Time to rejoice on Sukkot, despite coronavirus

While it is human nature to focus on what we don’t have and what we wished we had, that attention becomes a constant source of frustration and sadness.

Sukkah (photo credit: REUTERS)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The coronavirus has brought all of us down. We are sad over those who are ill, and in mourning over those who have passed away. We are upset about our government’s failures, and frustrated with the lack of national leadership. We are angry with those who break the rules, and live in fear over what lies ahead.
Sukkot could not have come at a better time.
Jewish tradition teaches that Sukkot is “the time of our happiness,” with a special biblical command to rejoice, beyond the regular command to be joyful on a holiday (Deuteronomy 16:14-15). Indeed, it is the only holiday that includes such a specific mitzvah.
What is the reason for this joy, and how does Sukkot bring it to the fore?
Leaving our homes for seven days to dwell in a sukkah reminds us that even if we are stripped of the luxuries and comforts we are used to, we can still enjoy life with what we do have. (And for the religious, rejoice in God’s shelter.)
In fact, the very leaving of our homes reminds us that our properties and the objects that we own are not true sources of happiness. The sukkah reminds us that true happiness emerges not from what we have, but from what we do to make life meaningful. Various commentators note that the sukkah is one of only three commandments performed with our entire bodies. (Living in the Land of Israel and immersion in a mikveh, ritual bath, are the others.) This teaches that we can transform our entire existence into one of meaning with daily satisfaction based on how we spend our time, giving to others, spirituality, etc. Going to sleep knowing that you spent your day in meaningful activity is a source of great joy.
The four species – the lulav (date palm), etrog (citron), hadassim (myrtle branches) and aravot (willows) – remind us to be thankful for what we have, whether they are more precious and expensive like the etrog, or the most basic growth that has no taste or smell like the arava.
While it’s human nature to focus on what we don’t have and what we wished we had, that attention becomes a constant source of frustration and sadness. As our tradition teaches: “Who is wealthy? One who is happy with his portion.” (Ethics of the Fathers 4:1). The ritual waving of the four species reminds us to be thankful for whatever we do have, a lesson we must take to heart during this corona crisis. Learning to do so can bring great happiness into one’s life, no matter what one possesses or does not.
THE LESSER-KNOWN Sukkot ritual of pouring water on the altar in the Temple (nisuch hamayim) was a source of great happiness as well. In fact, our rabbis teach that there was a great celebration surrounding that act. “One who has not seen the happiness of the celebration over the water drawing has not seen happiness in his life” (Tractate Sukkot 5:1). Yes, we have water, and that recognition alone should be a source of great joy.
In our own times we can add that we have running water. I have visited remote villages in Africa and have seen what it is like to live without clean, readily available water. Then I saw the joy of the villagers when an Israeli NGO, Innovation Africa, brought the people there running water using Israeli technology, and I better understood the Talmud: They had an entire celebration surrounding the opening of the taps!
That scene taught me that we must rejoice and be thankful that we live in a time and a place in which we have constant access to the most basic need for life: simple water. As the rainy season begins in Israel, Sukkot is a time when we remind ourselves of this blessing.
And let’s contemplate one additional blessing: All of us in Israel – no matter what corona has done to our lives, whether medically, economically or socially – still have much to rejoice about. We live in the land that our ancestors dreamed about for thousands of years. True we are in lockdown, but it’s a lockdown in our own state, in our own land. We have our own army to protect us, and our own police to enforce the wearing of masks. If we are unhappy with our leaders, as most of us are, then we can roll up our sleeves, get involved, and try to do something about it – as proud Jews in a Jewish state.
Despite all our current frustrations, I guarantee that our great-great grandparents would have given up everything to live in a Jewish state in the land of Israel, even if it meant dealing with failed leadership amid a pandemic.
Sukkot commemorates the miraculous journey of the Jewish people through the desert after their exodus from Egypt. Their path too was frustrating, filled with ups and downs that included leaders who failed them, political rebellions, struggles for basic necessities, and plagues. But through great perseverance and with God’s help, in the end they made it to the Promised Land as a nation.
This Sukkot, let us fill our days with meaningful activities, including helping others, focusing on the good that we have and not on all that we don’t have, and reminding ourselves of the remarkable blessing called the State of Israel. Alongside God’s help, let that shift in attitude get us through this crisis and beyond.
The writer served as a member of the 19th Knesset.