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Sukkot

Dvar Torah: Sukkot

Rabbi Alan Iser,  Adjunct Professor of Theology at St. Joseph’s University and St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia and CY Faculty

According to the Torah, the holiday of Sukkot is the most joyous of all the festivals. The Torah instructs us: “After the in-gathering from your threshing floor and your vat, you shall hold the Feast of Booths for seven days. You shall rejoice in your festival, with your son and daughter, your male and female servant, the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow in your communities… you shall have nothing but joy.” (Deuteronomy 16:13-15)

From this source it is clear that Sukkot is a harvest festival. A late Midrash, Yalkut Shimoni (654), states: “the expression of rejoicing occurs three times in connection with Sukkot… but no such expression occurs even once with regard to Pesach. Why? Because the fate of one’s crops is still in the balance on Pesach, and one does not know whether there will be a yield or not.” The key phrase is vehayita akh sameakh, “you shall have nothing but joy,”  which is mentioned only in connection with Sukkot. As the biblical commentator  Bekhor Shor (12 th century France) writes, “The harvest is all gathered under lock and key, and now that Yom Kippur has passed and our sins forgiven (it is time to be joyful).”

How do we express that joyful spirit on this holiday known in Rabbinic literature simply as Ha-hag, the holiday par excellence? Today most of us are not involved in gathering our crops during the harvest season. Instead we celebrate it by showing our appreciation for nature’s gifts. Throughout the festival we use the four species: etrog, lulav, hadass and aravah (except on Shabbat) and leave our homes to reside in Sukkot.

But there is another way to commemorate the joy of the festival. Maimonides (Mishneh Torah, Laws of the Festivals 6:17-18) writes: “It is one’s duty to rejoice and be of cheerful heart together with his children, his wife, his grandchildren, and all the members of his household… And while one eats and drinks himself, it is his duty to feed the stranger, the orphan, the widow, and other poor and unfortunate people, for he who locks the doors to his courtyard and eats and drinks with his wife and family, without giving anything to eat and drink to the poor and bitter in soul – his meal is not a rejoicing in a divine commandment, but a rejoicing in his own stomach.”

Maimonides teaches us that if you want to experience true joy – share your bounty with others. As Rabbi Irving Greenberg writes: “On this holiday Jews are commanded to eat, drink, be happy, dance and relish life to the fullest in celebrating the harvest and personal wealth. But making joy holy means being selective in the enjoyment of God’s gifts, not worshiping those gifts or those who own them. The first and foremost expression of this insight is to share the bounty and joy.” (The Jewish Way p.112)

Sukkot allows us to celebrate the bounties of nature and reminds us to share those gifts with others. Thus, one of the most meaningful customs of Sukkot is Ushpizin.With a formula established by the Kabbalists in the 16th century, based  on the earlier Zohar, on each night of Sukkot we invite one of the seven exalted men (in some customs women as well) of Israel into our Sukkah. By symbolically showing our hospitality to our revered ancestors we recognize our ongoing responsibility to invite others into our Sukkah, and into our lives.

The holiday of Sukkot is truly “the season of our rejoicing.” We need to make it so for those less fortunate than ourselves as well. While this year we may not be able to have many guests in our Sukkah,   due to the Covid 19 virus, it does not exempt us from sharing our gifts with others, expressing our appreciation to God for our health and well-being, and enjoying the bounty.

In these challenging times, looking for joy in our lives is all the more important. Sukkot reminds us to be thankful for our many blessings and, if possible, to share them with those less fortunate.
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