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.
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.
You shall make the holyday of Sukot for seven days…
And you shall rejoice in your holyday…
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…
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.