“God has a real sense of humour, doesn’t She?” a friend said to me last week, as we were preparing for Yom Kippur. “We go through ALL this heavy spiritual work and then… SUKKOT?!”
I’m sure my friend’s comment resonates with many. It does feel absurd that after the spiritual heights and depths of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we are commanded to build a treehouse. We have just considered how our lives hang in a balance, encountered our own mortality, and now we’re supposed to sleep outside and wave around plants.
Moreover, we’re commanded, throughout this absurdity, to be joyful!
וְשָׂמַחְתָּ֖ בְּחַגֶּ֑ךָ אַתָּ֨ה וּבִנְךָ֤ וּבִתֶּ֙ךָ֙ וְעַבְדְּךָ֣ וַאֲמָתֶ֔ךָ וְהַלֵּוִ֗י וְהַגֵּ֛ר וְהַיָּת֥וֹם וְהָאַלְמָנָ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר בִּשְׁעָרֶֽיךָ׃
You shall rejoice in your festival, with your son and daughter, your male and female slave, the Levite, the stranger, the orphan and the widow in your communities.
שִׁבְעַ֣ת יָמִ֗ים תָּחֹג֙ לַיהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ בַּמָּק֖וֹם אֲשֶׁר־יִבְחַ֣ר יְהוָ֑ה כִּ֣י יְבָרֶכְךָ֞ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֗יךָ בְּכֹ֤ל תְּבוּאָֽתְךָ֙ וּבְכֹל֙ מַעֲשֵׂ֣ה יָדֶ֔יךָ וְהָיִ֖יתָ אַ֥ךְ שָׂמֵֽחַ׃
You shall hold a festival for YHVH your God seven days, in the place that YHVH will choose; for YHVH your God will bless all your crops and all your undertakings, and you shall have nothing but joy.
Re-reading these verses this year, I couldn’t help but feel irritated. How on Earth can you command somebody to be joyful? Especially after a year like this one, aren’t we at least entitled to a bit of misery? This commandment felt like a sort of cosmic catcall, God shouting at me from across the street to tell me to, “Smile, Gorgeous!” Sometimes being wholly positive isn’t possible, or even healthy. If we have experienced something difficult, upsetting or traumatic, it feels both right and emotionally sound to feel whatever we are feeling, even when it is painful or uncomfortable. The result of not doing so can be at its best, dishonest, and at its worst, the sort of repression that twists and contorts us out of shape, making us more likely to harm ourselves or others.
I felt bound and determined this year to completely ignore this commandment, out of a sense of righteous indignation. But everything changed for me when my dance teacher introduced me to the poem Don’t Hesitate by Mary Oliver z”l:
If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy,
don’t hesitate. Give in to it. There are plenty
of lives and whole towns destroyed or about
to be. We are not wise, and not very often
kind. And much can never be redeemed.
Still, life has some possibility left. Perhaps this
is its way of fighting back, that sometimes
something happens better than all the riches
or power in the world. It could be anything,
but very likely you notice it in the instant
when love begins. Anyway, that’s often the
case. Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid
of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb.
This poem offered me a completely new perspective on what it could mean to be commanded to be joyful. Perhaps, it’s not about being fully joyful, but making a point of leaning into joy wherever it can be found. The word אַ֥ךְ (ach), translated above as “nothing but,” can also mean “surely” or “utterly.” To me, אַ֥ךְ (ach) is functioning as an emphasis, reminding us just how important it is to find moments of joy that we can cling to, especially when our lives are particularly challenging. As Mary Oliver writes, “There are plenty of lives and whole towns destroyed or about to be.” There is much on this Earth to grieve. But joy is a radical act, a way of “fighting back” against hopelessness and despair.
Some of my most joyful childhood memories are of Sukkot – our family friends would come over, and together we would make a structure of bamboo rods, packing tape, blue and orange tarpaulin, and cedar branches foraged from around the neighbourhood. It was a far cry from the huts that our ancestors dwelled in so long ago, but it was fun and it was joyful. Sukkot is an invitation into play, which is as important for adults as it is for children. (I suspect that my parents enjoyed Sukkah-building as much, if not more, than we did.) Perhaps this act of building what is effectively a den in our backyards is a reminder, after we’ve been the most serious versions of ourselves over Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, to let go and have fun. That as much as it is important to reflect deeply on our lives, it is also important to have moments where we can feel utter joy.
Or, in the words of Mary Oliver, “Don’t be afraid of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb.”
LBC Student Rabbi
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.