. We stand together and seek to expose our inner selves, leaving us vulnerable and open. The language of Yom Kippur prepares us for this feeling—we are not atoning for our sins as we do at the beginning of Leviticus when the laws of sacrifice are first introduced, but on another level altogether. As we learn during our Torah reading, on Yom Kippur we atone from sin (Lev. 16:30). Through the day we literally achieve a level of purity—during the S’lichot and Avodah services we recite over and over again the verse, “on this day we are purified.” At the end of Ne‘ilah, we are left spiritually lighter.
However, on the day after Yom Kippur, we walk around in a haze. We find it difficult to return to the mundane. But it is much more than a day of fasting and introspection that clouds our minds. With Sukkot, we reach the apex of the holiday season and the moment when the result of our process filters through the haze.
This is the time when we can let the impact of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur wash over us. It is then that we can begin to experience the joy that is the recurring theme of Sukkot.
During the holiday we encounter three distinct verses that relate the joy of Sukkot, each confirming the holiday, as we refer to it in our ‘Amidah as well as during kiddush, as z’man simhateinu (time of our joy). But what in particular is it about Sukkot that makes it a time of joy?
Isaiah Horowitz (1565-1630), a rabbi and mystic, shares a passage from the Mishnah, from the first chapter of Rosh Hashanah. The Mishnah states that there are four days on which different aspects of the world are judged: Passover for the harvest; Shavu’ot for the fruits; Rosh Hashanah for all who walk the earth; and Sukkot for water. Horowitz teaches through a midrash that this year of judgment, culminating with Sukkot, is the rationale for multiple verses of joy associated with this holiday. After the anxiety of judgment comes joy—but it cannot be truly manifest until all trials are over. The joy from surviving the preceding judgments compounds and at last can be expressed during Sukkot (Sh’lah Mas. Sukkot, 34).
For another view, Maimonides, in his laws concerning the lulav, shares that although all the holidays have a particular mitzvah of joy associated with them, Sukkot maintained a higher level of joy because of the special celebrations that occurred in the time of the Temple. Since, as we learned from the Mishnah, Sukkot is the judgment day for water, each morning of Sukkot a special water offering was made where the priests would pour water over the altar. Then, in a celebration during the holiday called Simhat Beit Hashoevah, the community would gather and dance, sing and rejoice (8:12). The Mishnah attests that the joy of this holiday is so remarkable that it goes so far as to say that if you had not seen the celebration of Simhat Beit Hashoevah, you have never truly experienced joy in your life (M Sukkah 5:1).
While each of these rabbinic reasons offers support for the mandate of joy during Sukkot, I believe that there is a much simpler reason for the joy of Sukkot. With Yom Kippur completed, the departure of the angst and anxiety intentionally cultivated by the liturgy and religious fervor during this season would elicit a sigh of relief from anyone. Simply making it through the Days of Awe is enough to create joy. With the brief respite of this week, we are now ready to simply enjoy life. Who can help but experience a feeling of joy?
But it may be a bit deeper than that as well. We take leave from the comforts of our lives on Sukkot. We spend our time eating and living in structures that at best are temporary—our roofs are insubstantial and our walls feeble. We intentionally remove the permanent structures from around us to draw attention to what we are now more prepared to experience. After our days spent in awe, we can finally begin to appreciate the presence of God around us. We remove our material shelter and enter our spiritual sanctuary. This is the joy that surrounds us; the joy of the divine presence; the joy that David Foster Wallace would describe as “so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over: ‘this is water.'”
The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld. Our condolences go out to Rita Dee Hassenfeld on the recent loss of her brother, Charles Greenberg (z”l).