Sukkot: Holiday of our greatest joy

Maharat Rori Picker Neiss is director of programming, education and community engagement at Bais Abraham Congregation.

By Maharat Rori Picker Neiss

The greatest joy often is found in the most uneventful moments. 

The Torah commands us to be especially joyful on the holiday of Sukkot. 

In the book of Leviticus, we read, “On the first day you shall take the product of hadar trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days” (Leviticus 23:40). 

Though it is not surprising to find ourselves commanded to rejoice before God on a festival, Sukkot seems to go above and beyond. Later, in Deuteronomy, the Torah commands, “After the ingathering from your threshing floor and your vat, you shall hold the Feast of Booths for seven days. 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. You shall hold a festival for the Lord your God seven days, in the place that the Lord will choose; for the Lord your God will bless all your crops and all your undertakings, and you shall have nothing but joy” (Deuteronomy 16:13-15).

In fact, in the prayers, Sukkot is referred to as zman simkhateynu, the time of our joy. 

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This seems like an odd classification. What makes Sukkot any more joyful than any of the other Jewish holidays?

Perhaps making the question even more confusing, Sukkot is the only holiday that does not commemorate a date in history. Rosh Hashanah is the anniversary of the day that man was created. Yom Kippur is the anniversary of the day that God forgave the Israelites for the sin of the Golden Calf by delivering the second set of Tablets. Passover is the day that God took the Israelites out of the land of Egypt. Shavuot is the day that God gave the Israelites the Torah. Purim is the day that the Jewish people emerged victorious over the evil plot of Haman. Hanukkah is the day that the Jewish people rededicated the Holy Temple. 

What does Sukkot commemorate? The Israelites wandering through the desert for 40 years. 

Forty years! In what way is the first day of Sukkot, the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei, different than the other days of the year? 

It isn’t. Nothing of note happened on that day in history. 

Which is precisely why Sukkot is the holiday of our joy. 

Sukkot does not commemorate the miraculous moment of God intervening in the world, changing nature or interrupting history. Sukkot commemorates the mundane, the day-to-day march through the desert. 

Education is not marked by the moment of graduation but in the countless hours spent studying and struggling through a subject. Marriage is not marked by the moment of the wedding, but in the day-to-day interactions and the mundane and arduous tasks that arise each day. 

So, too, our relationship with God is not marked by the moment we left Egypt, or the moment we received the Torah, or even the moment that man was created. Our relationship with God, indeed our greatest joy, is in the unremarkable and insignificant. 

On this day in history, thousands of years ago, as our ancestors marched through the desert. 

That is what solidified our relationship with God. It is easy to follow God amid miracles. It is easy to be in a relationship with someone when you are showered with gifts and attention. It is hard, sometimes it feels impossible, to wake up after the festivities are over, and to go about our lives.

Yet, it is on those days, amid the drudgery and the monotony, when we learn our true selves. It is on those days we learn our true relationships. 

That is the greatest joy.