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Sukkot: The Festival of our Joy?

Any poet can tell you that language is so powerful in part because it does not simply translate. Words convey a whole spectrum of meanings, depending on context, prior use, and any of a range of associations.

Jews have always read the Torah in this way, and sought to live our lives accordingly. So, for example, the Sabbath is not merely a “day of rest” – it is, at one and the same time, a series of specific rules and commandments in contradistinction to the building of the tabernacle, as well as a commemoration of the first Sabbath, when G-d finished creating, and rested. Shabbos in letter, and Shabbos in spirit. Both are in the text of the Torah.

The current Festival, Sukkot, is called a festival of joy (“simcha”). The Torah uses this word for Sukkot more than any other time of the year, which prompts the question: what is this Hebrew word that we translate as “joy”?

A quick analysis leads to the following gem: the very first time in the Torah anyone is described as being joyful is when Aaron is coming to see his brother Moses, right after the episode of the burning bush. Aaron is looking forward to seeing his brother.

The importance of this cannot be understated. Cain killed his brother Abel. Abraham left his brothers. Isaac and Ishmael did not play well together. Jacob and Esau quarreled and then separated. Joseph’s brothers considered killing him before finally deciding to sell him into slavery. Even Ephraim and Menasseh, the first brothers who were not in competition with one another, were not described as being happy for the other. Brothers in the book of Genesis did not get on very well.

Aaron, however, set the standard for how we are to behave going forward. We are supposed to be happy for our brothers, and delighted when they do well. This is, of course, very difficult – and counter to basic nature (where offspring are always in competition for food, warmth, and love). It takes refinement to be able to stop thinking of oneself, and merely be happy for someone else. Think, for example, of how an older single woman feels when her younger best friend gets engaged. Or how a barren woman reacts when she learns her sister is pregnant. Overcoming our natural selfishness is extremely difficult to do – and the highest calling for a loving society. This is joy: not giddy happiness or lightheaded frivolity, but a feeling of deep and profound spiritual warmth.

Reaching this level is not easy, and on the Jewish calendar it comes immediately after Yom Kippur, the day when we spend the most time being introspective, examining our faults and resolving to be kinder to others, to seek to improve our world and that of everyone around us. Being able to be truly happy for someone else requires soul-searching and intense preparation.

But it also requires a highly developed sense of perspective and optimism. When Aaron comes to see Moses, he is a priest for a slave people, a people whose god has apparently deserted them. Prospects are not good – not at all. And yet Aaron is truly joyful. No matter how dark and dim things may be, reunification is a thing to be celebrated. And so, too, the Festival of Sukkot. It is a time when we reunify with family, with our shared history of living in the wilderness, and, thanks to the preparations of Yom Kippur that make it possible, with G-d. No matter what else is going on, these are the days of true joy.

Comments are welcome!