By Rabbi Peter Rigler
This week we move from the somber and serious tone of the High Holy Days to the sense of heightened joy and celebration with the holidays of Sukkot and Simchat Torah.
Sukkot ushers in zeman simchatenu, “the Season of Our Joy,” a time of rejoicing and recognizing our harvest. After we have examined our souls and sought forgiveness, we are reminded by these festival days of our countless blessings. We come to understand through our Yom Kippur rituals the fragility of life, and now we get the opportunity to enjoy it.
In this way, our tradition gives us Sukkot as an incredible gift. We are taught to count our blessings, our harvest. We do that by putting up our sukkah, our temporary dwelling place that reminds us of the fragility of life. I love this tradition, and not just because it’s fun to build a sukkah. Joy is actually not such an easy concept. We can feel happy for a moment but what is true joy?
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks described joy in the following way: “Happiness is an attitude to life as a whole, while joy lives in the moment. Happiness is a solid, joy is a liquid. Happiness is something you pursue. But joy is not. It discovers you. It has to do with a sense of connection to other people or to God. It comes from a different realm than happiness. It is a social emotion. It is the exhilaration we feel when we merge with others. It is the redemption of solitude.”
Where do we find joy? This brings us to the rituals of the festival of Sukkot.
I love the idea of carving out time to build a flimsy shelter that will be taken apart a week later. I do love that my children for just a few hours think of me as a builder. It reminds me every year what really matters. Not the structures we build. Oh sure, we need shelter from the rain and elements. We need a roof over our heads. But the homes we build won’t last; we know that well. In the grand moments of time, they’re just as impermanent as a sukkah.
What really matters are the relationships we create and nurture. What really matters is how we fix the world around us. What really matters is building a meaningful life. That is a particularly poignant message this year in the aftermath of countless natural disasters. How many times in recent weeks have we heard, “At least we are safe! Things can be replaced.” Those communities that have been impacted will be rebuilding for years. They are only able to find strength to do that through the communities and loved ones they count on.
The project of building is not only about the fragile structure and labor. My family works on the sukkah together. I struggle with all matters of building, but I am so proud each year when I am able to make it stand. I am usually not able to do any home projects, so this is a rare occasion! My family has saved artwork from our children for several years and laminated it to hang and decorate. The project is not only mine, but it is a family affair.
I am reminded as I gently place the harvest materials on the roof of the sukkah what the festival is really about. That is just as true in our community of Temple Sholom. We gather together and build a massive structure in our parking lot. I see people of all generations working together — devoted, caring and loving. I see a sense of connection, history and passion. Most of all, I see joy being lived out with family and community.
The festival of Sukkot is not a simple agricultural ritual. Rather, it is a transformative reminder of what is most valuable in our lives and how we discover joy.
Nechama Leibowitz taught the following: “Whoever sees only the agricultural aspect removes one of the threads from the threefold chord that makes up the significance of the festival. The joy that is expressed is, as we have seen, a threefold one: the simple joy in the gift of the field and vineyard; the joy in the miracles and wonders performed for us in history; and the joy in the presence of God whose is the Source of nature and its creator.”
We live in a time and in a world where rejoicing and joy are central to remind ourselves of our gifts. On this holiday of Sukkot, of impermanence may we remember all that we have to be joyous about!
Peter Rigler is the rabbi at Temple Sholom in Broomall, where he has been for seven years. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.