Sukkot: A holiday of happiness and security

Our happiness on Sukkot is an expression of our reliance on the Divine good that Hashem showers upon us.

EXALTING IN Sukkot at the Western Wall (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
EXALTING IN Sukkot at the Western Wall
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Sukkot (Tabernacles) is a unique holiday; we go out into nature and spend seven days within a booth (sukkah) outside our home. Before even eating our festive meals in the sukkah, we make a special blessing: “Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us by Your commandments and has commanded us to dwell in the Tabernacle.”
An additional mitzva of Sukkot is the Four Species – etrog (citron), lulav (palm branch), hadassim (myrtle) and aravot (willow), which we hold together every day during, or after, tefilla (prayer). Other than that, Sukkot has a most interesting and surprising mitzva:
“You shall make yourself the Festival of Sukkot… And you shall rejoice in your Festival – you, and your son, and your daughter, and your manservant, and your maidservant, and the Levite, and the stranger, and the orphan, and the widow, who are within your cities… and you will only be happy” (Deuteronomy, 16:13-15).
Being happy during the days of Sukkot is a specific mitzva in the Torah. While the Temple was still standing, this mitzva was observed in Jerusalem:
“Seven days you shall celebrate the Festival to the Lord, your God, in the place which the Lord shall choose” (Deuteronomy, 16:15).
The Simhat Beit Hashoeva celebrations were held in the Beit Hamikdash on every night of Sukkot. This was a place that was generally quiet and restrained, but the greatest sages and priests would dance and play musical instruments, even doing all sorts of antics, to increase happiness at this time.
It was said that “Whoever did not see the happiness of Simhat Beit Hashoeva, did not see true happiness in his life” (Tractate Sukkah, Chapter 5, Mishna 1).
Now that the Beit Hamikdash no longer stands, we uphold this mitzva in various ways: we sit in decorated sukkot, we meet with friends and family, we generally drink a l’chaim with them, and many communities hold the Hakafot Shniyot (additional rounds of dancing) celebrations as a reminder of the dancing and singing at the original Simhat Beit Hashoeva in Temple days.
Our happiness on Sukkot is an expression of our reliance on the Divine good that God showers upon us. Symbolically, we leave our permanent homes, where we are protected and safe, and move into the sukkah – a temporary abode – roofed by branches and leaves that does not protect us from cold and rain. We are creating an artificial situation, but one that expresses our true inner sentiments of confidence in the Creator of the universe.
The Hallel prayer that we say after Shacharit (morning prayers) on Sukkot includes the following verse: “Who is like the Lord, our God, Who dwells on high, Who lowers [His eyes] to look in the heavens and the earth?” (Psalms 113:5-6)
The exalted, transcendental God, as defined by Maimonides – “who cannot be perceived by any human being” – what is He doing? What interests Him? What is important to Him? “He lifts the pauper up from the dust, from the dung heap He raises up the needy” (Psalms 113:7).
The following verse is one of the highlights of the Hallel prayer: “The stone that the builders rejected became a cornerstone” (Psalms 118:22).
The author uses a metaphor from the world of construction. When builders examine stones for a future building, they take the beautiful, cut stones, and others are put aside for possible use. But there is a stone that is so badly-formed that the builders throw it aside. Then, surprisingly, we see that this stone is not ugly at all; quite the reverse, it is displayed at the front corner of the building, at the most prominent position. The builders could not discern its beauty and discarded it to the side, but the elevated viewer could ascertain the special beauty of this stone beneath the layers of dirt and ugliness.
This stone is compared to Am Yisrael (the people of Israel). For many years, the Jewish people were compared to a disgusting stone, which no one wanted. We were persecuted, humiliated and defamed. We were accused of spreading plagues and of committing horrific blood libels. Did this nation have any chance to survive? Would anyone throughout history believe that one day this nation would revive and fulfill its purpose as a symbol of intelligence and morality? How can we feel secure today in the Divine promise that this disgusting stone will become the cornerstone?
The verse continues and offers a response: “This was from the Lord; it is wondrous in our eyes” (Psalms 118:23).
There is no place for patting anyone on the back. The Jewish people have survived and are even flourishing, only thanks to God’s divine supervision that gave them a spiritual role. On Sukkot we once again declare – in words and in actions – that our basic foundation, as a nation, as communities and as individuals, is what we said only several days ago: “Because we are safe in Your many mercies and rely on Your righteousness.”
The Zohar terms the sukkah “Tzila d’heimnusa” – the shadow of faith. When we convene in the sukkah, we are purchasing eternal property of faith and security in God, which can elevate man to mental realms of serenity and happiness, and this is the fundamental source of happiness on Sukkot.
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.