Though there is a mitzvah of simcha on all yamim tovim, only Sukkot is described as zman simchateinu (the time of our joy). The Torah mentions the word simcha only four times in reference to the yamim tovim. Three of them refer to Sukkot. The famous and often sung words (Devarim 16:14-15) – “V’samachta b’chagecha…” – refer specifically to Sukkot.
The simplest explanation of the Sukkot simcha is that we celebrate the successful harvest of Sukkot – otherwise known as Chag Ha’asif, the harvest festival (based on Shemot 23:16), while Chazal link the celebration to our having received Hashem’s forgiveness during the first part of the month of Tishrei (Midrash Tehillim 102, Sukka 53a, Vayikra Rabba, Emor 30).
Though similar to the harvest celebrations of other cultures, ours differs in that it focuses on the Beit HaMikdash (Moreh Nevuchim 3:43). We celebrate lifnei (before) Hashem because we realize that He is the cause of our success. Much like the mitzvah to bring bikkurim, on Sukkot we use products of the harvest to praise, during Hallel, and thank Hashem for our success (Rashbam, Ramban, Vayikra 23:39). We remember how Hashem cared for us in the desert and realize that he continues to do so today.
Simchat Beit Hasho’eiva, Celebrating the Water Libation
The focus of our joy in the Beit HaMikdash was the simchat beit hasho’eiva, the “water libation celebration” (Rashi on Sukkah 50a). Throughout each night of Sukkot, the people celebrated the water just drawn from the shiloach spring before pouring it out on the mizbei’ach the next morning. This simcha was so unique that Chazal describe it as qualitatively greater than any other (Sukkah 51b).
Why was this ritual, which is not even (explicitly) mentioned in the Torah, the center of the Sukkot celebration? Pouring water seems like little reason to celebrate. Sukkot is observed at the end of the summer when the springs are at their low point. The water libation ceremony is, appropriately, a national prayer beseeching Hashem to provide us with more water in the year ahead (Rosh Hashana 16a). Why was this ceremony the source of such extraordinary joy?
A Deeper Level of Simcha
The focus on the simchat beit hasho’eiva expresses a deeper level of the simcha. We are happy not only as a result of our success, but also because of our realization that Hashem cares and provides for us. Most people celebrate their success, but have no real reason to assume that it will continue in the future. We, however, know that our success signifies the strength of our relationship with Hashem and so we are confident that the success will continue.
When we pour our precious last drops of water on the mikdash’s mizbei’ach we are like Eliyahu HaNavi at Har HaCarmel who poured out four large jugs of their last remaining water (after years of drought) on Hashem’s mizbeia’ch as an expression of his confidence in Hashem’s mercy (Melachim I 18:34-35).
Each year at the water libation ceremony, we express this same confidence by not only pouring out the last of our water, but by also celebrating intensively when doing so. We reflect on our success of the past year, appreciate its source, thank and praise Hashem for it, and celebrate our faith and confidence in the future.
Like Eliyahu HaNavi, whose actions and tefillot at Har HaCarmel were answered with rain (Ibid. 45), our celebration and show of faith make us worthy of receiving rain and Hashem’s other berachot (Sefer HaChinuch 325).
Though it is always easy to focus on what we are missing in our lives, it is critical that we use chag Sukkot to focus upon and celebrate Hashem’s great blessings that we often take for granted. May this celebration strengthen our confidence and merit us continued good health, happiness, and hatzlacha in the upcoming year.