Think Again: Succot and the secret of relationships

This holiday, one of rejoicing, is the outgrowth of preparation and effort (Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur) and resembles the deepest human relationship possible – marriage.

September 24, 2010 15:49
Succa sales in Jerusalem

311_sukka sales. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

All the festivals are times of rejoicing. But only Succot is specifically called zman simhateinu – the time of our rejoicing. What is this quality of simha (joyousness), and what is its special connection to Succot?

The holy tongue is not rich in synonyms. Yet it has 10 synonyms for happiness. The Vilna Gaon writes that simha refers to a constant state, not a sharp burst of exhilaration.

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One may become more aware of feelings of simha at particular moments – e.g., returning home after a long day and having your young children throw their arms around your legs; a spontaneous memory of the first time you met your spouse. The feeling is not one of discovering something new, but of tapping into what is always there, underlying everything else in one’s life.

Simha might be contrasted with fun. The latter refers to a tickling of the nerve ends, something that removes one from the humdrum. Fun is not necessarily negative: A life without any would be pretty drab. But as a life goal, it’s pretty risky. For the moments between the tingling of the nerve ends will inevitably be longer than the tingling sensation itself. Thus a life lived in pursuit of fun will always end up in the debit column, the rough equivalent to waiting in a long line over and over again for a 40-second roller-coaster ride.

SIMHA DOES not just happen. It is not a state into which one enters as soon as the festival begins, but rather the outgrowth of preparation and effort. Indeed the illusion that happiness is automatic at certain times in the annual calendar can cause its opposite. A rich psychological literature documents the phenomenon of “holiday blues.”

For some, the assumption that everyone else is celebrating and only they feel no great excitement leads to depression. For others, it is feelings of being alone when others are together with friends and family.

The simha to which we aspire on Succot requires preparation.

The festival follows the most intense ten days of the Jewish calendar, those from the beginning of Rosh Hashana through the conclusion of Yom Kippur. The essence of Rosh Hashana is the recognition of the divine sovereignty. We are called upon to imagine a world in which all that which hides God’s presence has vanished like smoke or a passing cloud, and in which all humanity is united in seeking to do His will.

Yom Kippur then requires us to search ourselves to uncover the patterns of behavior that prevent us from aligning our will to His. First, we envision ourselves in a close relationship with God (Rosh Hashana), and then we seek to remove all the stumbling blocks to the creation of that relationship (Yom Kippur). The purging process of the Ten Days of Repentance must precede the rejoicing of Succot.

THE BEST metaphor for Succot is marriage, which also requires effort. The Vilna Gaon explicitly identifies the simha associated with Succot with a deepened awareness of closeness to God. In the midrashic literature, Yom Kippur is referred to as the wedding day between God and the Jewish people. On Yom Kippur, He handed to Moses the second tablets, to replace those that Moses broke when he witnessed the dancing before the Golden Calf.

But while the wedding is the milestone that young couples remember most, it is only one night out of what will hopefully be a long life together. Marriage is a long process of growing close and comfortable in one another’s presence. That is symbolized in terms of the relationship between God and the Jewish people by the return of the clouds of glory, which disappeared after the sin of the Golden Calf. Those clouds, according to the rabbinic tradition, returned on 15 Tishrei – i.e., the first day of Succot.

Only with the return of the clouds of glory did we once again live fully enveloped in God’s presence.

The association of simha with relationships is borne out by numerous psychological studies that have found the quality of one’s personal relationships to be the most important determinant of happiness.

The basic glue of any flourishing relationship – whether marriage, friendship or a business partnership – is trust. The Jewish people placed their trust in God when they followed Him into a hollowing wilderness and placed themselves under His protection. And even today, during Succot, we leave the security of our man-made walls and roof for an impermanent dwelling, in which the roof cannot be man-made material, but only that which grows from the ground. In that way, the s’chach that forms the roof reminds of us of the original clouds of glory. The latter are referred to kabbalisticly as the shade of faith (emuna).

Trust between partners is based on a shared understanding that each one will forgo some of his own desires for the good of the partnership and sustaining the relationship.

In the deepest human relationship, marriage, each spouse feels secure in the knowledge that the other views her well-being as no less dear than his own, and is prepared to give up something of his desires for her benefit.

The qualities that make for a strong marriage are ever harder to find today. Delaying gratification in order to build something enduring is foreign to our credit card culture, which tells us that we can have everything we desire and right now.

One wag wrote in a recent letter to the editor that marriage is like being sentenced to eat tuna fish patties every night for the rest of one’s life. He captures the fun perspective: It is a fool’s choice to resist the allure of immediate pleasure and the spice of variety. He may even imagine that he can have it all – a deep sustaining relationship and infinite variety. But the two are mutually exclusive. One can have one or the other, but not both. And in the end, it is usually the one who chooses instant gratification who is left alone, like Michael Caine’s Alfie.

Succot is the antidote to the philosophy of instant gratification.

It is the harvest festival. When the Temple stood, and most Jews still earned their livelihood from the earth, much of the simha of the festival derived from enjoying the fruits of all the months of hard physical labor that preceded the harvest. That physical labor toward a future goal represents the antithesis of the credit card culture.

And today, when we leave the security of our homes, we symbolically sever some of our connection to the physical, material world, and all the desires that go with it. That too is part of building the secure relationship with God that we experience in the succa, living under His protection. That feeling of closeness grows out of our efforts to make ourselves worthy of a relationship with Him and His forgiveness of our past failures – another crucial component of any relationship.

May we all know the joy of deep, supportive, sustaining relationships, including the ultimate relationship with God.

The writer is the director of Jewish Media Resources. He has written a regular column in The Jerusalem Post Magazine since 1997, and is the author of eight biographies of modern Jewish leaders.

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