The Jewish holiday that urges us to find our joy in everyday moments


Maharat Rori Picker Neiss

The religious philosopher Mircea Eliade speaks about religion as attempting to transform the chaos in our world into the cosmos. Essentially, he says that we take that which is unknown — that which can be different and scary — and try to make it known.

We do it by establishing orientation points, a fixed element around which everything revolves. The closer things are to our orientation points, the more familiar they feel to us. These orientation points can be a location, such as a synagogue, where we return on a regular basis to recenter ourselves. Or they can be found in time, such as the holidays that we return to year after year that remind us who we are and where we are even as everything around us might feel out of control.

Holidays become islands of the familiar in an ocean of the unknowable and rapidly changing world that surrounds us.

In Parshat Emor, God outlines for the people all of the holidays that make up our calendar: the orientation points that bring us back to ourselves. We learn about Shabbat, Passover, Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah, Sukkot and Shavuot. The Torah speaks in depth about each holiday and describes any special behaviors or rituals that are required on each of the holidays.

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Fascinatingly, we are commanded to celebrate and rejoice on all of the holidays, but only on one holiday are we told to have nothing but joy. And surprisingly, that is the holiday of Sukkot.

If we were to think of which holiday should be the most joyous, we might first think of Passover, the most celebrated holiday among American Jews, in which we commemorate the exodus from Egypt, the most central, transformative moment in our Jewish history.

Or perhaps the upcoming holiday of Shavuot, when we receive the Torah at Sinai, the text that unites us as a people and the moment when we become a nation.

We could argue that it should be Rosh Hashanah, when we celebrate the creation of the world, literally our very existence. Or even Yom Kippur, when we face judgment and the awesome power of God but also ultimately are granted forgiveness from God.

In fact, as we think about it, we are likely to think of every holiday but Sukkot. What is it about Sukkot that would require us to have nothing but joy? Sukkot does not even commemorate any special day or awesome moment in our history. It is the holiday on which we recall the arduous 40-year journey through the desert as the Israelites made their way to the Land of Israel.

And that is precisely the point the Torah seeks to teach us.

Too often we think back on our lives through major milestones. We recall graduations, weddings, births, new jobs, new homes. But our lives are not defined by the major moments. Our lives are defined by the everyday.

As Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg wrote in his book “The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays”:

“The real achievement of freedom does not come in one day; there is no quick cure for slavery. The liberated person is the one who learns to accept the daily challenges of existence as the expression of self-fulfillment and responsibility. Sukkot commemorates the maturation of the Israelites, achieved not in crossing the Red Sea but in walking the long way to freedom.

“Passover celebrates a brave departure through a festive meal. Sukkot marks the hasty lunches and the endless wandering in the desert. Sukkot expresses the deeper Exodus — the reflective, gritty days of marching, during which a new generation grew up. Freedom came as the end result of pitching tents (booths) and taking them down over the course of 14,600 days. Sukkot honors the 43,000 meals prepared on the desert trek, the cleanups, the washing of utensils. Passover celebrates a moment of pure triumph. Sukkot celebrates a seemingly endless 40-year journey. Passover is the holiday of faith; Sukkot is the holiday of faithfulness.”

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 by 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 humanity was created. Our relationship with God is encountered in the unremarkable and insignificant.

Sukkot recalls that on that day in history — indeed, on this day in history — thousands of years ago, as our ancestors marched through the desert, nothing of particular note happened.

And truly, it is in these moments that do not seem special, that we must remember to find our greatest joy.

Maharat Rori Picker Neiss is executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical and Cantorial Association, which coordinates the d’var Torah for the Jewish Light.