Friday, May 17, 2024 / 9 Iyar 5784

Shalom Chaverim,

This week’s Torah portion, Emor, reviews the details of all the major Jewish holidays: Pesach, Shavuot, Sukkot, Rosh HaShana, and Yom Kippur. While each has its importance and relevance for our lives, and each adds meaning and depth to our existence in its own way, on only one of these holidays are we specifically commanded to be happy.

Presumably, our axiomatic pursuit of happiness in life is an ongoing and constant goal. Buddhists say that our wanting happiness is one of the “Four Noble Truths”, that is, a fundamental condition of our lives. Yet, of all these major Jewish holidays, the Torah mentions happiness only in connection with the holiday of Sukkot.

In fact, the Torah commands us to be happy on Sukkot not once, but three times! (1) “…and you shall be happy before the Lord your God seven days” (Lev. 23:40); (2) “You shall be happy on your holiday [Sukkot] along with your son and daughter, your male and female slaves, the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow in your communities…(3) and you shall have nothing but happiness.” (Duet. 16:14-15)

The commandment to be happy on Sukkot seems odd, actually. After all, Sukkot is the holiday of collecting the harvest, when our ancestors would bring into their homes and storehouses all the produce they had gathered. After laboring all year, wouldn’t you think that they were already happy to finally see the fruits of their labors (literally!), to have a sense of accomplishment, to see the greatness of all their wealth?! Why are they commanded to be happy, as if they were not happy already?! Doesn’t the “pay off” of all our hard work make us “happy”?

Rabbi Shmuel Avidor haCohen, points out the irony of the fact that after investing so much of our spirit, energy and passion in efforts to achieve our goals, we can suffer from confusion, listlessness, exhaustion, and a feeling of purposelessness when we finally ‘have it all’. Thus, when we discover that we have far more than we need for ourselves and our families, when we have extra creative power that seems unneeded, when we have drive and energy but no goal…we risk disappointment and sadness. It is no coincidence that we read from the book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) on Sukkot: “Vanity of vanities, says Kohelet, all is vain, everything is empty. What advantage does all one’s work have for all the toil that is done under the sun?”

It is at this surprisingly low point psychologically that the Torah commands us to be happy on Sukkot! And there is instruction here for how to be happy: celebrate with your family, your workers, your community. When we learn to appreciate having what we need, and when we can share the extra fruits of our labors with our workers, the stranger, the poor, the Levite (symbolizing our community’s institutions of the spirit), only then we can truly be happy and satisfied with all we have accomplished.

Maybe for the duration of the holiday we can forget for a while that soon enough, like Sisyphus, we’ll need to renew our energies and motivation for another round of work in the year to come. We may feel that our work ‘under the sun’ is all vanity, ultimately empty and pointless. But then we remember: “…and you shall be happy before Adonai your God.”

This Shabbat take some time to appreciate the ‘fruit of your labors’…what did you do well this past week? What did you accomplish that you can look on and enjoy this weekend?


Rabbi Michael Schwartz