Each of the Jewish holidays has a specific emotion or mood attached to it.
Pessah, for example, is marked by a kind of exhilaration.
and high energy that comes when one is given a new lease on life, the desire to
celebrate with anyone and everyone.
This is perfectly appropriate for
Passover, when we achieved our freedom and were liberated from
The Seder experience is one of unbridled song and revelry; our
table full with guests and adorned with fine wines and fine china. Pessah, say
our rabbis, is the one time during the year when a woman may “go all out” and
wear all her most precious jewelry at once!
The High Holidays, in contrast,
project a mood of contrition. We engage in sober self-examination, performing
the painful task of confession as we confront our failings and foibles, aware of
our limitations yet determined to forge a new and better relationship with God.
We dress in white and do our best imitation of the Angels, yet we refrain from
singing the Hallel, which would conflict with the seriousness of the
What, then, is the mood of Succot?
Some would suggest pride, or
even triumphalism, is the operative adjective at work. After all, we have come
out of Yom Kippur seemingly forgiven, the tension of atonement lifted off our
shoulders. On an agricultural level, we are enjoying our harvest and living off
the fat of our land. Some even liken the lulav and etrog to “weapons of war”
that we carry with a kind of supreme confidence, like a victorious soldier just
back from the wars.
This side of Succot is expressed in its liturgical
appellation as, “the season of our simha.” Yet while accepting the joyousness
that comes from success, Succot has another profound message and mood to project
upon us: Modesty.
For if there is any one trait disdained by our
spiritual teachers, it is arrogance and conspicuous conceit. “Pride goeth before
the fall,” says the Book of Proverbs, and this final “leg” of the holiday season
cries out for a strong shot of Humility.
I suggest that this is the
reason we leave our permanent homes and retire to a humble, temporary, shaky
abode for seven days. Not just to recall and simulate the pre-fabs of our
ancestors as they moved through the desert, but to remind us – in stark, literal
fashion – that the truest and firmest roof above our heads can only be that of
the Almighty’s sheltering presence. The walls that dance in the wind, the
organic covering which has a tendency to fall into our soup and the exposure to
the elements outside combine to send the message that humanity is frail, victory
is fleeting and life is anything but absolutely secure.
This may also be
reflected in a subtle side of the Arba Minim, the four species we wave over
Succot. The second law of thermodynamics defines the universal, inevitable
tendency of all things to decay – a reality readily apparent to anyone trying to
keep his willows fresh, or surveying his Etrog a week or two after the hag ends.
Even the priciest Succot species is rendered lifeless and worthless in just over
a week’s time; a reminder that man, for all his greatness and glory, is but a
passing shadow in the scheme of things.
This seems also to be the central
theme of the Book of Kohelet, traditionally read on Succot. Kohelet is a kind of
moral tale, written by King Solomon, the wisest and one of the richest
potentates in history. Solomon seemingly had it all and lived life to the
Yet, when all is said and done, the king looks back at all this
largesse and declares, “Vanity of vanities – all is vanity!”
possessions and pleasures of the flesh, concludes Solomon, may not bring Man the
prize he truly covets: contentment with his lot, and satisfaction with his role
in the universe.
There is a lot of room for humility and modesty in
Our society has made some staggering advances and
achievements, and we are blessed with a standard of living and quality of life
second to none. Yet that is precisely the time when we have to check our
overconfidence and ground our fortune with a perspective on what truly matters
As Solomon learns, after all the grandeur loses its glitter,
wisdom, the love of one’s spouse and a connection to God are the real gold to be
The intimate closeness within our little succa – reminiscent
of the small apartment couples share when their love is young – reminds us that
bigger may not always be better.
One of the most popular buzzwords in
religious circles today is tzniut.
It usually is applied to modest forms
of dress – particularly for women – but in truth, it goes far beyond our
A humble person exudes modesty in every aspect of his behavior –
how he talks, eats, prays, even how he drives.
Modesty means that just as
not everything that can be worn should be worn, so not everything that can be
said should be said.
It challenges us to respect the next person as much
as we do ourselves and not invade their space, either by screaming into our cell
phones when next to them in line or on the street, or honking incessantly when
traffic doesn’t instantly flow our way.
The very act of waving our Lulav
in all directions as we pray is a distinct lesson in tzniut; try not to spear
the people all around you as you acknowledge God’s ever-presence.
prophet Micha seems to best sum up the ideals of life, and of Succot, when he
preaches the “bottom line” of elevated behavior: “What is good for man, what the
Almighty seeks from him, is to do good, to love kindness and to walk humbly with
The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of