Sukkot, known as “zman simchateynu” – time of our joy, is classically associated with joy more than any other holiday, and it’s not just because we made it past the fast to arrive at the feast, (though there is some truth to that!)
As you may have heard me teach at Ne’ilah, the final Yom Kippur service, I believe that the end of Yom Kippur is a profoundly joyful time. The day of fasting and intense repentant prayer stripped us of our pretenses, reminding us of our flaws and our mortality, confronting us with the urgency to forgive and improve ourselves and our world. Yet we emerge, not grief-stricken, but purified, ready to give ourselves and one another a chance to leave our mistakes in the past and do better. It’s a moment of hope and possibility, even if it is also a moment of exhaustion.
Now, less than a week later, Sukkot arrives, asking us to build a temporary physical structure. Our focus moves from the spirit to the body, as if to teach us –we cannot consider our teshuvah complete if it remains only in our hearts and minds. We are meant to take all of those good intentions and ground them in the real, physical world, right away.
So we build booths, harvest huts that are only kosher if there are holes in the roof. The fragility of the Sukkah extends our contemplation of human vulnerability. But the flavor is different.
Instead of the harsh language of the Unetoneh Tokef prayer from Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, “who shall live and who shall die,” we relax in the Autumn sun with a glass of wine and read the text traditionally studied on Sukkot, Ecclesiastes/Kohelet, who says, “I praised joy because there is nothing better under the sun for a person but to eat, drink and be merry, for this will accompany them in their labor all the days of life which God gave them under the sun,” (Ecc. 8:15).
This line is often understood to be a cynical argument for hedonism. But I think there is more to it. Kohelet could have said, “eat, drink, be merry and screw the world,” but that is not the message. Instead, the point is – enjoy your blessings. Appreciate the temporary, embodied pleasures of life. We know they are fleeting, but that makes them all the more precious. Do not mourn their fragility or fear their end – take joy in life and let that joy accompany you into the hard work of the world.
Build your sukkah, knowing it is fragile and temporary and destined for the compost heap. Build it and decorate it and sit in the filtered sun and sing. Look up and wonder at the stars which you know will shine longer than any human lifetime. Drink and eat and laugh and love. Take what joy you can even if you know it won’t last forever. Let that joy move you to do what is right and good and life-affirming.
In the words of Ecclesiastes, “Enjoy happiness with a person you love all the fleeting days of life that have been granted to you under the sun—all your fleeting days. For that alone is what you can get out of life and out of the means you acquire under the sun. And whatever it is in your power to do, do with all your might…” (Ecc. 9:9-10).