Sukkot - The Season of our Simcha
Each one of the three Chagim (Festivals) has its own special character which finds expression in our prayers. Two of them are identified with the historical event they invite us to relive: Pesach is the "Season of our Freedom" because that is the time of the year when Hashem liberated us from Egyptian bondage. Shavuot is the "Season of the Giving of the Torah" because that is the point on the calendar when we stood at Sinai and became Hashem's chosen people by being the only ones to accept this Torah sight unseen.
Sukkot, however, is the "Season of our Simcha" for a reason not related to history but rather to the commandments and services connected with this Chag. While there is certainly an obligation for a Jew to be joyous on every Chag (in the time of the Beit Hamikdash through the eating of sacrificial meat and afterwards through meat, wine and fine clothing), there is a special stress on the simcha of Sukkot.
"You shall rejoice before Hashem your G-d for seven days" commands the Torah (Vayikra 23:40) in regard to the mitzvah of taking the four species on Sukkot in the Beit Hamikdash. Rabbi Aharon Halevi in his classic "Sefer Hachinuch" offers a penetrating insight into the connection between simcha, the four species and this particular time of the year.
This time of the year, he notes, is called the Festival of Ingathering. It is a time of great joy for Jews, for it is the time for gathering grain and fruits from their fields into their homes, a cause for great rejoicing. Hashem therefore commanded His people to celebrate a festival at that time in order to elevate them by channeling that simcha to His service.
Aside from channeling the inherent simcha of the climax of the agricultural year into a positive service of Hashem, the mitzvah of the four species, adds the Sefer Hachinuch, also acts as a brake on the excesses which inevitably accompany human celebrations. Hashem commanded us to take four species from the world of agriculture, species which bring joy to the hearts of their holders and beholders in order to remind us that our festival celebration should be Heavenly directed and disciplined.
An interesting parallel to this observation may be drawn by recalling a study of alcoholism made almost half a century ago in New York State. By analyzing the backgrounds of a large number of people admitted to hospitals in the state because of alcoholism, the researchers aimed to determine which ethnic groups had the greatest tendency to drinking too much. It did not come as much of a surprise that the Irish made up such a high percentage of the patients. What did shock them was that in a state with such a large population of Jews, their representation amongst hospitalized drunks was so tiny.
This startling discovery impelled the researchers to make a study as to why Jews don't get drunk (Purim withstanding!). A couple of theories were proposed by a sociologist they consulted. One was that if you ever saw a Jewish mother stuffing her child with food you would realize that the outlet other ethnic groups find in drinking, Jews find in eating. This theory was dismissed as an unconvincing explanation, just as was the one based on the premise that since Jews are so self-conscious about their minority status they are extra careful in avoiding the embarrassment of drinking their way into the gutter.
What they finally decided upon as the only reasonable explanation sounds like an echo of the Sefer Hachinuch's comments on simcha. From the earliest moments in his life the Jew associates spirits with the spirit. The wine at the brit of a baby boy or the kiddush celebrating the birth of a baby girl continues to serve as the way a Jew ushers in his Sabbaths and festivals and adds a special dimension to his wedding ceremony and the feasts which accompany and follow it. When one uses drinking for reaching greater heights in his service of Hashem, one does not "become high" in the vulgar sense.
Simcha is truly a wonderful thing, especially on Sukkot. In the time of the Beit Hamikdash this expressed itself as well in the music, dancing and singing which accompanied the "Simchat Beit Hashoeva" drawing of water for the libations on the altar which took place only on Sukkot. Today we can only experience an echo of that simcha. Even though the Torah commanded the taking of the four species outside the Beit Hamikdash only on the first day of Sukkot, a decree was issued by Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai after the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash to take them for all seven days wherever Jews find themselves. This provides us with an opportunity to recall the simcha which accompanied this mitzvah in the Beit Hamikdash, as do the music, dancing and singing in the "Simchat Beit Hashoeva" celebrations in Eretz Yisrael offer us a taste of the simcha which accompanied the real thing in the Beit Hamikdash.
Even though our simcha without a Beit Hamikdash is far from complete, we still have, in our mitzvot and our customs, an opportunity to link the simcha inherent in our festival, especially one which is the "Season of our Simcha," to our service of Hashem. The lesson we can draw from this festival is how to consecrate all of the occasions of simcha in our lives - birth, marriage and happy events - by channeling them into opportunities for recognizing the Divine source of our prosperity. Not only do we thus learn to discipline our celebrations, but also to elevate them from ordinary "fun" into sacred "simcha."