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Rejoicing and Re-juicing, A Dvar Torah for Sukkot

MMY 84

By: Rabbi Yonatan Emmett

"וְשָׂמַחְתָּ בְּחַגֶּךָ... וְהָיִיתָ אַךְ שָׂמֵח" - “You shall rejoice on your festival… and you will be completely joyous” (Deuteronomy 16:14-15). This Sukkot related Pasuk, or distorted abbreviation of two Psukim to be precise, is one we are all too familiar with. Due to over-popularization achieved through the medium of song, it has gained the status of a Sukkot icon, and no Sukkot meal is complete without the traditional few rounds of"וְשָׂמַחְתָּ בְּחַגֶּךָ... וְהָיִיתָ אַךְ שָׂמֵח".


However, fame comes not without a price, and all too often popularity is accompanied by its evil twin - superficiality. Despite our familiarity with this Pasuk-turned-song, and to a certain extent due to it, we may not necessarily be fully aware of the message it carries, and possibly even oblivious to its simple structural difficulties and grammatical subtleties. In our pursuit of a greater and deeper understanding of Chag HaSukkot and its themes as expressed through its songs and Psukim, we must learn to not just hear, but listen, not just see, but observe.


Upon closer inspection, there seem to be two perplexing “issues” regarding these Psukim, in respect to both their location and structure. From a purely Halachic perspective, the Biblical obligation of וְשָׂמַחְתָּ בְּחַגֶּךָ - “You shall rejoice on your festival”, applies equally to all three festivals - Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot. The Torah however chose Sukkot as the location of the source of this Mitzvah. This is clearly reflective of a special connection between the festival of Sukkot and the concept of being joyous on a festival, and must guide us towards a better understanding of the nature of Sukkot, festive joy, and ultimately the relationship between the two.


In terms of structure, there seems to be a basic difficulty in the Psukim, one which is particularly evident in the abbreviated song-version that omits the center content of the Psukim and focuses solely on the “book end” joy related elements - "וְשָׂמַחְתָּ בְּחַגֶּךָ... וְהָיִיתָ אַךְ שָׂמֵח". Seemingly, these two phrases are one and the same, rendering the second mentioning of festive joy repetitive and superfluous. In regards to a song lyric, repetitiveness may serve as a positive trait, but in regards to a Pasuk in the Torah we must assume that there are no unnecessary repetitions, be attentive to the delicate nuances of the Hebrew language and try to unravel the hidden meaning that lies beneath the surface. If possible, we should attempt to combine these two indicators - the location and structure of the Psukim, and paint a fuller picture of the essence of the Sukkot festival joy.
In his commentary to these Psukim, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch suggests that the key to understanding the matter lies within the grammatical difference between the two parts of the Psukim. In this light, not only are the two phrases not identical and repetitive, but each and every word that constructs them indicates a fundamental difference between them, creating not a repetition rather a progression and a cause and effect relationship. In the phrase "וְשָׂמַחְתָּ בְּחַגֶּךָ" - both words indicate an action based command. The word וְשָׂמַחְתָּ - you shall rejoice, is a verb, and as such it is bound and restricted by time - בְּחַגֶּךָ - on your festival. In these words the Torah commands us to perform specific acts of rejoicing, at a specific time. Practically speaking, this refers to partaking in the consumption of meat from the festive sacrifices in the time of the temple, and in subsequent times performing other joyous acts such as eating meat, drinking wine and wearing new clothes on Yom-Tov.


In stark contrast, the second phrase - וְהָיִיתָ אַךְ שָׂמֵח - is in no way a reference to any form of action, rather very much a state of being. This is evident from each of the three words that are used in the phrase: וְהָיִיתָ - and you will be, שָׂמֵח - joyous, in a state of joy. With the bridging word אַךְ - completely and utterly, only joyous and nothing but joyous, indicating a constant and continuous state of joy that persists even at times where there is potential and cause for its absence.


The general idea that emerges from the juxtaposition of these two joy-related phrases is clear: although the practical ritual of rejoicing is limited to the days of the festival itself, the elevated state of joy that is achieved at this time can last forever. If we plant the seeds of rejoicing during the festival, we will harvest the fruits of joy long after. Bearing this in mind, we might be able to understand the special significance and relevance of festive joy to Chag HaSukkot. Although the concept of drawing inspiration and spiritual charges from a festival applies to each one of the three festivals, there is a unique and more pronounced element to Sukkot in this respect. The Torah describes and by doing so defines each one of the three festivals based on its agricultural significance. In this context, Sukkot is the final stage of each year’s cycle, when the produce is finally gathered in from the fields and another year is completed, marking the fast approaching beginning of the following year, another link in the everlasting chain of planting and harvesting, nature’s circle of life. The longest and most challenging stage of the cycle is of course the winter, coupled with planting and anticipating, helplessly hoping for a successful year. Both realistically and metaphorically, this period of cold and darkness is when one most needs to draw warmth and light from the joy of a festival, a time blessed with Hashem’s presence and basked in His warmth and light. Maybe it is for this reason that Sukkot was blessed with an extra dose of joy, allowing it to overflow and carry us through the “winters” of our lives on its wings of joy.


This idea is current and relevant in our generation more than ever before. We live in times that are dominated by development and dictated by progress, and with each day that passes we gain more control over the world and become less and less dependent on nature and more and more dependent on technology. And although there are unarguably many positive aspects to such progress - in terms of safety, stability, and above all comfort and accessibility, no doubt we have created great challenges for ourselves by adding more distance between ourselves and nature, both the world’s and our own. Stepping out of our safe and comfortable homes and into the Sukkah is truly and most literally a breath of fresh air, and Sukkot is the perfect time to disconnect, unplug, log off, break off the cordless shackles and free ourselves from the “cells” of our phones. It is a time to take time and spend time with Hashem, with family, with friends, and ultimately with ourselves, rejoicing and re-juicing our spiritual batteries in preparation for a lifetime “being completely joyous”.
Chag Sameach.

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