Sukkot is the celebration that comes after the more contemplative and self-reflecting holidays of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are over. We take Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur so seriously. We certainly should. If we in anyway believe what we say about tefilla, teshuva and tzedaka (prayer, return to God and righteous giving) reducing the severity of the decree, then we must take those days seriously.
Now, as we enter Sukkot, is the time to celebrate. We have done all that we can. We studied for the exams, we took the tests and then, even before we find out our grades, we celebrate. Not because we are done learning and not because we know we have gotten 100 percent on every test, but rather because there is a tension and stress that has been lifted.
The stress we have lifted here is the need to be consumed with thinking about ourselves; Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are self-centered holidays. Sure, we may come up with ways to change that have positive effects on others, but the mitzvot of the holidays and the time we spend is focused on ourselves.
Sukkot is different. There is a song frequently sung on this festival in which we sing, “v’samach’ta b’chage’cha, v’hayi’ta ach samey’ach.” This translates as, “You shall rejoice in your festival, you shall have nothing but joy. We find these words in Deuteronomy 16:14-15. What is important, however, is to look at the words from those verses that are not included in the song. This is the whole quote:
“You shall rejoice in your festival, with your son and daughter, your male and female slave, the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow in your community. You shall hold a festival for Adonai you God seven days, in the place Adonai will choose; for Adonai your God will bless all your crops and all your undertakings, and you shall have nothing but joy.”
The joy of Sukkot is not based on our being judged or being pardoned for our misdeeds. We, rather, find joy in the relationships with have with others; the joy we find when we celebrate with our families and with those who are in need of our support.
We cannot celebrate Sukkot on our own. We must include others. When we sit down in our sukkahs we welcome in the uspizin, the eternal guests. It is a kabbalistic tradition to welcome our ancestors Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron and David as well as Sarah Rebecca, Rachel, Leah, Miriam, Devorah and Ruth to join us as we celebrate Sukkot.
More than this though is the welcoming of guests of flesh and blood. Maimonides, in “Mishneh Torah,” his code of Jewish Law, mentions that one is obligated to have orphans and widows at our tables; that we must include those in need.
Were we not to do this our celebrations would not be complete. We could not have, as the verse tells us, “nothing but joy” without reaching out to bring others in. Our Sukkot remind us of how temporary our homes can be and how what we have today may not be here tomorrow. Our behaviors should reflect that we understand this.
Chag Sameyach, may you reach out beyond yourself and have nothing but joy.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)