A joyous occasion

The essence of the holiday is to share happiness with others.

Festive meal 370 (photo credit: courtesy)
Festive meal 370
(photo credit: courtesy)
The story is told of Sir Moses Montefiore, who visited a rabbi in Warsaw. The rabbi had, at best, meager possessions.
When Montefiore entered the house, he was surprised to find it empty except for a single chair. Montefiore asked, “Where are your sofa, your pillows, pictures and carpets?” In response, the rabbi asked his guest, “Where are yours?” Montefiore responded, “When I travel, I am a guest. My furniture is at home.”
The rabbi answered, “I, too, am sojourning in this world. My furniture is also waiting for me at Home.”
Not intending to put a damper on anyone’s holiday, it behooves some of us to ask why Succot is called “zman simhateinu” (time of our happiness). The succa is stifling during the day, cold and dank at night, bees swarm in, and there isn’t really much room in the thatched pup tent. Top it off with the exorbitant price we pay for a fancy stalk and lemon, not to mention the chafed fingers and sore back that result from building the succa. Happy? Let’s talk...
With only a kernel of understanding, however, we come to grasp that joy is the essence of Succot and the raison d’etre of Shmini Atzeret.
Indeed, joy is the fundamental theme that is subtly woven throughout the holiday.
“In huts you shall dwell for seven days; all citizens of Israel shall live in huts” (Leviticus 23:42).
Rabbi Soloveichik makes a distinction between an evolved understanding of simha and its evil twin, hollelut (debauchery/foolish mirth).
There seems to be an abundance of vacuous hilarity that surrounds our existence that is (spiritually) diametrically opposite to the aforementioned definition of joy. While true simha involves experiencing one’s inner self and reality, hollelut is escapism, trying to delude ourselves about the here and now we should be embracing.
Who is responsible for observing the mitzva of the succa? From a literal reading of the text, it would appear that only citizens – not strangers – are included in the mitzva of this holiday.
Yet Rashi, Ramban and others note that all people, gerim vetoshavim (strangers and citizens), have an equal part in the empowering commandment. Particularly noteworthy is the commentary of the Rashban, who states that the “citizen” of Israel is mentioned to illustrate that even someone with a home must leave his house and become “homeless.” The mitzva of the succa helps develop a solidarity between the Jew with a comfortable dwelling and a Jew who must wander without shelter.
The mitzva of gemilut hessed (loving-kindness) is a two-pronged commandment.
On one hand, we are instructed to do everything in our power to assist the needy, the forsaken. This is basic hessed as we know it.
There are times, however, when our practical assistance is impossible to provide. After all, we simply cannot provide housing, food and clothing to all in need.
When positive hessed is impractical, the Torah calls upon us to, minimally, empathize and attempt to understand the plight of the unfortunate. When a citizen of Israel cannot provide shelter for the stranger, he must at the very least show solidarity with those in need. By identifying with those who do not have the same comforts that we have, a bonding is more likely to occur. The stranger realizes that he can proudly feel a part of Klal Yisrael in Eretz Yisrael while, at the same time, the citizen looks to the past and sees that he, too, was once a stranger. “So that your generations shall know that I placed the children of Israel in huts as I took them out of Egypt.” The mitzva of the succa offers an opportunity to level the playing field of the stranger and the citizen, reminding both that they traversed the same road.
By extending our focus to this interpretation of the mitzva, the essential value of hessed becomes clear. Gritting one’s teeth while performing a mitzva (observing the letter of the law but ignoring its spirit) is antithetical to the inherent principle. According to Ravah, “Someone who is uncomfortable is exempt from the mitzva of succa” (Talmud, Succa 26a).
Commentators ask why this mitzva, to the exclusion of others, is based on comfort. The interpretation of hessed makes it obvious.
Someone who is pained while performing the mitzva of the succa cannot show solidarity to feel compassion toward those for whom pain is a way of life. The stranger/citizen illustration will simply foster resentment and, as a consequence, the point of the mitzva will be lost.
For many of us, the concept of joy might remain elusive but is clearer when explained thus by Hillel: “If I am here, then everything and everybody is here; and if I am not here, then who is here?” (Masechet Succa). This offers a keen observation of what joy is all about, likened to Ben-Zoma’s well-known adage “Who is rich? He who is happy with his lot” (Pirkei Avot).
Joy is based in reality and how you relate to your existence as inextricably linked with the rest of the world. It is marked by the acceptance of yourself and your lot in life. When it comes to joy, society’s grasp of real simha is as tenuous as their existence.
“And you shall be happy in your holidays, you....the stranger, the orphan.... and you shall be only happy” (Deuteronomy 16:13-14). The Torah mandates happiness on the holiday of Succot.
We are taught that we must bring joy and happiness into the lives of -- and identify with --the less fortunate. It is the Rambam who indicates that when having your festival meal, you must also provide for the stranger, the orphan and the widow.
The true fulfillment of the mitzva of Succot in our times is to develop sensitivity and solidarity with those who are less fortunate than we are and to make a commitment to bring happiness to their lives.