As we progress through the Jewish calendar year, we enter different time zones. As we reach each new time zone, our Sages have given us a tool to take note of the fact that Hashem has granted us the gift of life to reach this point in time, and to thank Him for it. That tool is the blessing ofשהחיינו “shehechiyanu,” by which we thank Hashem (1) for giving us life: שהחיינו, (2) sustaining us, – וקיימנו and (3) bringing us to this point in time – והגיענו לזמן הזה. Although the emotions may be appropriate, an individual may not recite this blessing every time he reaches a milestone in his life. The blessing was instituted only for when the world enters a new epoch and we are fortunate enough to be alive to be part of it.
Perhaps the most meaningful שהחיינו that we recite is the one that we say as Yom Kippur enters. Since our fate for the coming year is sealed on Yom Kippur, as we stand in front of Hashem alive, we realize that last year Hashem granted us another year of life. So many did not make it to this point, and, yet, I am still here. I should be filled with emotions of thanks for the incredible gift that I have received. What a tremendous debt of gratitude I owe Hashem for His gracious blessing to me!
After Yom Kippur, we enter a new time zone, זמן שמחתינו – the time of our rejoicing. Each of the three festivals, Sukkot, Pesach, and Shavuot heralds a new aera for the Jewish nation; to commemorate it, we recite the shehechiyanu blessing at the onset of each festival. Sukkot is “the time of our rejoicing,” Pesach is “the time of our freedom,” and Shuvuot is “the time of the giving of the Torah.”
Being now in the middle of the Sukkot holiday, “the time of our rejoicing,” it would seem that we should all be rejoicing and jumping for joy. Somehow, though, I don’t think that is what is happening out there. Why not? Perhaps it is because we simply don’t know what we should be rejoicing about. A person who received an envelope in the mail informing him that he won the lottery and that he is now a millionaire but who never opened the letter, even though he has great cause for rejoicing, he will not. Similarly, if we don’t appreciate the gift that Sukkot brings us, we will not feel any reason to rejoice.
Beginning on the 15th day of the month of Tishrei, the Torah commands us to dwell in a sukkah for seven days. The essential component of the sukkah is its thatched, insubstantial roof, the סכך – schach. The walls and flooring can be as elaborate as one wishes, but the roof must be made of material that grows from the ground and remains in an unfinished state. Technically, you could use 2 x 4s for schach because they grew from the ground and are in an unfinished state, viz, they must be built into a structure to be useful. But you couldn’t use a broom stick because it is finished and ready to sweep with.
The mitzvah to sit in a sukkah reminds us of the clouds of glory that Hashem employed to protect the Jewish people in their forty-year journey through the wilderness. The Jews were enveloped from all six sides in special clouds that elevated them above the earth, both physically and spiritually. The clouds protected them from the elements, from nasty creatures like scorpions, and from their enemies. The clouds also showed the intense love that Hashem had for His people. It was as if He was swaddling them in His bosom, and lovingly carrying them throughout their journey.
As the Jewish people travelled through the wilderness, there was no question whence their protection came: There was but a single option. They knew that their existence depended completely on Hashem’s kindness and protection. Indeed, after Aharon (in whose merit Hashem provided the special clouds) died, they disappeared for a while. Immediately, the Jewish nation were attacked by an enemy. For the first time, an enemy could identify them to attack. Shortly after that, in Moshe’s merit, the clouds returned. The forty years in the wilderness served to imbue the Jewish people with the proper values and foundations of Judaism, namely, that our existence is completely in Hashem’s hands.
The mitzvah of sukkah, in the normal life in the Land of Israel and forever refreshes and reinforces this lesson. Leave your secure homes with your deadbolt locks and alarm systems and live in a hut with no protection from the elements and the enemies. Once again, we are made to feel that we are completely in Hashem’s hands for our protection. It’s a two-way street. When we leave our secure homes and place our trust completely in Hashem, He will never abandon us. When Hashem responds to the trust that we have placed in Him by providing us with the needed protection, our trust in Him grows, and we will trust Him even more next time. This cycle may repeat itself many times, each one strengthening our trust and bond with Hashem. The seven days are designed to leave an indelible impression on us.
As to the secret for our rejoicing, when dwelling in the sukkah for seven days, we are reliving the reality that we are in Hashem’s arms and that He is our sole protection. We come to feel that our sukkahs are like the clouds of glory that Hashem wrapped around the Jewish people in the wilderness. What could be more exciting than that? Realizing that we are in Hashem’s arms means that we are invincible and protected from all possible misfortune. We are not alone in this jungle of a world prone to random mishaps and accidents or to the malicious whims and wills of others. We are in Hashem’s loving arms, and we are as secure as a child in his mother’s arms.
This feeling should extend even to events that are bitter or difficult to bear. Hashem hasn’t abandoned us; rather, He has determined that we are in need of some bitter medicine. We can be assured that He is doing it for our best interest. And if we understand this, we will always grow from the experience.
It is not coincidental that Sukkot comes right after Yom Kippur. Only after going through Rosh Hashana (the day of judgment), the Ten Days of Teshuva, and then Yom Kippur are we on a spiritual level high enough to appreciate this amazing reality. This thought should truly cause us to jump for joy!
Yet, there is a deeper level to our rejoicing during Sukkot.
Have you ever stopped to ponder what things bring a person pleasure and happiness verses those that are just downright boring? What is the secret to what we find fun and enjoyable?
Our Sages teach us that the things that are fun and bring a person the greatest pleasure are the things that bring home to him the notion that he is alive. Because we generally do not appreciate the happiness of just being alive, we do things to help us feel alive.
Jon Krakauer is an ice climber. Ice climbers are the ones who make mountain climbers look like toddlers in diapers. Instead of climbing a mountain with rocks and footholds to climb on, they climb up vertical mountains of ice, like a ten- story frozen waterfall. The sport is dangerous, difficult, and exhausting. Conditions are usually miserable, frigid, damp, and stormy. Even the gear looks scary. Ice axes for each hand, and spiked crampons for the feet. A skillful climber, Krakauer describes what it feels like to hang by the straps of one’s ice axes a hundred feet above the ground his attachment to the world reduced to “a few thin points of steel sunk a half an inch into a giant Popsicle”
He explains, “The view releases a surge of brain chemicals that blows the rust from my cerebral pipes. Pay attention! I tell myself aloud. This is serious! One false move and you are history! This explains why paradoxically I feel more alive than I have in a month.” (National Geographic)
Why does Jon Krakauer feel so alive on the side of a giant Popsicle? His life being in danger, he struggles to hang on to it and so he appreciates every minute that he still has it. This brings him great joy, and compels him to do it again and again.
There is a more acute example of this phenomenon. A person in a situation where he is on the verge of losing his life, and in the end doesn’t, experiences the greatest rush of joy possible. This is because he thought that he was not going to have any more life. When he doesn’t end up losing his life and realizes that, “I am still alive!” he actually got his whole life back in one second! Just being alive is the greatest source of happiness to a person that there is.
This concept adds a new dimension to the idea of Sukkot coming immediately after Yom Kippur.
After Yom Kippur we should feel like a person who has just received his life back after it was in danger of being lost. After Yom Kippur is over, our Sages apply this verse from Ecclesiastes (9:7).
לֵךְ אֱכֹל בְּשִֹמְחָה לַחְמֶךָ, וּשְׁתֵה בְלֶב טוֹב יֵינֶךָ. כִּי כְבָר רָצָה הָאֱלֹהִים אֶת מַעֲשֶֹיךָ
7) Go eat your bread with happiness and drink your wine with a happy heart, because Hashem has accepted you deeds.
Eat and drink with happiness because Hashem has accepted your prayers, and you are sealed for a new year of life. We should experience that feeling of elation — we have life again! Hashem has blessed us with another year of life! This is the source of “the time of our rejoicing.”
Our Sages note that the mitzvah of Sukkah is a very unusual mitzvah because we don’t have to do anything special in the sukkah. All we need to do to fulfill the mitzvah of sukkah is to live in it as we live in our homes. Eat, drink, sleep, hang out, etc. This entire piece was written while sitting in my sukkah. Just live in it! The Sukkah represents Hashem’s holy domain, and we are commanded to live our regular lives in it. Living in Hashem’s domain brings us to the realization that our lives come from the source of all life, Hashem.
This idea deepens our gratitude to Hashem, for, in this context, the sukkah not only represents Hashem’s love and protection, it represents Hashem as the source of our life. In the sukkah where all we have above our heads is Hashem, we become acutely aware of Hashem as the giver of life, and we are filled with joy for the life that Hashem has given us.
Nachmanides expresses this idea in his commentary to Exodus 13:16.
רמב”ן על שמות פרק יג פסוק טז
וכוונת כל המצות שנאמין באלהינו ונודה אליו שהוא בראנו, והיא כוונת היצירה, שאין לנו טעם אחר ביצירה הראשונה, ואין אל עליון חפץ בתחתונים מלבד שידע האדם ויודה לאלהיו שבראו, וכוונת רוממות הקול בתפלות וכוונת בתי הכנסיות וזכות תפלת הרבים, זהו שיהיה לבני אדם מקום יתקבצו ויודו לאל שבראם והמציאם ויפרסמו זה ויאמרו לפניו בריותיך אנחנו,
The purpose of all Hashem’s commandments to us is that through them we should express our belief in Him and thank Him for having created us. For this is the goal of the entire creation. We have no other explanation for Hashem having created the world except for this. For Hashem has no benefit from anything that man does except for his acknowledging that Hashem made him and his thanking Hashem for having created him. The reason we raise our voices in prayer and gather in synagogues to pray together is so that people have a place to gather and thank Hashem for creating them. They should publicize this and say “We are Your creations!”
Hashem has given us the most precious gift in the world, life itself. He has also given us the greatest source of happiness, life itself. Appreciating the gift of life is the secret to happiness on this earth.
From all of the above it should be clear to all of us that, as Jews, we have won the lottery and that we are the wealthiest people in the world. Sukkot is “the time of our rejoicing” because the sukkah helps us realize that we have the greatest possible reasons to rejoice.