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Sukkot: Lessons About Joy

10/31/2022 09:08:51 AM


Rabbi Ezray

          I spoke to a Middle School teacher last week and asked her how the year was beginning. She was so happy that the students are back in person, and then reflected on the some of the impact of the past several years. She shared that learning on a computer is so different than learning in person; the interactions, the thinking you can facilitate in person; rather than a quick click. She talked about the loss and collective trauma brought on by the pandemic as well as societal upheavals and how it subtly and blatantly impacted behavior. She shared that she was observing anxiety and depression, noting that the last two and a half years were an intensification of what she had been observing for many years when it comes to mental health. 

I shared with her the themes of the holiday of Sukkot and how I felt that Sukkot addressed many of the issues she brought up. I shared that Sukkot is a holiday which gives us a sense of wholeness, well-being, and builds resilience and perspective. As I talked to her about Sukkot, she kept asking more about its themes and she ultimately said, “We need to bottle the themes of this holiday and teach it to people.”

What is the magic and wisdom of Sukkot? Sukkot teaches us to embrace the synthesis of acknowledging fragility and creating and experiencing joy. Let’s think about each of those, and how we create true joy. We acknowledge fragility as we move into flimsy outdoor huts for the week reminding us of the difficulties of our ancestors’ time wandering for 40 years in the wilderness. And at the same time, this is the holiday of joy, celebrating bounty, gathering together, feeling forgiven, being outside. According to the Torah, we are taught: V’hayita ach same’ach – You shall have nothing but joy!

          This synthesis of fragility and joy, and the connection between them may be just what we and our children need right now. Let’s start with fragility; the flimsy booth reflecting the discomfort of our time in the wilderness gives perspective.  When you are aware that life is fragile, you truly appreciate the preciousness of every moment. This awareness may lead us to make choices which bring joy. Joy comes from how we respond to fragility

          What else brings true joy? Joy is not about a continual state of pleasure, fun, or excitement. It’s deeper. It is about the satisfaction that comes through being together. Joy comes from connection. We leave the comfort of home and realize that joy is the people sitting in the Sukkah with us. It is about WE. In the Torah, the pilgrimage was done with the whole family; parents, children, household members, community members who are often overlooked or excluded; Levites, stranger, servants. What an extraordinary message to ourselves and our children: you are part of something bigger, you are connected to others. 

Picture families and extended community walking to Jerusalem together sharing stories. Soon enough, people begin to take off their masks and share from places deep in their hearts. People realize many others share some of the same anxieties, emotions, and concerns. It is part of the human condition, and rather than being taboo or something to feel shame about, we find it is something we can talk about. Joy comes from feeling a sense of WE; that is the message of Sukkot that I hope stays with you and that you nurture.  

And there is more. Sukkot takes place mere days after Yom Kippur, and that too adds to the joy of the holiday. After an intense holiday filled with teshuvah – turning to our best selves through introspection, reflection, and asking forgiveness from those we have wronged, we feel an incredible possibility of healing and renewal. Part of what we experience on Sukkot is the joy of living in a world where forgiveness and restoring relationship is possible. Joy is the ability to internalize the changes, growth, and forgiveness we have experienced. An article in this week’s Mercury News focusing on mental health and our youth teaches that we need to teach and model that mental health struggles can be the start of something new. That is the message of Sukkot following Yom Kippur. Joy is beginning again.

Almost every article and book about mental health emphasizes the connection between helping others and feeling good about ourselves. Real joy begins when we care about others and act to help those in need. There are holiday lists in several of the books in the Torah. In the list in Leviticus, right in the middle of the holiday list is a commandment to leave the corners of your fields and the gleanings that fall on the ground for the poor and stranger. The message is the joy is not taking more, it is the exhilaration of having given of yourself to another. Joy emerges through acts of caring and love.

Sukkot also teaches that true joy comes from gratitude. Sukkot celebrates the harvest, the bounty we enjoy. We are meant to look at the food on our tables and in our cabinets and refrigerators and say, “Wow!  What a blessing!” It is why say daily blessings of gratitude for everything. Sukkot intensifies the message of sitting with gratitude. So much research points to the power of gratitude to both help us develop resilience and experience true joy. Let’s deepen our gratitude, knowing that it helps us thrive emotionally and spiritually.

Joy also comes from awe. As we move out of the house into our Sukkot we take in nature and the world around us. There is a different type of spirituality and awareness of awe and God when you are outside. Awe! Awe is that feeling we get when something is so vast it stops us in our tracks. Like gratitude, research shows that experiencing awe decreases stress and anxiety and increases positive emotions and overall satisfaction in life. Elizabeth Bernstein wrote an article in the Wall Street Journal that awe is not just nature, music, or spiritual experiences, but that people can trigger awe through kindness. She writes about a woman whose son brought over a huge air conditioning unit when their AC broke during a heat wave.  As she watched him sweat and struggle lugging the unit up the stairs she was filled with awe. Bernstein’s article reminds us that interpersonal awe happens in moments like this, and in smaller, everyday moments. We can feel awe when we experience acts of kindness and love. True joy comes as we cultivate hearts filled with awe.   

And finally, joy comes from hard work, getting through something difficult and looking back with satisfaction. It arises from a deep sense of accomplishment.  Two weeks ago, during services I asked Zach what he thought it must have been like to spend 40 years in the wilderness. His response: “Sand.” Sand everywhere; and he understood that was not an easy experience. Think about the reality of heat, sand, pitching tents, searching for water, scarcity of food. Rabbi Greenberg writes: “Freedom came as the end result of pitching tents (booths) and taking them down over the course of 14,600 days. Sukkot honors the forty-three thousand meals prepared on the desert trek, the cleanups, the washing of utensils.” Sukkot celebrates the seemingly endless forty-year journey. Now how is that joyful? Joy is the tough journey. Listen again to Rabbi Greenberg: “True maturity is learning to appreciate the finite rewards of every day along the way.” That is incredible joy! So think about celebrating the daily realities that require effort and work; school, relationship, work, and let Sukkot remind you of the joy of difficult journey.

Sukkot opens our hearts to the possibility of true joy through many possible avenues:

  • allowing fragility to create embrace of each day,

  • connection with one another,

  • being forgiven and having new beginnings,

  • sharing with those in need,

  • gratitude,

  • awe,

  • and accomplishment.

Sukkot gives us the gift of understanding real joy as we cope with the current moment. One more Sukkot thought: Sukkot is the protective shelter of dwelling under God’s wings. May we feel that protection and love. May we cultivate a deep sense joy! Chag Sameach.

Wed, December 7 2022 13 Kislev 5783