We are commanded to rejoice

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Here we stand, mourning 200,000 lives lost to COVID, surrounded by the divisiveness of an ugly election year, fully feeling the weight of pandemic life that continues to weigh us down. 

Now, our tradition teaches, it is time to rejoice in our season. Now? Really? One might ask. It may feel disingenuous to speak of joy in this moment. We learn that it is not necessarily because of outward events that we find joy, rather despite them.

The holiday of Sukkot can be just the balm for our tired souls. Its lessons can offer us solace and teach us about finding simcha (joy) anywhere and anytime.  This holiday, or z’man simchateinu (time of our joy), reminds us that joy is not a luxury or a privilege. It is a human birthright and a necessity.

Sukkot is about embracing our fragility and vulnerability head on. We erect huts that are open to the elements.  We remember the time when, as a people, we lived in the desert and were unsure of our future.  We read Ecclesiastes, a book that begins with an exclamation that “all is futile!”  The injunction to rejoice on this holiday is not simply to have a party. It is a celebration despite our challenges. Sukkot acknowledges the sorrow and pain in the world and gives us permission to rejoice anyway. 

Sukkot teaches us about resilience.  It is about facing reality and still having the courage to find happiness.  In doing so, our tradition reflects upon happiness and its meaning. Joy in this season is commanded (Deuteronomy 16): you shall rejoice on your festive day. We learn that joy is a capability that we can activate despite circumstances that surround us. We are not commanded to rejoice in our personal happiness. We are told to look beyond ourselves to rejoice in the season and in redemption with gratitude. We all possess the superpower to rejoice – the Jewish tradition reminds us not to let it get rusty.

After the affliction of Yom Kippur, we transition to mandatory rejoicing just five days later. There is something about baring our souls that opens our hearts to abundant joy. Brene Brown teaches, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of joy and creativity, of belonging and love.”  That is exactly what the holiday of Sukkot is all about. We gather with friends, family and community to eat, sing and shake the lulav and etrog in an affirmation of life and goodness.

From flimsy booths reminiscent of our wanderings in the desert we exclaim “Ufros aleinu sukkat shlomiecha” – Eternal One, spread over us your sukkah of peace. 

May we have the strength and courage to celebrate all we hold precious this Sukkot and in doing so find wholeness. 

SARAH MACK is acting senior rabbi at Temple Beth-El in Providence