Around the world, Jews are in the middle of celebrating the holyday of Sukkot, known in English as Tabernacles.
For one week, we move out of the house as much as possible and into Sukkot or temporary dwellings constructed exclusively for this holyday. Various specifications, such as a roof made solely of branches, mean that we are exposed to the elements while sitting in the Sukkah (singular). While in the land of Israel Sukkot comes at a lovely time of the year, in other parts of the world people sometimes find themselves sitting in parkas with gloves and hats sharing the Sukkah with bugs and drizzle. We spend as much time as possible in our outdoor domiciles, eating, entertaining and studying.
But, paradoxically, as we spend so much time in our Sukkah, this is not a “roughing it” experience. We wear our finest clothing, bring out our best cutlery and crystal, and cook our most scrumptious recipes. Unlike a camping trip where our expectation is to endure a certain amount of discomfort, living in a Sukkah is in no way associated with deprivation.
Of all the year’s holydays, Sukkot is given the appellation, Z’man Simchateinu or “the time of our happiness.” While there are many spiritual injections that Sukkot provides, perhaps one of them is the message that happiness comes from within us rather than externally. When struggling with poverty or battling an illness, it is tempting to think that we would be happy if only that obstacle could be overcome. Some of us think the only impediment to happiness is 25 pounds of excess weight or a different spouse. I am not trying to minimize genuine, formidable challenges. But the human condition is such that happiness doesn’t correlate with the ease of our life. We all know of lottery winners whose riches led to despair, of Hollywood stars living miserable lives, and others whose good fortune is equaled by their wretchedness. Thousands born with the blessing of good health and beauty torment their bodies in ways that those who don’t possess those particular gifts are hard put to understand.
At the same time it is easy to find people whose circumstances should seemingly engender depression, but who greet each day and all those they meet with smiling faces. No one wants to deliberately impose poverty, ill health or sorrow inducing conditions in order to see how well any individual would face an ordeal. Without assembling such an experiment, Sukkot provides a reminder of how ephemeral security really is and how the safety we feel in our homes is actually an illusion. At the same time it reminds us that God is found in all places and that as long as we have His shelter, we are never abandoned and unprotected. That reality strips away any pretense that our happiness is dependent on “if only,” making this truly the happiest time of the year.