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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.