Vulnerability and Joy
How do we make sense of two of the central narratives of the holiday of Sukkot that seemingly point us in different emotional directions?
On the one hand, the themes and rituals of this holiday conjure up our profound vulnerability in the world. The Rabbis of the Mishnah ask us to leave our permanent residences and go live outside in very impermanent structures: “All of the seven days of Sukkot a person should make their sukkah into their fixed residence and their house into their temporary residence (M. Sukkah 2:9).” We are asked to expose ourselves to the cold of the night and the heat of the sun and make ourselves vulnerable to the wind and, in America, rain. We are conscious of the fact that we are transitioning into the winter months. The crops have been harvested over the summer and early fall and now we are preparing for the barrenness of winter. Certainly in the Land of Israel this season is also accompanied by anxiety: Will the rainy season be robust? Will there be sufficient water for the crops to produce their bounty? We take hold of the lulav and the etrog, the boughs of myrtle and the leaves of the willow, and we hold them high and shake them, petitioning God for another year of rain so that we may reap bounty as lush as the plants in our hands. And, of course, on Shemini Atzeret—the eighth day of the holiday of Sukkot (which falls on Shabbat)—we begin petitioning God for water in the daily liturgy. As individuals and as a community, we physically and metaphorically enter into and sit in a place of deep personal vulnerability.
And then there is the narrative of joy. Regarding Sukkot, the book of Deuteronomy emphatically states: “And you shall have nothing but joy” (16:15). While Passover was labeled “the season of our freedom,” and Shavu’ot “the season of the giving of the Torah,” the liturgy describes Sukkot as “the season of our joy (zeman simchatenu).” Indeed, Maimonides stipulated in his Code of Jewish Law that although there is a commandment prescribing joy on all Festivals, there is a special dimension of joy on Sukkot (Laws of Lulav 8:12).
But why did the Rabbis associate joy particularly with the holiday of Sukkot? From where does this joy flow?
And how does this understanding of the holiday work with the narrative of human vulnerability?
I submit that these two themes are, in fact, deeply interwoven.
The Jewish calendar over the last month has had a particular rhythm. The days of Elul, Rosh Hashanah, and the Ten Days of Repentance all led us to Yom Kippur. On the holiest day of the year, we stood as individuals before God (lifnei Adonai, Lev. 16:30) fully exposed and vulnerable, confessing our wrongs and articulating healthier and more loving visions of ourselves for the coming year. Rabbi Akiva understands the narrative of this moment as including a promise that God—in God’s abundant love—will serve as the purifying mikveh for all those who come before God (M. Yoma 8:9). In the quiet of our prayers we shared our most intimate fears and hopes. We asked God to know us in our imperfections, stripped of our defenses and self-justifying arguments. And in these most honest moments of self-revelation and, thus, deep vulnerability, we find acceptance.
The joy of Sukkot is born in this experience of self-exposure and (still) feeling loved by God. In the immediate moments following Yom Kippur, we turn our attention to the building of the sukkah and preparing for the hag.
Indeed, love may be understood as permission to be who we are without feeling a need to hide or mute parts of ourselves. The joy that comes from experiencing true love is rooted in our ability to make ourselves vulnerable.
Our relationship with the divine was enriched because we opened our hearts and entered into these vulnerable places over the Days of Awe. No hiding, no stories, no covering up.
Perhaps these ideas help explain Rashi’s comments on the phrase “it is an ‘atzeret’ (referring to the eighth day of Sukkot, Lev. 23:36)”:
I have detained you (azarti etchem) with Me (after the formal holiday of Sukkot). It is like a king who invited his children to a feast for a certain number of days. When the time comes to leave, the king says, “My children I have a request of you! Spend just one more day with me, it is difficult for me to separate from you.”
The last month has hopefully generated renewed intimacy between us and the divine. God has seen us in all of our humanness, with all of our shortcomings, and still God wants more. This narrative imagines profound divine acceptance and love.
Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and now Shemini Atzeret are teaching us a great truth about vulnerability, joy, and love. It is only when we can be seen—when we let ourselves be seen—without a need to cover up that true love and, consequently, true joy may be experienced.
The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.