For many years, I had a plaque with a quote attributed to British writer, Vivian Greene. It read:
Life is not about waiting for the storm to pass. It’s about learning to dance in the rain.
Over the years, I, myself, and some who came to me for counsel, found support and inspiration in those words. On this Sukkot, I find them to be of great value once again.
In Torah, we find the following encouragement regarding Sukkot:
After the ingathering from your threshing floor and your vat, you shall hold the Feast of Booths for seven days. You shall rejoice in your festival, with your son and daughter, your male and female slave, the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow in your communities. You shall hold a festival for the LORD your God seven days, in the place that the LORD will choose; for the LORD your God will bless all your crops and all your undertakings, and you shall have nothing but joy. (Deut. 16: 13-15)
Is it reasonable to command joy and happiness? Is it fair to make “happiness” a mitzvah when we know that there is so much unhappiness in the world, when so many people go through periods of life when joy is absent? During this Sukkot, there is a pandemic raging. Our congregations are isolated, and our communities are locked down. Where is the opportunity for the type of joy that the Torah associates with Sukkot which we have enjoyed so often that we take it for granted?
It makes one wonder: did our ancestors always have a joyous Sukkot? Was their Fall harvest consistently abundant enough to see them through until the first Spring crops were ready to reap? If that wasn’t so and they were anxious about the paucity of their supplies, did they “rejoice in their festival” anyway?
According to some commentators, the Torah, itself, answers the question. While verse 14 reads, “v’samachta b’chagecha” – you shall rejoice in your festival – the very next verse reads, “v’haita ach samayach” – you shall have nothing but joy. The two verses might seem so similar as to be redundant, but according to our sages there is no redundancy in the Torah text, only seeming repetition for the purpose of elucidation. According to Meshech Chochma (Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk, 1843-1926), the word “ach” in the second verse is to be construed as a term meant to limit or diminish the message being conveyed. So, the Torah teaches that there will be seasons of abundant joy, but there will be also times when joy is not complete. Perhaps the second verse is better translated, “you shall, circumstances notwithstanding, rejoice.”
This should not surprise us. There are countless expressions in our tradition regarding the importance of having joy and the capacity to rejoice as part of our social and spiritual lives. It is only sensible that Torah, itself, recognizes that joy is not always unbounded. Life presents all of us with circumstances that limit our joys. The challenge is not to let those circumstances eliminate joy from our lives.
Reb Nachman of Bratslav taught, “mitzvah g’dolah l’hioat b’simcha tamid” – it is a great mitzvah to always be happy. Is this, once again, an insistence to be happy regardless the reality of our lives? Is this reasonable? According to one of Reb Nachman’s most famous students, Reb Avraham Chazan (1849-1917), yes! He commented: If Reb Nachman taught that it is a great mitzvah to always be happy, then it is incumbent upon us to believe that there is always something to be happy about!
This the key to understanding the Torah’s teaching regarding Sukkot and essential for us at this difficult time. There being so much pain and pestilence in the world. The bounty of life is diminished, while sorrow and loss are in abundance. Nonetheless, Torah, Reb Nachman and Vivian Greene all agree – it’s time to dance in the rain.
A careful reading of the Torah portion reveals that what is asked for is not to constantly feel joy, but to regularly do joy. To do what brings joy to us and others – gathering with family and friends; celebrating with community, and sharing with those who are vulnerable or in need – will bring feelings of joy as a result. While we can’t reasonably be commanded to feel joyous under all circumstances, we can be commanded to do what brings joy, just as we are commanded to do what brings on holiness, honesty, justice, mercy, or any other quality of being that our Judaism values.
Personal experience helps us understand how true this is. How many times, when we felt sad or disinterested, did getting up from the couch and out of the house change our mood. On how many occasions did being with others, engaging in some activity pleasurable or purposeful make us happy? For us, joy is in the doing. And it is almost always possible to do something, even under current conditions.
Sukkot comes at a difficult time for us, our communities, and the world. It is unimaginable that anyone could be happy all the time with what is going on around us, let alone be joyous “on command”. Sukkot, with its encouragement to do what brings joy — even if the harvest is not as full as we would wish, even if life is not as abundant as we would want – brings the message we need. Despite not being total and complete, it is still of great value to be “ach samyach”, to rejoice even for a moment and under limited circumstances and do so as often as possible with as many others as our situation will allow. At this season we can take what we have, reach out to share with others, and, in the middle of the storm, however possible, do joy and dance.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ).