Photo Credit:
Rabbi Avi Weiss

Sukkot is the only festival referred to in our liturgy as z’man simchateinu, the time of happiness. The Torah, in its last description of the festivals, mentions the word simcha twice when discussing Sukkot (Deuteronomy 16:14,15). This in contrast to Shavuot, where it appears only once (Deuteronomy 16:11). On Passover the word is totally absent (Deuteronomy 16:1-8).

Why is Sukkot deemed the ultimate holiday of happiness and joy?

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On a historical level, Sukkot is the culmination of the three festivals. Passover is the holiday of physical freedom. Yet freedom without purpose is void of happiness; hence the word simcha is not linked to Passover. Shavuot gives meaning to our freedom since on that day we received the Torah. Hence simcha is mentioned in reference to Shavuot.

Sukkot takes us to another dimension. Real joy occurs when one is able to sustain meaning in life well beyond the dramatic moments. As Sukkot is a commemoration of the fragile homes in which we lived during the forty years in the desert, this holiday represents the maintenance of belief, even beyond the experience at Sinai. So the Torah mentions simcha twice relative to Sukkot.

On an agricultural level, Sukkot teaches another important lesson about happiness. The ultimate holiday of gathering our produce is Sukkot. Thus, the festival is called chag ha’asif. The Torah, immediately preceding the laws of the holidays in Deuteronomy, mentions the laws of giving tithes (14:22). This serves as a reminder that true happiness is achieved when one takes of what one has gleaned and gives it to another.

Most people believe happiness is achieved by taking more. The reverse is true. The more one gives, the more one experiences exhilaration from having given of himself to others. In the end, happiness is a feeling. Giving, on the other hand, is an action. While one cannot automatically achieve an emotion, each of us has it in our power to act. Through action, feelings emerge. In the case of Sukkot, happiness surfaces from giving of our produce.

Not coincidentally, Sukkot comes on the heels of Rosh Hashanah, when we wish each other Shanah Tovah. Shanah Tovah is commonly translated as “have a happy year.” This translation is a take-off of the American New Year, when happiness is the only goal. In truth, Shanah Tovah does not mean “happy new year” but rather “good new year.” In fact, not everything that is happy is good and not everything that is good is happy.

When we wish each other a Shanah Tovah, what we are really saying is “may you have a year of doing good.” By experiencing a High Holiday season of tov, of goodness, and internalizing the message of Sukkot, we can ultimately realize the description of Sukkot as found in our prayers – z’man simchateinu, the time of true joy.

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Rabbi Avi Weiss is founding president of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and senior rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. His memoir of the Soviet Jewry movement, “Open Up the Iron Door,” was recently published by Toby Press.