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Home » Sukkot

Sukkot: From the Fast to the Party

Submitted by on October 6, 2019 – 12:12 amNo Comment | 1,618 views

The party begins on Sukkot. The first ten days of the year are somber. Rosh Hashanah is the day of judgement, then next week are the days of repentance, and Yom Kippur is the fast. After the fast, our festivals take a radical turn and we move from the fast to the party. The party is the festival of Sukkot and it lasts for nine days, culminating in Simchat Torah, the most joyous day in the Jewish calendar.

What is the logical reason for this sudden shift from somberness to joy?

A real estate agent once showed a house to a couple. As she went through the rooms, she pointed out the key selling features and kept commenting on the view that would soon be visible from the bay window  in the living room. When they reached the living room, she announced that she was about to show them the house’s best-selling feature and dramatically pulled the curtains.

The wife was enchanted, but the husband was unimpressed. Finally, he observed, I can’t see the view. I guess it is blocked by those mountains . . .

From Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur we are climbing a mountain. Climbing is maddeningly hard work. It is a serious time of strenuous concentration. On Yom Kippur we reach the top of the mountain and the view is suddenly revealed to us in its glorious splendor. With the magificnet view comes a profound and uplifting thrill that results in merriment and joy. Hence the shift from the somber Yom Kippur to the joyous festival of Sukkot.

What do we mean, what is the mountain, what is the view and why does it generate joy?

In the Palace
Kabbalah teaches that G-d and the Jewish people are engaged in a game of hide and seek. Throughout the year, we are the children who have exiled themselves from their father’s home. We seek G-d wherever we are, but we can’t find Him. We immerse ourselves in projects and efforts that are financially rewarding, in activities and pastimes that are socially rewarding, in hobbies and habits that are personally rewarding, but because they are all directed toward ourselves, we can’t find G-d in them.

During the month of Elul, we realize that if we want to find G-d, we must look for Him in His palace—in a life steeped in Torah and Mitzvah. So, during this month we increase our efforts to pray, study Torah, observe Mitzvot, and generally be more aware of G-d in our lives. This is us making our way toward G-d’s palace. But still, G-d is inside, and we are outside. On Rosh Hashanah, G-d lets us into the palace.

Yet, we are still not happy. Because though we are in the palace, we are still unable to find G-d. We call for Him everywhere chanting, Avinu Malkenu, our father our king, yet He doesn’t show His face. We can’t find His hiding place. The strenuous effort to seek Him, and the desperate fear that we might not find Him, creates a tension and somber atmosphere. It is us climbing G-d’s mountain.

On Yom Kippur, G-d finally emerges from His hiding place and shows His face. We are finally reunited. Why? Because on Yom Kippur we come full circle. Rather than pursuing self-oriented goals as we have done all year, we spend thieday immersed in G-dly goals. We don’t eat or drink, bathe or rest, we immerse ourselves in prayer and supplication. We speak to G-d, we think of G-d, and we do this all day.

When we do, we finally find G-d. This is the view that we referred to earlier. The gorgeous vista that suddenly reveals itself to us as we crest the top of the mountain.

Thrill and Joy
If that is the case, why doesn’t the party begin on Yom Kippur? Why do we wait with the party until Sukkot?

To answer the question, let us use the parable of a lottery. Suppose you play the lottery for decades. Every week you spend several dollars, choose your lucky number and hope for the best. You are not happy because you have only spent money and have yet to see any reward for your effort. Then one day the impossible happens and you win ten million dollars. You are thrilled, but you are also stunned. It takes a few days for the truth to sink in and only then can you begin to celebrate.[1]

The same is true for us. On Yom Kippur, we are so overwhelmed by the magnificent majesty of the spiritual vista that unfolds before us that we cannot take it in. We are stunned by the intensity. We stare at it in wonder transfixed and trying to wrap our minds around it. G-d and we are in the same room, how are we meant to feel about this? This day is so holy, how are we mean to respond to it? The High Priest is in the Holy of Holies, what are we meant to do with that information?

It is thrilling, but it is also overwhelming. We are hard pressed to formulate an emotional response.

Then four days pass and it all sinks in. We have collected our winnings and began to enjoy it. We build a sukkah, we secure a Lulav and Etrog, and we begin to live Jewishly. Everything is done in the Sukkah. Even mundane conversations and activities are held in the Sukkah, a place of Divine sanctity. We literally absorb the holiness of Yom Kippur into the routine of our every day. This is the polar opposite from the rest of the year. The rest of the year we pursue our mundane goals and forget about G-d. On Sukkot we pursue all our goals, including the mundane, in the Sukkah, in the presence of G-d.

Now that the overwhelming experience has settled in, we can begin to celebrate. We can feel the joy percolating in our hearts and bursting from our chests. We can’t sit still so we get up and dance as Jews have done for centuries on the nights of Sukkot. This is the equivalent of throwing a major party and inviting family and friends to celebrate winning the lottery. Our Sukkah is filled with family, friends, neighbors, and acquaintances, and we celebrate. This is the party. We have arrived.

Simchat Torah
Ultimately, if the party is about G-d, it must lead back to the Torah. This is why our celebration circles back to the Torah by the end of the holiday. We connect it with our annual Torah reading cycle, which we complete on the last day of the High Holiday season, on Simchat Torah. When we study Torah, we go beyond feeling G-d in our hearts. We grasp G-d’s ideas in our minds.

Comprehending what G-d wants from us, why He wants these things from us, and the role that we can play in G-d’s cosmic plan for creation, concretizes our relationship with G-d in ways that make it real and bring it to life. This solidifies and grounds our relationship in a way that catapults our joy to new heights. It is only natural that on this very day we turn around and begin the Torah reading cycle again, seeking yet deeper insights and yet deeper understanding of G-d, His will and His intellect.[2]

May our Chag be Sameach, the party joyous, and the rest of our year, Jewishly inspired.

[1] This is similar to the intellectual process. When we first solve a problem, we feel a thrill, but we can’t yet explain the solution precisely. The idea has occurred to us and we know it is complete, but it has not yet become grounded and solidified in our minds. Only after it is grounded can we explain the idea to ourselves and to others. This is when the thrill turns to joy. In Hebrew this process is called Binah, which explains why the kabbalah describes the sanctity of the Sukkah as makifin debinah – a Binah atmosphere.

[2] This essay is based on Likutei Torah (Devarim) 41b and Siddur Im Dach, p. 236.

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