Sermon for Sukkot 5782: Be more joyful

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 21 September 2021

Perhaps the great wonder of Torah (or at least, the way we read Torah) is that, somehow, when we begin our cycle of readings again from next week, the same text will remain as fresh and interesting as this year, revealing new perspectives, ideas, emphases.

I can think of no other literary work that we read in this way, with this cycle of engagement. Whatever our perspective on the origin, the authority, even the morality of Torah, this relationship that we have with it is extraordinary.

Of course, this isn’t magic. Or rather, the ‘magic’ of it is that, while the text remains the same, each year we come to it changed, seeing it with different eyes.
This is true in ordinary times, but especially so when – as this year – we come affected by the enormity of our shared experience.

I am wary of the parallel – for obvious reasons – but I was reminded of Emil Fackenheim’s small book ‘The Jewish Bible after the Holocaust: A re-reading’ – the idea that we necessarily must read the text differently as a result of that historical experience. Fackenheim was himself influenced by Martin Buber, who asserted that each generation must struggle with the Bible, and their relationship with the text for itself from their own historical context.

The commitment that we make as Jews to read Torah as a living document, means to come to it each year afresh, from within our own lived experience.

And the same is true of the cycle of the Jewish year:
Each year the same rituals, but changed actors.
The same liturgy, but changed speakers
The same passages from Torah, same Haftarah, but changed readers.
Each year a different us, with different needs, finding different messages, emphases.

When I spoke on Yom Kippur about kindness, it was shaped by hearing anew the words of the text – of reading Torah, bible, chazal, liturgy as a reader shaped by experience.
More aware than ever before of the urgency of this message.
More sensitive – not only through the passage of time, but also through the experience of pandemic – of our, of my own, mortality.

And similarly, as we read this morning’s portions, as we live once again the ritual of Sukkot, we do so with this year’s eyes, after the challenge of the last 18 months.

What is it that this year feels essential? That resonates after the year we have had?
For me, one verse in this text, a text we have read year after year, resonates in a new way:
U’smachtem lifnei Adonai eloheichem – You shall be joyful before the Eternal your God.
Or, as we will read on Shabbat: V’smachata b’chagecha – You shall rejoice in your festival… v’hayita ach sameach – and you shall have nothing but joy.
Three times in the Torah we find Sukkot associated with simcha, with joy. It feels, this Sukkot, deeply profound.

You might – and you would be right to do so – point out that I have spoken about joy from this bimah many times before over the last thirteen years. Most often, I have spoken about joy in relation to the words above our ark: the imperative Ivdu et Adonai b’simcha – serve God with joy. This powerful statement of Jewish mission – so different from the sombre messages above many a synagogue ark.

Looking back, though, when I have spoken about joy in the past, it has been as an act of hakarat hatov – of recognising the good – an attempt to name that which we have which we should not take for granted.

Here, in our text this morning, what resonates is the idea of joy as injunction – as requirement – the instruction to privilege that aspect of our religious lives whatever else might be happening.

Another possible objection: You might say that this is rather obvious. That there is no new resonance here. It is worth observing, though, that there is no section on joy in the Sukkot Study Anthology in our 1995 machzor. By contrast, there is a section on persecution. The Shoah, indeed World War One, get mentioned in this section – the injunction of joy does not. Joy clearly did not reflect the moment of those editors, the eyes with which they read Torah and lived their Sukkot.

We are going to study Jewish Joy more generally in our shiur on Shabbat morning. For this morning, I want to explore just for a moment the association of sukkot with joy.

This is most often explained as a celebration of harvest. The rabbis observe that joy is mentioned not at all with regard to Pesach, once with regard to Shavuot, and three times about Sukkot. Why? At Pesach, they explain, we don’t yet know what the year’s harvests will bring. At Shavuot, we have had the first harvest of the year. But by Sukkot, it is z’man simchateinu – the time of our joy, because both the crops of the field and the fruit harvest have been brought in. The agricultural year has been completed.

But here is the important bit. The mitzvah of joy applied whether the harvest had been good or not. Whatever the outcome, the work had been done, and the ancient farmer was expected to express satisfaction with their portion.
It is worth reflecting on this for a moment. The harvest may have brought sadness, fear, anxiety, frustration. Yet it was still marked with joy. The commandment remained to rejoice, to express the gratitude, to recognise the passing of time, the shared experience.
This is the joy of Sukkot – the joy of shared endeavour, shared experience – even when that experience may not have been a positive one. We have been through this together, this task is done, let us give thanks, recognise the good, even as we recognise our continuing vulnerability.

The rabbis found an additional insight in the association of Sukkot with joy. In case of a good harvest people might naturally be joyful, celebrating the work of their own hands. ‘Didn’t we do well?’ they might proclaim. The rituals of Sukkot ground that natural joy, give it frame – most importantly, give it perspective. Whether the year has been good or hard, we are equally obliged to recognise that we are just one piece of the picture. We cannot take all the credit – nor all the blame, but recognise that we strived as best we could – and to see beyond ourselves with joy.

And to share that joy. The joy of sukkot is one that is not for the individual alone, but is to be carried out with others. The mitzvah, as expressed in Deuteronomy: “You shall rejoice in your festival, with your son and daughter, your male and female slave, the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow in your communities.” Halachically, we have responsibility for the joy of others, not only ourselves.
As Maimonides states in the Mishneh Torah, “ֹAnyone who locks the doors of their courtyard and eats and drinks with their family, without giving anything to eat and drink to others, ‘ein zo simchat mitzvah eilah simchat k’reiso’ – ‘this is not the joy of mitzvah, but the joy of one’s own stomach’.

This is why, with this year’s eyes, the mitzvah of joy resonates so strongly this year.
We are beginning, hopefully, a journey of return, time to reflect on this moment in our individual and communal journeys. And at the heart of this journey and this reflection must be joy.

‘U’smachtem lifnei Adonai eloheichem’ – ‘You shall be joyful before the Eternal your God’.
We must commit to the joy of shared endeavour, shared experience – even though that experience may not have been a positive one.
We must find the joy of perspective – recognising our importance and also our limitations in the face of that which has been so much greater than us.
Most importantly, we must re-dedicate ourselves to the joy of community after having lived through that which we have experienced together.

This is the joy of Sukkot. We have been through this together, this task is – hopefully – nearing its end, let us give thanks, recognise the good, even as we recognise our continuing vulnerability.
And then, in the words of Deuteronomy:
‘V’hayita ach sameach’ – then you shall have nothing but joy.