By Rabbi Ari Enkin, Rabbinic Director, United with Israel -
While most readers are surely familiar with the mitzvah of “sukkah” – sitting in a hut – and tof “lulav” — shaking the palm branch and citron bundle — many people often miss what may very well be the most important mitzvah of sukkot: the commandment to be happy!
That’s right. Possibly one of the most important mitzvot. Why do I say this? The mitzvah of Sukkah is only relevant when you want to eat or sleep. There is no obligation to eat or sleep constantly on Sukkot. So too, the mitzvah of “lulav” is fulfilled only once a day in a matter of seconds. One shake and you’re done. But the mitzvah to be happy on Sukkot is a biblical commandment that is in force 24/7 throughout the seven-day holiday!
It is the mitzvah of “V’samachta b’chagecha”; the Torah instructs; you shall be joyful in your festival. How can one be commanded to feel happy? What if you can’t get yourself happy? What if you’re having a bad day?
It is explained that the mitzvah to be happy on Sukkot is not a an open, direct, or explicit commandment. The Torah gives us a roadmap (2021 update: a WAZE app) in order that we will become happy and thereby fulfill the mitzvah of being happy.
Let’s see the verses:
“You shall observe the Festival of Sukkot for seven days, after you have gathered your grain and your wine. And you shall rejoice on your festival. You, and your son, and your daughter, and your servants, and the Levite, the stranger, and the orphan, and the widow, who are with you. Seven days you should hold a festival for God …and you will be only joyful.” (Deuteronomy 16:13-15)
The words “be only joyful” can also be read as “to rejoice,” which tells us that we are to do things that cause us to “rejoice,” which, by extension, will lead to “be only joyful.” Such as taking time off work, coming together with family and the community, putting a smile on the faces of the poor and downtrodden. These things make us happy. And of course, throw a party in honor of Sukkot!
Has it ever happened that you were having a bad day and wanted to just lock yourself up inside your home and keep away from the world but…you have a wedding to go to? A bar mitzvah? A party of some sort? You have no choice but to go. You haul yourself out of bed, get dressed up nicely and go to that dinner party. You then meet old friends and quickly make new ones. Within minutes, you’re more cheerful and forget that a few hours you wanted to be away from the world. You might even regret having had those thoughts.
And so the rabbis of the Talmud discuss among themselves: How can we get the Jewish people in a state of rejoicing and elevate them to above average levels of happiness? Here are some of the answers that are given: buy new clothes, get yourself the best meat and wine you can afford, by your wife a gift and get your kids some treats. It is acts like this that will put us, and those around us, in a better mood…a holiday mood. Emphasize the material and the physical in honor of the holiday, and you will feel a bit more spiritual. Laugh, dance, music, the works! (These nightly Sukkot parties are referred to as “Simchat Beit Hasho’eva” – look it up!). This is what Sukkot is all about.
Image: Center for Jewish History, NYC, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons