The Season of Our Joy

Sukkot Sermon 2014
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz 

The Season of our Joy 

There’s a bit of an urban legend floating around that the Inuit community have over 20 different words for ‘snow’. Of course, peoples are shaped by their historical and geographical experience and whether or not this platitude is true, it does speak to a truism: Arctic peoples must be deeply familiar with the subtleties of ice and snow. 

There is a similar urban legend floating around about the Jewish community. Shaped by our historical experience, often fraught with difficulty and sadness, we have come to place a premium on ‘joy’. 

And so, we have many words indicating shades of happiness. We have ‘asher’, which means happy in a blessed or fortunate way: ‘Ashrey ha’ish’ – happy – or fortunate – is the man. We see this a lot in psalms, in particular in psalm 145, the so-called ‘Ashrey’, which has the same root: ‘ashrey yoshvei beteicha…’ – ‘happy are the dwellers in Your house’. We also have ‘rinah’, to ‘shout for joy’ or ‘sing for joy’. The opening psalm for Kabbalat Shabbat kicks off with an emotive ‘l’chu ne’ranena la’Adonai’ – ‘let us sing joyfully to God’. Rinah in turn is also often used in conjunction with ‘gilah’, another word for joy which is harder to translate but which has the association with ‘gal’, ‘wave’: ‘rinah v’gilah’ is used in Isaiah 35:3 ‘…and rejoice with joy and singing’. There’s a passionate, sweeping spiritual exuberance there that can wash over us. The joy of worship, the joy of redemption, the joy of a powerful, emotive Neilah service that leaves you feeling renewed. And then there’s of course, ‘simchah’, the word we know best. A deep, well-rounded joy at all the good things in life. A simchah is a wedding, a healthy birth, a bar or bat mitzvah. We wish each other ‘chag sameach’, after all – a joyful festival. 

And in the case of Sukkot, it’s all the more relevant because Sukkot is known as ‘zeman simchateinu’, the ‘season of our joy’. This comes straight from the Torah, where we are commanded to ‘rejoice before the Eternal your God’ – ‘u’semachtem lifnei Adonai eloheichem’ (Lev. 23:40). This gains further resonance in rabbinic literature. The Talmud talks about the raucous joy with which Sukkot was celebrated, culminating in the famous (or infamous) ‘Simchat Beit haShoavah’, the Water Drawing Festival. After the wine and animal offerings in the Temple of yore, a water libation would be poured as an invocation for rain. Since Sukkot is a Pilgrim’s Festival, people would travel far and wide to attend. 

The Talmud (Sukkan 51a) recounts lively entertainment; rabbis juggling torches and doing acrobat tricks, wild dances, orchestras and probably much more revelry. (Bavli Sukkah 51a). Sukkot was also a perennially inclusive festival: although Gentile worship at the Temple wasn’t uncommon, it reached a zenith with seventy bulls offered by the ‘seventy nations of the world’, asking a universal blessing from a universal God who loves all His creation. 

Of course, capturing that level of joy today would be a challenge, especially in our miserable British climate! But we are still commanded to rejoice and Sukkot presents us with many opportunities to do so. Yesterday, after putting up our Sukkah in the garden in front of our apartment (the joys of a Jewish landlord and very respectful, kind non-Jewish neighbours), I went to cut schach – foliage – at a friend’s house. There was the simple delight of rain pattering on my hat as I clipped beautiful and fragrant branches from her garden. There was the joy of picking up my lulav and etrog, scratching the lumpy, yellow-green surface and delighting in that oh-so-familiar, spicy, fresh, fragrant scent. 

But why is Sukkot called ‘zeman simchateinu’? The easy answer is ‘because the Torah says so’, but that answer alone is hardly satisfactory! The more sophisticated answer is that our rejoicing is cumulative: we are spiritually and emotionally cleansed during Yom Kippur. The slate is wiped clean; we get to start afresh. Our sins have been forgiven, our souls are pure. This is a radical, powerful statement, both of a loving God and of a humanity of second chances and new beginnings. 

We ought to feel a ‘bearable lightness of being’, have a proverbial spring in our step. We’ve left all our ‘baggage’ behind, and like the Pilgrim’s Festivals often do, we are encouraged to travel light. The joy of Sukkot is not vapid gaiety or indulgent happiness. It is a deep, balanced, measured joy which questions our existence and that places responsibility upon us. It is the joy of knowing that life is short and finite, that we too can experience vulnerability and loss as we sit in our temporal dwellings, a metaphor for life as the most temporal dwelling of all. We read the book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) not to mire ourselves in angst but to learn to reflect, in an almost Zen Buddhist sort-of-way, on the human condition. 

Happiness is different from joy. Happiness is a quick fix. Joy is lasting. And so I wish you a joyful Sukkot. Smile at the sun, laugh at the rain. Remember the powerful rhythms of the wheel of our year. As the year fades, we both harvest bounty and embrace loss. The days grow darker even as the apples ripen on the trees. We shiver in our sukkot in zipped-up coats and scarves even as we relish the abundance of food and friendship in our communities. 

It doesn’t stop here, we have to make that jump. So share your joy: give to the High Holy Day appeal, invite friends, neighbours (especially non-Jewish ones! It takes a little explaining but it’s worth it) and strangers in your Sukkah in the spirit of Ushpizin. Participate in the Sinai Sanctuary Sukkah Sleep-In on October 14th to raise money for homeless refugees – those for who vulnerability and temporality are not metaphors but harsh reality. Joy doesn’t come when things are easy. 

Joy comes when things are made meaningful. Let that be our libation of the heart. 

Chag Sukkot sameach!

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