Parashat Sukkot

Sukkah (Pinterest)

… for the L-rd your G-d will bless you in all your produce and the work of your hands and you will be nothing but joyful. – D’varim/Deuteronomy 16:15

The great feast of Sukkot, known in the Jewish tradition simply as “the feast” comes at the end of the autumn holy days, a seven day semi-holiday with a full shabbat at each end and immediately followed by Shemini Atzeret, the Eighth Day Assembly and Simchat Torah, the Rejoicing with the Torah, when we wind the scrolls back and symbolically read the first verses of B’resheet while dancing round the synagogue and taking it in turns to carry the scrolls. That’s the most fun the Torah scrolls get each year! During Sukkot we live, as much as we can allowing for geographic variation, in the sukkah that each family build, eating our meals there and rejoicing at HaShem’s goodness and blessings to us. What with seven days of singing, telling stories, eating the special harvest food, drinking and dancing, we have a blast! In between studying the Torah and visiting our neighbours’ sukkot, we even find time for a few drinks! The festival to end all festivals, this is a time of such great joy that the ancient rabbis gave it the name Z’man Simchateynu, the time of our rejoicing. Gunther Plaut points out that the first phrase of verse 14 and the last phrase of verse 15 (and our text) have been joined together to make a traditional Israeli folk song: “And you shall rejoice in your feast and be nothing but joyful”.

So if we are surrounded by the bounty of the harvest and HaShem’s many blessings, why does our text tell us to be “nothing but joyful”? In true rabbinic fashion, there is disagreement over whether this is a command or a promise; are we being commanded to be joyful, or are we promised that we shall be joyful? Rashi starts the ball rolling, with his assertion that “according to its simple meaning, this is not an expression of a command, but rather, the expression of a promise.” Avigdor Bonchek, a modern interpreter and apologist for Rashi [1] asks, “How does Rashi know this is a promise and not a command? How do we know it is ‘you will be joyful’ and not ‘you shall be joyful’?” He offers two answers; firstly that whenever the Torah says ve-hayita, the Qal affix 2ms form of the root hey-vav-hey, to be, with a leading vav-reversive prefix to make it future tense, it is always a promise. He cites a number of proof-texts, “You shall be the father of a multitude of nations” (B’resheet 17:4, JPS), “May El Shaddai bless you, make you fertile and numerous, so that you become an assembly of peoples” (28:3, JPS) and “You will be driven mad by the sights you will see” (D’varim 28:34, NJB).

Bonchek’s second answer starts with question: “How can we be commanded to be joyful?” Joy is an emotion, he reasons, and emotions cannot be commanded. But two of the earlier verses in this same block of text – “You shall rejoice before the L-RD your G-d” (16:11, JPS) and “You shall rejoice in your festival” (16:14, JPS) – do seem to do exactly that, telling us where and when to rejoice. They specify “before HaShem” and “on your holiday/festival”, so Bonchek proposes that these are commands to behave joyfully, before HaShem in Jerusalem at the feast of Sukkot. So the promise of the emotion follows the commanded behaviour. Rashi and Bonchek agree: it is a promise of joy. Ibn Ezra disagrees. He says that, “It is in fact a commandment to have joy on the Feast of Sukkot. The meaning of the word akh is that you should do nothing else but rejoice.” Then, almost as an afterthought, he concedes, “but some suggest that the verb is simply a future tense, marking another result of the L-rd’s blessing – that you will always have nothing but joy.”

Ovadiah Sforno also picks up on the word akh: “you will have a bountiful harvest and the needy will have many gifts – you will be only joyful and no sorrow will intermingle with your joy.” The note explains that the word akh denotes a limitation and asks, “What is the Torah limiting? HaShem assures us that the festival will be limited to joy exclusively, without any intermingling of grief or sorrow.” It is sorrow or other things that would detract from our joy that are to be limited. Jeffrey Tigay seems to echo that, pointing to the “the sweep of the promise: all your crops … all your undertakings … nothing but joy. The totality of the blessing explains why the celebrating is to last a full seven days.”

Rabbi Moshe Hefetz [2] is worried that too much rejoicing without a good measure of Torah study will lead to idleness and sin: “Idleness is a source of evil-doing and sin. But these festivals were given to Israel for the express purpose of being devoted to the study of the Torah. But this can only be well done in an atmosphere of rejoicing, not in one of sadness and depression. This mixture of work and study is the type of rejoicing in which there is no sin. This is the meaning of the phrase ‘for the L-rd your G-d shall bless you … in all the work of your hands and you shall be altogether joyful’, implying that you should indeed work and not be idle and then you will be really joyful, with a true joy and inspired by the right purpose.”

Hirsch draws a distinction between being joyful and simply rejoicing: “‘Being joyful’ is of a higher order than ‘rejoicing’. The latter is temporary, a moment of experience; the former is a trait of character, a permanent nature of existence and extends beyond the festival into ordinary life. One can certainly have harvest festivals among the barns and wine-presses, but joy is to be found only when leaving the barn and wine-presses and gathering around HaShem and His Torah. This is the true real joy of living which accompanies you through your life.” By this measure, joy should be in our hearts throughout the year, not just at times of the festivals and their rejoicing. We are given shabbat each week and the festivals around the calendar to “top up” our joy, but joy is to be found in the presence of the L-rd and He is available twenty four hours of every day of the year.

The Greek Scriptures also use the word ‘joy’ quite frequently. The choir of angels announced Yeshua’s birth to the shepherds on the hills outside Bethlehem with “good news of great joy” (Luke 2:10, ESV) and when the magi saw the star over the house where Yeshua was, “they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy” (Matthew 2:10, ESV). Yeshua emphasised that keeping His commandments was the way for the disciples to remain in relationship with Him, reminding them that He told them this “that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15:11, ESV). They would have times of sorrow but, their “sorrow will turn into joy” (16:20, ESV); “your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you” (v. 22, ESV).

Notice, however, how Rav Sha’ul compares the physical with the spiritual: “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17, ESV). Important though keeping the feast of Sukkot is, with its eating and drinking, its dancing and studying, its remembering the past and blessing G-d for the way He has preserved our people until this day – and that is important – the kingdom of G-d is found in the indwelling of the Ruach, the Spirit of Messiah within us. As human beings we must eat and drink, and mealtimes are a hugely important venue for spreading and sharing the kingdom; nevertheless, people will neither enter nor grow in the kingdom of G-d simply by eating and drinking. They will not find true joy, lasting peace or real righteousness in food or drink, no matter how lavish and plentiful. The meals and the festivals simply provide a context and an opportunity for sharing the good news to which the festivals point. It is the good news that brings joy!

We know that “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23, ESV), placing joy second in the list after love. Joy needs to grow in us as, by the power and grace of the Spirit, we engage in the presence of G-d and the activities of the kingdom. One of those activities is most certainly rejoicing – that is, “rejoicing before the L-rd” and “rejoicing on your festival” – during the festival of Sukkot, fully entering in to the various mitzvot of dwelling in the sukkah, taking the lulav and etrog (the four species mentioned in Vayikra 23:40), but the lasting joy that wells up inside us, the fountains of living water, come from knowing Yeshua and trusting in Him. He alone can bring fruit to bear in our lives as His Spirit guides and directs us.

Hag Sukkot Sameach b’Yeshua!

[1] – Avigdor Bonchek, “What’s Bothering Rashi”, Volume 5, Devarim, New York, Feldheim, 2002

[2] – Rabbi Moshe Hefetz (1663-1711) was an Italian rabbi and commentator who worked as a private tutor in Venice. Wrote a Torah commentary called Melekhet Machshevet, which engages with philosophy and science.

Further Study: Habakkuk 3:17-18; Isaiah 5:12-13; Romans 5:2-5

Application: Do you sometimes get lost in the rejoicing so that you lose sight of Yeshua? Or do you worry that Yeshua wouldn’t approve of so much rejoicing? Ask the Spirit to strike a new balance for you this year and show you His real joy in the midst of the rejoicing!