Merry or Macabre?

We are in the midst of Sukot, known in English as the Feast of Tabernacles. Weather permitting (easier in Israel than in many other locations), observant Jews spend as much time as possible in their Sukot, or outdoor booths, based on this verse:

In Sukot you shall live for seven days…so that your generations will know that in Sukot
I sat the children of Israel when I took them out of the land of Egypt,
I am the Lord your God.
(Leviticus 23:42-43)

This holyday is uniquely characterized as “the time of our joy” on account of the following verses:

…and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days.
(Leviticus 23:40)

You shall make the holyday of Sukot for seven days…
And you shall rejoice in your holyday…
(Deuteronomy 16:13-14)

In another of those puzzling paradoxes we so frequently encounter in our Biblical studies and whose resolution inevitably leads to one more blinding truth about how the world REALLY works, we find death surrounding the holyday called “Time of our Joy.”  Death and joy?  Really?

Look at a few of these death allusions.  The holyday of Sukot occurs in the fall when the post-harvest fields are empty and the trees lose their leaves.  The days are getting shorter and cooler.  (Not coincidentally, this is when Halloween with its foolish emphasis on death and ghosts also occurs.)

The main rule about the Sukah is that its roof must comprise vegetation that once was alive but is now disconnected from the earth and dying.  The four tree species which we hold in our hands and bless each day of Sukot are green and beautiful but over the course of the week we watch them fade and wither.

During the Passover Seder we invite people in our neighborhoods who might be hungry to come and join our meal.  However, during Sukot, we invite dead people to join us.  On each night of this holyday we formally invite to our tables, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, and David.

The decidedly gloomy book of Ecclesiastes is read during the holyday of Sukot, with verses such as these:

Better is a name than good oil and the day of death is better than the day of birth.
It is better to go to a house of mourning than to a house of festivity…
(Ecclesiastes 7:1-2)

You get the idea.  The seven day festival of Sukot is highlighted as the time of joy.  Indeed, in Jewish communities, a happy atmosphere pervades the air on Sukot. Yet it unquestionably contains more than its fair share of deathly hints.

I suspect that you have already grasped what God is hinting at. We’ve all had days when we feel unstoppable and on top of the world. And we’ve all had days when we’re dejected and all alone and our eyes fill with the hot tears of defeat and we wonder if our lives have worth.

Things are seldom as deliriously intoxicating as they might seem and they are never as hopeless and despairing as they often appear to be. We need to keep our balance. We need to appreciate “up” days, knowing that they do not come everyday. And we need to keep our balance on “down days” too, knowing that they shall pass. As long as one is alive, every pain ultimately carries the promise of pleasure; poverty promises prosperity and sadness contains the seed of happiness. Even the distress of death presumes the joy of eternal life.

Death and transience at this “Time of Our Joy”? Yes.  You see, if we all lived forever, we would never know the real happiness of living.  Without sorrow there can be no joy, and without darkness there can be no light.  Paradoxically, the holyday of happiness refers to death, reminding us to keep our balance as well as to celebrate our happy times with all our might.


16 thoughts on “Merry or Macabre?”

  1. Dear Rabbi,
    Sadly, none of our Englsh translations reflect on none of these holy days or their meanings. Neither do any of our ministers preach about them. Oh they preach from the “Old Testament” but not with insites that you offer. So thank you once again. Of course we can’t really blame them. They probably are’nt taught them in divinity school. Growing up a largely catholic family and neighborhood I was exposed to many of their rites and traditions. One was that when the church named Nov. 1st as All Saints day the spirits of the under world were angry and demanded a day of their own. The church capitulated and created “all holys eve”. Which when constricted became “Holloween”. Don’t know if it’s true. But that is how it was told told me.
    Enjoy the rest of your festivals .
    As always, your freind Brian

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Thanks Brian–
      Although in much earlier times, many Christians did know Hebrew [The Lord’s Language] and much ancient Jewish wisdom, today, the task of making it all available falls to me; a burden I carry with love and a sense of privilege.

  2. “Even the distress of death presumes the joy of eternal life.” – Rabbi Daniel Lapin

    I once wrote the following paragraph in a letter to my family:

    “We naturally prepare ourselves for the ups and downs in life, keeping alert and safe. Praying, prioritizing God’s word and joyfully sharing its truth are some oft-overlooked safety measures that can lead us to eternal life. The theme of the Bible is that wisdom is the fear of God. We are inspired every day by the Biblical idea that there are no people on this earth to fear, nor do we have to be afraid of natural disasters or hardships because, though they could harm our bodies, these problems are not as serious as the notion of eternal hell; neither do earthly pleasures compare to the hope of heavenly joy.” – LJ

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Beautiful sentiment, L.J.,
      I hope your family was able to hear your words with the spirit in which you wrote them.

  3. After reading your article, I am left to wonder if you believe in the resurrection. My husband and I are messianic, originally from the Christian community. We have visited a conservative synagog where the rabbi told us they did not believe in the resurrection. The belief system can make a lot of difference in the way one lives one’s life. I am just curious to know.

    I am in the middle of reading your excellent book Buried Treasure. I love it.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear Nicole–
      Of course we know there’ll be a resurrection. No question about it. Your mistake was asking a Conservative rabbi. [Upper case ‘C’] While there are many knowledgeable Conservative rabbis, most are not. Indeed, there are many who actually do not know that the Torah is God’s Message to mankind. I stress upper case ‘C’ since Conservative is the official name of the Conservative wing of Judaism. (By the way, they are very far from being conservative [Lower case ‘c’]
      Why the Five Books of Moses does not mention the world to come or the resurrection is for a reason that we explain elsewhere in our printed material but many ignorant Jews assume that since it is not mentioned there, it is not part of Judaism. Nothing could be further from the truth.

  4. God always prevails and provides. Your writing here reminded me to read the 23 Psalm. Praise Him. Bless your heart. Mrs Shane Wood

  5. Hello Rabbi Lapin, I just want to tell you how much I loved your last podcast. The talk you gave at a Texas church was encouraging and enlightening. Thank you for sharing your passion with us!

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Thank you Karen–
      I appreciate your encouraging words as I never quite know how my listeners will react to a speech being played on the podcast.

  6. Thank you for explaining Sukkot. I guess this is a reminder not fear death, with its gloom. I am reminded of both our Savior and Paul they faced death head on without fear knowing that death is not final, but the beginning. Thank you
    Jane Shalom

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Thanks for writing, Jane,
      It is our pleasure and privilege to be able to explain the Bible festivals from the perspective of ancient Jewish wisdom.

  7. 1.Adonai, Teach us to count our days ,and make application as wisdom
    2. Don’t forget where we’ve come from
    3. Invite the Abbas to help us know this, by recall , for in events spoken as in Tanak we get sight.
    4. Our peoples now can hear the greyheaded around us.
    Thank you for lending me a soap box, for the topics written her e get the thinking cap on.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      We’re happy whenever we hear that our Thought Tools do exactly what they are intended to do…get your thinking cap on

  8. Wow! I never thought about the deathly hints within Sukkot. Now you have my attention on these invited guests: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, and David. It never occurred to me to think of them as ghosts or such, especially Elijah, who seems to have a chair at special events. How did the custom of these invitations come to be?

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