The Religious Value of Joy
Sukkot at the Seminary is the loveliest of festivals. Rabbinical students are back from their high holiday jobs. The tension of officiating for the first or second time has dissipated and the gravity of the season lifted. Joined in community, we fill the synagogue with the songs of Hallel and the pageantry of the Lulav. A feeling of thanksgiving is in the air. Together we take our meals in the richly decorated Sukkot in the quadrangle which invigorate our sense of the natural world. Conversation, singing and a bit of Torah from an invited speaker enhance this fare.
Amid the leisure and camaraderie, I get a chance to know some of our students more intimately. Each one has a story to tell (especially to the Chancellor). I am always struck by the diversity of backgrounds, levels of achievement and contrasting aspirations that make up our student body. While ritual brings us near, it is the cessation from work that stops the clock and actually allows us to connect.
Joy is an uncommon religious value. In fact, according to Abraham Joshua Heschel, it “is not a theological category in the teachings of most religions and is never discussed in handbooks of theology (A Passion for Truth, pp.51-2).” In Judaism its central role rests on the talmudic insight that “God’s presence does not make itself felt in a state of sadness or indifference or lightheartedness or distractedness but rather in the joy that comes from fulfilling a mitzvah (B.T. Shabbat30b).” Such joy, I believe, results only when our action no longer springs from the burden of external obligation but from inner personal desire. Practice is the key to making a mitzvah our own. As we learn to do it with ease and beauty, it begins to reward us with the uplift that comes from God’s presence. That is why we so often leave the synagogue at the end of Yom Kippur, after a day of fasting and praying, feeling cleansed and renewed.
But Judaism does not only posit joy as the overall goal of observance; it directs us overtly to reach for it on specific occasions. Thus to heighten the experience of Shabbat, we are encouraged by Jewish law codes to shower and change our attire, to set a festival table and prepare a menu that includes meat and wine, to have enough food for three meals and to spend some time with family and friends. Nor are we permitted to dilute that singular joy by either holding a wedding ceremony on Shabbat or continuing to mourn publicly for the loss of a loved one during the period of shivah.
Similarly the pilgrimage festivals of Pesah, Shavuot and Sukkot are to be marked by overt acts of celebration. The Torah appears to go out of its way to stress that “you shall rejoice in your festival, with your son and daughter, your male and female slave, the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless and the widow in your communities (Deuteronomy 16:14).” On the basis of this verse, the Talmud stipulates that on the haggim a man is to give candy and nuts to his children and clothes and jewelry to his wife, while the family is to enjoy a meat meal with wine (B.T. Pesah 109a). Maimonides, with his pronounced ethical impulse, adds on his own that we are equally obligated to comply with the rest of the verse, that is to invite the stranger, orphan, widow and poor to our holiday table. “Anyone who closes the doors of his home, feeding only his family but not the poor and depressed has not attained the joy of performing a mitzvah but only of stuffing his stomach (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Yom Tov, 6:18)”
Still, without a doubt, it is the festival of Sukkot that takes pride of place in the ladder of condoned religious rejoicing. Whereas the Siddur designates Pesah as “the season of our liberation” and Shavuot as “the season of the giving of our Torah,” Sukkot is set apart as “the season of our joy.” In the Torah that joyfulness is expressed in the many more sacrifices to be offered in the Temple on Sukkot than on the other pilgrimage festivals (Numbers 28-29). The excess reflects the feelings of gratitude that well up at the completion of the final bountiful harvest of the growing season in the land of Israel. With the destruction of the Temple, the synagogue perpetuated the memory of utter exuberance by the recitation of the complete cycle of Hallel Psalms on each and every day of Sukkot, and not just on the first two (as we do on Pesah).
In truth, the distinctive coloration of Sukkot derives from a remarkable convergence of ritual practices that trigger the joy of doing a mitzvah (simhah shel mitzvah). No other festival in the calendar comes close to its ritual endowment. And each ritual abounds with spirited moments to reach beyond ourselves – from dining in the Sukkah at home to shaking the Lulav in the synagogue, from marching and praying for rain daily and on Hashana Raba to dancing at finishing the annual reading of the Torah on Simhat Torah.
When I was a child in Pottstown, PA the only Sukkah in town abutted the synagogue and the only Lulavim at services belonged to my father, who was the rabbi, and the cantor. Today many a synagogue is the site of a forest of individually owned Lulavim and ever more families are building their own Sukkah. In an age hungry for the holy, the spirit of Sukkot has become infectious. We need to do Judaism over and again in order to first feel and later understand its redemptive power.
Shabbat shalom ve-Hag Sameah,