There is no doubt that of all the holidays on the Jewish calendar, Sukkot is the one most associated with happiness. There are so many joyous actions that are affiliated with the holiday — from building and living in the sukkah to shaking the four species — it is of little surprise that this exciting holiday causes so much happiness.
The Talmud and its commentators ascribe the name of the structure itself and the holiday to the covering of the sukkah, the schach, the most important aspect of the sukkah. Why is this part of the sukkah so important that even the holiday itself is named after it?
Rabbi Aharon Friedman, a Talmudic scholar who teaches in one of the leading yeshivahs in Israel, makes an amazing point. While it is true that the year begins on our calendars with the holiday of Rosh Hashanah and then Yom Kippur, these holidays are more affiliated with cleansing and purifying ourselves from our actions of the previous year.
To some extent the “new” year in action really begins with the festival of Sukkot. We literally fill our days with the many commandments tied to the holiday to show that we are committed to filling up our year ahead with a life imbued with meaning, focus and commitment to the Jewish rituals that are so important to our way of life.
During Sukkot we celebrate all of the blessings that we have received over the past year and acknowledge that they are from G-d. This recognition brings us joy to the point that we must invite guests into our sukkah so that we can celebrate with others the blessings bestowed upon all of us.
While this year our communal celebrations will be limited by social distancing, we should not be limited by social indifference. During this pandemic we should focus on the gifts that we do have and not only on what we are missing. This itself should give us pause in our life and cause for joy — not only as we start the new year, but throughout all our days.
While counseling hospital patients and their families over the past year, by phone or online, I noticed a common theme among many of them. Numerous patients are fearful of the uncertainty of their medical situations and the fact that they cannot celebrate the Jewish holidays as they had previously — both in terms of number of people that can be with them as well as with whom they can celebrate.
The lack of extended family participation is very disheartening to many. We can all recognize this uncertainty to some extent when we leave our houses at this time of year and enter our temporary dwellings of the sukkahs. We could get very contemplative about the frailty of life. However, it is exactly at this time that we should focus on that schach that is above us; without it, we would not have a sukkah at all.
Focus on its lesson: We are never alone — whether through the gift of family, community and, of course, HaShem above. Exactly when we leave our secure dwellings is when we should look up and realize that the schach makes four walls into a structure — a sukkah. Hashem above also gives us structure and strength, and we should then focus on our life’s blessings.
While we may look back on the previous year with sadness and disappointment over what we have had to deal with, the sukkah teaches us to have hope and happiness and to keep looking up on our way to the future, whatever that may bring us. JN
Rabbi Michael Dubitsky is a hospital chaplain for Jewish Family & Children's Services and teacher at Shearim Torah High School for Girls.