parsha of the week

Unbounded joy of Sukkot, a Jewish Thanksgiving


The holiday of Thanksgiving in the United States of America is classically observed as a celebration of G-d’s bounty. It is for the same reason, according to Ramban, that the Torah tells us to have simcha, joy, during this holiday of Sukkot. The Torah reading on Sukkot includes three different words that command celebration and joy. In Devarim, the word simcha is used multiple times with relation to the holiday.

How does one rejoice? Over what? Is it really possible to dance so much with a lulav and esrog? With a Torah? It depends on why we are celebrating, and how in tune we are to that cause of celebration.

Many years ago, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein wrote an article, “The Source of Faith Is Faith Itself.” It seems, according to Ramban, that we can say the same thing about the joy of Sukkot. As Ramban puts it as he explains all the hyperboles for joy and rejoicing, “You’re going to celebrate your chag, on account of the lulav, the simcha, and the Sukkah.”

Could it be that — to use Rav Lichtenstein’s formulation — the source of joy is joy Itself? What is the simcha of the sukkah? Utilizing the verse that says, “all citizens of Israel should dwell in the sukkah booths,” Ramban suggests that the sharing of that space is something which will further unite the Jewish people.

On the agricultural side, Chizkuni points to the differences between Pesach and Shavuos on the one hand, and Sukkot on the other hand. For both Pesach and Shavuos, the gathering in Jerusalem is tainted because people were concerned for their spring and summertime harvests which were incomplete when those holidays rolled around. But before Sukkot, the autumn harvest was complete, which is why people could leave their homes joyfully, appreciating G-d’s bount and knowing that their agricultural responsibilities for the season were over.

Other reasons for the simcha of Sukkot, as advanced by Daat Zekenim, include that fruits are only gathered Sukkot time, but not at Pesach and Shavuos, when the harvest is only grain. Also, since we have a clean slate on account of Yom Kippur having taken place just a few days ago, we have another reason to rejoice in this holiday.

To quote Daat Zekenim, “all you have to do is involve yourself with joy.”

What were the pieces of the holiday that caused joy? To summarize:

Ramban #1: Lulav, Simcha, and Sukkah.

Ramban #2: Since everyone uses a sukkah, we will by definition share each other’s company

Chizkuni: A complete harvest which translates to hard work is over plus appreciation of G-d’s bounty.

Daas Zekenim: Fruits are gathered at this time and we enjoy a fresh slate after Yom Kippur.

It’s an amazing idea. We have a commandment to be happy. To rejoice. It means that we have the opportunity to fulfill a mitzvah in the Torah if we can simply smile.

We don’t live in an agricultural society — here fruit grows in supermarkets — but we can appreciate G-d’s bounty nonetheless. Living in places where there is so much abundance year-round is a blessing which we tend to lose sight of, but the holiday can serve as a reminder for how grateful we ought to be. Plus, as the Daat Zekenim reminds us, we may rejoice in having a fresh slate.

We have much to be thankful for — this is our Jewish Thanksgiving — and we have much to celebrate. So let us put on our smiles, enjoy each other’s company, enjoy the sukkah, enjoy yom tov, enjoy our clean slate. And fulfill our many mitzvahs of celebration and rejoicing in our own sukkahs, in one another’s sukkahs, and with our G-d.