The incessant focus of the past few weeks on the fragility of life and the relentless reminders of mortality, our own and others, make the High Holiday season mentally exhausting. The liturgy works hard to drum that message into our heads, and it succeeds. Witness the full sanctuaries on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Even people who stay far away from synagogues during the rest of the year find their way back on the High Holidays, intuiting that the stakes are too high to stay away. As one of my Hebrew High School students correctly pointed out, “people want to live!”
With Sukkot imminently upon us, we segue from abstinence and sobriety to an enhanced awareness of plenty and joy, and yes, it does feel good! How wonderful a message it is that we begin our post-penitential new year with a celebration that indulges all of our senses, and reminds us of the blessings that make our lives not only bearable, but pleasurable. Sukkot is a holiday that might fairly be described as a sensory extravaganza- the smell of the etrog, the cool, crisp air of the outdoors, the wonderful meals, the presence of family and friends around our tables- all of this is designed as a follow-up to the inwardness of the High Holidays.
As a teacher of this great tradition, I have long sought to transmit the message that Jewish life is about living joyously and feeling blessed. We Jews tend, often for understandable reasons, to spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about things real and imagined. In excess, that tendency can make Judaism feel like its raison d’etre is to say “oy” as frequently and as loudly as possible.
I couldn’t possibly disagree more. Nor could I understand why anyone, young or old, would want to be an active part of a tradition that consistently brought them down instead of lifting them up. Sukkot is all uplift. Hag Sameah!