By Hazzan Jacob Sandler
What makes you happy? Is it a place? Is it people you love? Maybe it’s watching a favorite TV show or movie, or listening to a favorite song. Is it watching the Cubs win? Or maybe it’s the White Sox — I won’t judge. Whether it’s going outside, or seeing beautiful art, there’s one thing I’m pretty sure won’t make you happy: being told to be happy. And yet that’s exactly what we’re commanded to be during Sukkot. VeSamachta b’chagecha…vehayita ach sameach – rejoice in your holiday and you will be only happy! (Deut. 16:14,15)
How can anyone, even God, tell us how we ought to feel? If you’ve seen the Disney Pixar movie Inside Out, then you know that it’s vital and healthy to feel the full range of human emotions. It’s okay to feel sad or angry too. To understand this chutzpadik demand to be joyful, we have to zoom out and see the arc of Tishrei as a whole month.
We began with Rosh Hashanah, hearing the call of the Shofar, awakening our souls to do teshuvah. And while I’m glad to hear so many people enjoyed Rosh HaShanah, as they should, we then jumped into 10 days of intense introspection. We, as individuals and as a people, reflected on all the times we missed the mark, hurt someone intentionally or unintentionally. We spent hours on Yom Kippur – just yesterday – focusing on how we hope to be better in the coming year, and that means sitting with a lot of those difficult emotions of guilt, shame, regret and even fear. We were so wrapped up in the intensity and severity of Yom Kippur, that we neglected to eat for 25 hours! (Okay, so maybe that was planned, but still!)
All of this deep internal work is crucial, but for many of us the inner voice of criticism is audible throughout the year. For many of us, taking all this time to sit with our mistakes is emotionally draining. Sukkot comes around and reminds us of a truth that I hope sparks joy in each of us:
We’re human.To be human is to exist as half-angel and half-animal, to be spiritual and physical, to be made in God’s divine image and also flawed. We’re fragile, flesh and blood people and that’s not only okay, but expected. From Rosh HaShanah to Yom Kippur we focus on our souls. On Sukkot we’re commanded to go outside, get back into our bodies, nourish them with fresh air, a new harvest, good food and drink! We shake the lulav which reminds us of our spines, our eyes, our mouths and our hearts. We make physical circuits around the synagogue for Hoshanah Rabah and dance on Simchat Torah! On Sukkot we take a step back from the lofty spiritual heights of the Yamim Nora’im and rejoice in our physical nature. When we remember that we live by the grace of God, we are also reminded to be thankful for each precious moment we are given. So, being happy during Sukkot is not a demand, but a natural outgrowth of living as our full embodied selves and accepting our imperfections. As we recite during Hallel each day of Sukkot, “Zeh Hayom Asah Hashem, nagilah venism’cha vo!” Today, and every day, is the day that God made, let us be glad and rejoice in it!