September and October are big holiday months. In acts of great effort and dedication, millions of Jews across the world reorganize their school, work and personal schedules to carve out extra time for holiday meals, extensive (and hopefully inspiring) synagogue services and other religious get-togethers. And just as the intensity of Yom Kippur passes and our thoughts naturally turn to a return to “normal” life, along comes Sukkot.
Funny timing on this one. Some holidays fall out on a certain spot on the calendar as a result of the time of year in which they occurred. For example, the Jewish people were freed from Egyptian slavery in the spring, and so we celebrate Passover at that time. We received the Torah just over seven weeks later, which accounts for the timing of Shavuot. Yom Kippur was the date on which we received a second chance with the gift of the second set of tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments. Forever after we look for a reprieve, another chance, on that date.
By contrast, Sukkot has no particular date associated with it. As a holiday that recalls the care HaShem displayed towards us during 40 years of wandering in the desert, it could have been celebrated any time. We lived for decades in thatched huts, and appreciate the Divine care that assured our protection and survival in that hostile environment. But this was a daily occurrence, suitable for commemoration on any day of the year. Why have it now, just when we are overloaded with holidays as it is?
In the search for clues, it makes sense to keep an eye open for anything unusual in the Torah’s description of the holiday. A glance through the text reveals a repeated theme: We are commanded on three separate occasions to be joyous on Sukkot. There is no such specific command with regard to Shabbat nor with almost any other holiday, and yet we are thrice reminded to be happy on this holiday.
Perhaps instead of thinking of Sukkot as a repeating historical event on the calendar, we should consider it a personal event that happens to come back each year. It is preceded by some days of serious thought, places us outside under a canopy, involves seven days of rejoicing, and culminates in the dancing of Simchat Torah. Sound at all familiar? Might it resemble the description of a Jewish wedding?
The historical cycle of holidays begins with Passover, which was an experience of getting to know HaShem and then “going out” together in early courtship. The relationship proceeded over the ensuing weeks to get quite a bit more serious, with formal commitment to one another (engagement) on Shavuot. The episode of the Golden Calf may display our early insecurity in the relationship and our first “big fight,” a consequence of flirtation with infidelity. It is well past time to think seriously about this upcoming wedding, and that may be the explanation for the timing of the celebration of Sukkot.
Perhaps our Torah places Sukkot months later, near the High Holy Days, to give it the proper context and mindset. After months of engagement, we spend the days before the “wedding” in clear-headed contemplation of both the gravity and overwhelming joy of being in a dynamic, vibrant and deeply committed relationship. We even fast on Yom Kippur, just as many brides and grooms do before their big day.
And now for the wedding day of Sukkot. It’s an outdoor chuppah, bedecked with greenery, flowers, decorations, and a view of the stars. Seven days of feasting and rejoicing (the Sheva Brachot) follow, including the dance sets of Simchat Torah.
When we first met, we thought we “knew this was the one.” Then we got engaged, all the more confident. But we never truly know why we would want to spend our lives with someone until we do so, and so the holiday of joy is the one of finally being together. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are very heavy events, but they are also a prelude to joy. Let the wedding commence!
Rabbi Judah Dardik is the spiritual leader at Oakland’s Beth Jacob. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .