There could hardly be a greater contrast than that between Yom Kippur and Succot, although only five days separate them.
Yom Kippur denies all the physical pleasures of this world. It emphasizes the spiritual and ignores the body. Even more, it punishes the body: The Torah uses the phrase "And you shall afflict yourselves" (Numbers 29:7) to describe the operative way of observing the day. This was interpreted by the Sages as meaning denial of food, drink and other physical pleasures. The phrase connected to Succot, on the other hand, is "And you shall have nothing but joy" (Deuteronomy 16:15).
In our days the rejoicing comes to a climax at the end of Succot with Simhat Torah - the very name of which means "rejoicing." We also express our joy in the use of agricultural symbols, the four species; the daily recitation of Hallel; and the special meals to which guests - including our ancestors - are invited.
The Mishna describes the water-drawing festival held in ancient days at the Temple on Succot: "Whoever has not seen the joy of the water-drawing festival has never witnessed joy in his life!" (Succa 5:2). Great golden candlesticks were erected in the Temple court which illuminated all of Jerusalem. Men of piety danced with torches and juggled them. The Levites sang psalms, and trumpets were blown. (See Succa 51-53a). The solemnity of Yom Kippur becomes the exuberant celebration of Succot. Joy replaces affliction. Indeed, affliction is the preparation leading to this celebration. Having experienced that solemnity and having cleansed ourselves of all impurity, moral as well as ritual, we are prepared for the joy of this holiday, the life-affirming celebration of thanksgiving for being alive on this earth.
Of the three festivals of the Jewish year that were celebrated in the central sanctuary in Jerusalem, Succot has always been considered the most important. It was called simply "hehag" - the festival. This can be seen in that its sacrifices are more extensive and elaborate than those of Pessah or Shavuot, and that in the Temple Hallel was recited on each day of Succot, whereas on Pessah it was only recited on the first evening and day. The ceremonies that took place then around the altar were also much more elaborate than any of the others.
This may seem strange in view of the fact that the historical event Succot commemorates, the dwelling in succot in the wilderness, pales beside the Exodus that is commemorated on Pessah. The designations that the Sages chose for these festivals in the liturgy may help us understand this. Pessah is known as "the time of our freedom," while Shavuot is "the time of the giving of our Torah."
In the full description of the festival, in addition to the reference to living in succot, the Torah states, "When you have gathered in the yield of your land, you shall take the product of hadar trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God [for] seven days" (Leviticus 23:39-40). As the Rashbam (12th-century France) put it, "In contradistinction to the High Holy Days, the theme of which is remembrance and atonement, that of Succot is joy and thanksgiving to the Almighty for filling their houses with good things during the ingathering." As the full passage from Deuteronomy states, "For the Lord your God will bless all your crops and all your undertakings, and you shall have nothing but joy" (16:15).
Perhaps it is not an exaggeration to say that the celebration of Succot is indicative of Judaism's attitude toward life in general and toward worship. Judaism views the world as a good place, a place of blessing. It has a positive attitude toward life and the pleasures of living. The world is meant for enjoyment, not for suffering. So, too, when we worship, we do so with joy and happiness, expressing our thankfulness for the blessings that are ours.
It is because of this affirmation of life and its pleasures that we read Ecclesiastes on Succot. For all the pessimism that the old sage expresses, his main message is found in this passage: "Go, eat your bread in joy, and drink your wine with a good heart, for your action was long ago approved by God. Let your clothes always be freshly washed, and your head never lack ointment. Enjoy life with a woman you love all the fleeting days you have been granted under the sun - all your fleeting days. Whatever it is in your power to do, do with all your might" (Ecclesiastes 9:7-10).
Judaism's message to us is not only to rejoice in our festival, but to rejoice in life itself and in all the goodness that God grants us.
The writer is the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement and the author of several books, the most recent being Entering Torah.