Work Transforming into Joy

| Sukkot By :  Abigail Treu Posted On Oct 14, 2011 / 5772 | Torah Commentary | Holidays

Shlepping. If I am going to be totally honest about it, that’s my strongest association with Sukkot. Shlepping dishes, food, napkins, utensils, kids, and guests outside and then all back in again. For some, it is a trek across a back porch or lawn. For my city-dwelling family, it involves the careful loading of a shopping cart, a trek down the elevator, through the basement, and out to the back alley. Unload the cart. Eat. Reload the cart. Repeat every few hours and don’t forget the ketchup.

In my mind’s eye, I maintain quite an idealized image of Sukkot. I imagine a beautiful sukkah, resting on a lush green lawn, surrounded by trees not quite yet at the peak of autumn. I sit with my family and friends, leisurely enjoying a delicious meal (which appears magically, costs nothing, and requires no cleanup), under a radiant blue sky during the day and a glittering canopy of stars at night.

The tension between ideal and real: exactly where we should be, four days after Yom Kippur.

After all, didn’t we just leave our synagogues with stomachs empty but hearts full of promise for living up to our ideals? Didn’t we just resolve to be kinder, gentler, and more generous, to go for the best that is in us? Within days of our most sincere resolutions, within days of leaving synagogue refreshed and feeling head-in-the-clouds about the possibilities for renewal that are now ours, we are brought back down to earth.

In the clouds or down to earth: exactly the dispute the Talmud records between Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva. The Torah’s injunction to “live in booths [sukkot] seven days . . . in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt” (Lev. 23:42) does not describe the Israelites’ actual sukkot. What were the Rabbis referring to, then? Rabbi Eliezer (BT Sukkah 11b) posits that the sukkot were the clouds of glory in which God resided, hovering protectively over the Israelites on their journey. His is a vision of a people in close contact with their God, physically reminded of God’s presence and living in a particularly acute spiritual state. The people lived in the sukkah of God’s presence.

Rabbi Akiva (ad locum) disagrees. Rabbi Akiva insists that the Israelites lived in actual booths, which they made for themselves. By extension, this means that the sukkot were deconstructed and reconstructed at each stage of their journey. There was, by definition, a lot of schlepping involved.

The disagreement crystallizes the question we experience as we come off the idealistic high of Yom Kippur and back to our real, everyday lives. Are we living with our head in the clouds, in fantasy, where we feel God’s presence at every moment as we did on Yom Kippur? Or are we living here on earth, where we are vulnerable, our houses shaky? Where we need to build booths to remind us of God’s presence? Where, in fact, there is a lot of schlepping involved?

Our man-, woman-, and child-made sukkot bring us back to reality, but in a way that eases us in. The reality is that the ideals that we envisioned on Yom Kippur are going to be hard to carry out. We may have ended Ne’ilah with a sense of God’s presence, in an acutely spiritual state in which we were in tune with our highest ideals, and felt, in our bones, the assurance of God’s mercy and God’s assistance in achieving them. And for a few days, we are able to pull it off. We are kinder to our families. More generous with strangers. We begin to put into practice our best intentions from the High Holiday season.

But it is difficult to keep it up. Lest we grow cynical too quickly or give up too easily as we return to our everyday lives, the Torah hands us another holiday. What a gift Sukkot is, despite the schlepping involved. For without it, we would be thrust all too quickly back into the daily grind. We can manage living up to our highest ideals of self for a few days, but it would not last. We need another week of chag, followed by the last send-off of Shemini Atzeret, to dwell in God’s presence. Not in the clouds, not in full-day prayer marathons, but here on earth, be it on the lush green lawn or in the back alley.

Sukkot provides us with a testing ground, as it were, for those good intentions we promised to fulfill just a few days ago. It is not easy to be patient when your pot of soup ends up sloshing all over the lawn or to be generous when you’re spending so much time and energy preparing for the holiday or to be happy when you’re exhausted from all the schlepping or to be consciously present and enjoying time with family and friends when you’re anxious about the work piling up back at the office. The commandment to take more time off, to dwell in sukkot of our own design, eases us back in.

Moreover, Sukkot adds the one last ingredient that truly seals off our teshuvah, and that is joy. “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. You shall hold a festival for the Lord your God seven days, in the place that the Lord will choose; for the Lord your God will bless all your crops and all your undertakings, and you shall have nothing but joy” (Deut. 16:14–15). After so much seriousness, after 10 days of repentance and a full day spent in fasting and confession, we have forgotten that the essence of meaningful living is joy. The phrasing of the mitzvah to rejoice is noteworthy, and many commentators take up the point. “You shall have nothing but joy,” v’hayita akh sameakh.

What is the limiting word akh (above)—meaning “but,” “only,” or “just”—coming to teach us? Ibn Ezra and Sforno understand it most famously to mean that our happiness is to be at the exclusion of sorrow or negative feelings. But I find myself taken with the commentary (cited by Nehama Leibowitz in her commentary on the Sedra) of Moshe Hefetz, a 16th century Italian scholar:

Idleness is a source of evil-doing and sin . . . How then could the Almighty command us to rejoice by means of a cessation from work? . . . The rejoicing ordained by the Torah is one which is not overdone, leading to levity and riotousness. It is to lead us to a happy frame of mind according to the path of moderation . . . This is the meaning of the phrase ‘because the Lord your God will bless all your crops and all your undertakings, and you shall have nothing but joy,’ implying that you should indeed work and not sit idle and then you will be really joyful, that is with a true joy and inspired by the right purpose.

Hefetz’s focus on the interplay of work and joy brings me right back to the reality of our lived Sukkot experience: it is a lot of work. And it comes on the heels of Yom Kippur, when, with our head in the clouds, we set for ourselves the loftiest goals for self-improvement. By inviting us to re-enter our normal routines slowly, to adjust in a different way to the teshuvah we’ve done, we are given a chance to adjust. By commanding us to do so “with nothing but joy,” we are reminded that our teshuvah is incomplete if we cannot find joy in the day-to-day, no matter how much schlepping is involved.


The publication and distribution of the JTS Torah Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.