Lesser-known Sukkot mitzvah encourages us to dwell in happiness


Exodus 33:12–34:26

Numbers 29:17–22

Ezekiel 38:18–39:16

“What are the neighbors thinking?” I wondered as we walked to tashlich on Rosh Hashanah in a long procession, progressing toward the little creek where we can symbolically throw away our sins. They greeted us with polite smiles, and I smiled back and shrugged, for that is not the only odd thing about us.

our sins. They greeted us with polite smiles, and I smiled back and shrugged, for that is not the only odd thing about us.

Consider that our new year “party” has no balloons, drinking or loud music, not to mention it’s on the “wrong” day; we dress up in costumes in the spring and eat a cardboardlike cracker we call bread. To top it all off, just when the weather gets chilly and possibly rainy, we build a flimsy hut in our backyard to eat and live in, even though we have a perfectly comfortable house right nearby.

Sukkot, or Tabernacles, is the third of the three pilgrimage festivals after Pesach-Passover in the spring and Shavuot (weeks) in early summer, when Jews were commanded to journey to the Temple in Jerusalem. All three holidays have agricultural origins.

The celebration of Sukkot, or Feast of Ingathering, is described in the Torah as occurring “at the end of the year when you gather in your labors out of the field” (Exodus 23:16) and “after you have gathered in from your threshing-floor and from your winepress” (Deuteronomy 16:13).

Coming at the completion of the harvest, Sukkot was considered an opportunity to give thanks for the bounty of nature in the year that had passed. Some biblical scholars, theologians and historians believe the American Thanksgiving originated with the ancient Hebrews’ Sukkot.

Like the two other pilgrimage festivals, Sukkot is also reminiscent of the Israelites’ 40 years of travel in the desert after the Exodus from slavery in Egypt. Someone asked me once why we don’t eat matzah in the sukkah if both remind us of the Exodus. We could save on the cleaning and the mess! Yet each holiday has its own place and brings additional meanings to our past, present and future. For example, it is told that only Sukkot will become a universal festival of pilgrimage and peace in the messianic era.

The holiday is known for two of its mitzvahs: “dwelling” in the sukkah, which is considered to mean eating meals in the sukkah (notice it is not a mitzvah to own or build one), and “taking the four species,” the lulav and etrog or “arba’at haminim.” Both mitzvahs involve doing, touching and smelling. They are external actions. The third and less-known mitzvah is “vesamachta bechagecha,” to be joyful. It turns out that just as we can be commanded to be hospitable and to take care of the poor, to light candles, to give tzedakah and to eat certain foods, we can be commanded to be happy.

But wait. Isn’t there a difference between calculating the 10 percent we give for charity and finding — or making — happiness? How can we be commanded to be happy? Isn’t happiness something that “happens” to “lucky” ones, and even then, only sometimes? Or perhaps happiness is a result of acquiring a better job, a bigger house, a more prestigious title?

The Torah presents us with a fascinating concept: Being happy is a choice, a way of life we can decide to pursue. In fact, it points out that our happiness isn’t dependent on any of the things we have or don’t have. This is symbolized by the fact that we leave our comfortable homes and go outside. No longer surrounded by our secure brick and mortar walls, no longer sheltered by our tight, waterproof roof, we’re exposed to all the elements — from within and without.

And there, when we let go and trust in something greater, we can notice the good we’re given, all the little blessings of life we so often ignore. Deprived of our securities, we are able to appreciate the simple things we take for granted. We are invited to open up to the fragile possibilities of life, rejoice in them and be happy.

Michal Kohane is the director of the Israel Center of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation. She has served in leadership roles throughout Northern California and holds advanced degrees in studies of Israel, psychology and education. She can be reached at michalk@sfjcf.org.