September 30, 2023 | 15 Tishrei 5784
Torah: Leviticus 22:26-23:44; Numbers 29:12-16
Haftarah: Zechariah 14:1-21
Shabbat Shalom from Bruce Washburn:
This weekend, I will not be at services because my family is participating in our second annual tenting weekend at Fundy National Park. Although this event was initiated by my daughter’s husband’s family, the coincidence of Sukkot is not lost on me. Rejoicing at Fundy National Park will not be difficult.
Here is this week’s D’var Torah:
A lot of what we read and discuss here is not particularly happy. Every character in the Torah is flawed and our stories often end with destruction and the hope for a better future. As biblical scholar Carol Newsom puts it, the Tanakh is “a prolonged meditation on the sense of flaw or brokenness that prevents human flourishing.” Yet this week, as we dwell in our sukkot, the houses we build with deliberate flaws, with brokenness built into the construction, we are commanded to be happy. This is z’man simchateinu, the season of our rejoicing.
Happiness and rejoicing are complicated in the Tanakh. They are not often presented as ends in and of themselves. Rather, the Tanakh puts forth a system of covenantal behavior in which doing the good, tov, or the right, yashar, by following the commandments leads to order and a good life for the family, for you and your descendants. The point is not to be happy, the point is to be in relationship with God.
The basis of our relationship is order. To do the good and the right is to follow the commandments, to preserve the order. Indeed, to do so is to act in the image of God. We first find God creating order out of chaos. The Torah opens with God structuring the world, assigning everything to its proper place out of tohu vavohu, the vast and void nothingness. After each day of creation, God pronounces it good. We too are created in the image of God. We too create order out of chaos. We organize our lives through the commandments, building physical, societal, and temporal to impose order on the world. We see good, we live in relationship with God, by creating and maintaining this order. When we fall out of order, when we transgress, the system allows us to atone, to bring a sacrifice to restore order to the world and to return ourselves to the path of seeking good.
Our parashah details the ordering of time. Starting with Shabbat, it also details the three pilgrimage festivals, ending with Sukkot. These festivals give meaning to our lives by allowing us to live out the commandments, to be in relationship with God. They connect us to our past, to the exodus from Egypt, and to our future, because our observance of these festivals helps to ensure that our progeny will survive in the land.
Yet the way we are commanded to observe Sukkot is with happiness, with rejoicing. We read, “you shall rejoice before the LORD your God seven days.” There is something unorderly about rejoicing, something wild, something which cannot be contained. We find it in Sarah’s laughter on hearing that she will bear a child. It bursts forth from her, even as she knows that it is wrong to laugh at a pronouncement of God’s, even as she will go on to deny that she laughed, returning herself to her position as the ordered matriarch of a new nation. We find it in the slightly sarcastic names Leah gives to the children her maidservant, Zilpah, bears for her. Even as Leah becomes temporarily barren, resorting to the likes of magical cures like mandrakes, she names the children of her fertile maidservant Gad and Asher, Luck and Happiness. We find it in the feasting and laughter of the people while worshiping the golden calf. And we find it most of all in Deuteronomy, where we are told repeatedly to rejoice while eating the sacrifices we bring to the altar in the place which God will choose. Deuteronomy emphasizes over and over again the dangers of feasting, of rejoicing, of having too much, of losing ourselves in the chaos. It is all too aware that with too much happiness comes a dissolving of self, a loss of order, and then a forgetting of God. God creates order. We exist in relationship with God through order. Joy can destroy this order, this relationship.
So why are we commanded to rejoice on Sukkot? Why do we invite this dangerous force into our lives? Mere days after we have contemplated our own deaths on Yom Kippur, we lean into the wildness of uncontained happiness, bursting through the seams of our sechach, for a full seven days and maybe even eight. We leave behind worries about doing the good, about following the right path, in order to live in the liminal, to laugh freely and dance. We honor the wildness of the wilderness in which we wandered for forty years by meeting God there. We walk with God into the vast and the void, trusting that God can bring us back, can recreate order after we feast.