The festival of Sukkot is referred to in our prayers as “The Time of Our Happiness”. Once a year we leave the secure confines of our home and we move into an outdoor hut. We eat there, we sleep there, we learn there, and we essentially live in there for a whole week.
What is a Sukkah?
The walls can be made of almost anything and the roof must be made from organic material, such as leaves or branches; the rule is that the roof must not be man-made or connected to the ground. What is it about this festival that it is the only one referred to as the time of our happiness?
In Jewish thought and practice, man is inextricably connected to the natural world. Humankind was formed from the dust of the earth. Agriculture was the basis of the national lives of the early Israelites, and all aspects of life was intrinsically agriculturally related. The forefathers were all herdsmen. Since the Land of Israel was so dependent on rain for its fertility, agriculture became a natural expertise that the indigenous people had to master. Though on a deeper level, the major festivals in Jewish practice cycle with the agricultural seasons, to teach us about the human condition and how it too flows with the earth’s rotations. Pesach is in the spring and celebrates man’s individual and collective transformation alongside the world’s physical renewal. Shavuot was the festival celebrating the Jewish people’s national revelation of God, and the agricultural references are those of giving of the first fruits of the wheat harvest, in recognition of the Source from which they came. Sukkot is man’s time of rejoicing, as the world around him gathers the harvest of a yearlong process of growth.
In a day and age where those of us who are connected to the natural world are few and far between, how essential it is to not forget what the world has to teach us. We believe that God cloaks Himself in the garment of the natural world, and thus by contemplating the world around us, we can come to a deeper relationship with Him.
On Sukkot we move out of the confines and security of our permanent home, and enter into what our Sages called a dirat aray – a temporary dwelling. We look up at the roof of the Sukkah and peek through the leaves to gaze at the starlit sky, reminding us that we are all part of this beautiful creation, and that there exists something beyond our control and understanding. We sit in this fleeting and sometimes flimsy structure and remind ourselves that all that we have amassed in this world, all the possessions we earn and own, are not only temporary and fleeting, but they are not permanent fixtures of life’s true meaning.
Ben Zoma teaches us “Who is wealthy? One who celebrates what he has” (Pirkei Avot 4:1). Sukkot is a Festival of Joy because it is a time to remind ourselves what we really have in this world. We leave the world of possessions and acquisition, and enter into a world of consciousness, a world of family, of values, of friendship and camaraderie. That is our true happiness, our organic happiness, and that is what the Sukkah comes back each year to remind us.