The year 5775 brought with it many events that challenge our ability to fulfill the spirit of this time. I would venture to say that if there’s one thought that all of world Jewry shared this past Yom Kippur, it was, “Please, Hashem, let 5776 be a calm year. Please, no more tragedies.” Sukkos, Rav Yaakov Weinberg, zt”l, emphasized, is not called zman simchaseinu — the time of our joy — just because we are happy during this Yom Tov, but because it is a time during which we are more readily able, and expected, to internalize the attitude of simchas ha’chaim. But the events we went through before we arrived at this bend in the road, the start of the new cycle, don’t exactly make it easy to do this. On a personal level, the tragic passing of my rebbi, Hagaon Hakadosh Rav Moshe Twersky, zt”l, Hy”d, together with the other three kedoshim of the Har Nof Massacre on 25 Cheshvan 5775, elicited an intensity of sadness that I never knew existed. I wasn’t prepared for the emotional roller-coaster that his sudden and tragic demise brought about. And now that we’ve reached Sukkos, his first yahrtzeit is barely more than a month away.
So it’s difficult to carry out this mission to be happy and make it a part of ourselves. And yet we cannot shy away from it. Not only because it is a mitzvah obligation, but also because it is so crucial to the proper functioning of our lives. To the success of our chinuch, marriages, learning, work … you name it.
I once suggested a pshat along these lines in the passuk, “because you did not serve Hashem with joy” that features prominently in the curses of Parashas Ki Savo. We know from Rashi on Bechukosai that the cause of the curses is a litany of terrible sins including rejection of Torah mi’Sinai and trying to stop other people from serving Hashem. So how could it be that just lacking simchah in serving Hashem is the cause of it all? One answer, I think, is that it is not the lack of joy which is such a terrible sin that deserves such harsh punishment. But, if you want to know how it is that people could get to such a degenerate state in which they are rejecting Hashem and his Torah, the passuk is telling us that it stems from serving Hashem without simchah. The moment you remove joy and enjoyment from the picture, it is but a matter of time before implosion occurs. So, yes, we really need this thing called happiness.
One of my favorite stories about Rav Twersky has to do with just this topic. My friend, Yoni Ash, was schmoozing with “the Rebbeh” (as he was fondly known in the yeshivah) after last Yom Kippur — the one that turned out to be Rav Twersky’s last — and, eventually, the topic turned to Sukkos.
“Rebbi,” Yoni asked, “what kavanos should I have during Sukkos? What is the general idea, and what should I be focusing on?” He thought the Rebbe would launch into an exposition about the lofty concepts of Sukkos. But all Rav Twersky answered was, “Be happy!” Yoni pressed him a bit and said, “That’s it? No other ideas?” But the Rebbeh responded, “No! Just be happy! That’s all you have to do. Be happy the whole Yom Tov.” After a short pause, he added, “It can be a difficult avodah!”
That terse comment speaks right to the point, doesn’t it? It can be a difficult avodah. Every one of us faces challenges. They may seem mundane — like parnassah worries, coping with kids who are “allergic” to discipline or ironing out kinks in shalom bayis. But whatever challenges a person is facing in his day-to-day life, that’s the admas kodesh that Hashem has given him in which and through which to struggle and grow.
So, yes, although we all want nothing more than to be truly happy, it’s a recipe which can be much easier said than done. It can be a really difficult avodah. But even that avodah can be embraced with joy. Now, I know that sounds like an oxymoron. After all, how is one supposed to feel joyous about struggling with the search for a seemingly elusive state of joy? But maybe it isn’t so unreasonable. To underscore the point, let’s ask another question. It’s Sukkos. We’re supposed to be happy. Why now in particular? Chazal make it clear that it has everything to do with the cleansing process of Yom Kippur from which we just emerged. We were thrust into “battle” and we emerged victorious! So now it’s time to celebrate and feel joyous.
But did we really emerge the victor? Maybe there are, in fact, some people who actually managed to make a concerted effort throughout Elul and Aseres Yemei Teshuvah, fulfilled the mitzvah of teshuvah in the most optimal way possible, and have kabbalos that will stay with them until next Yom Kippur. But many (most?) of us are not so fortunate. A mere few days later, we almost feel as though nothing happened. Of course, something did happen. But how are we supposed to feel like victors if we’re already struggling to maintain at least a tenuous hold on our resolutions?
But maybe that’s precisely the point.
The sukkah that we sit in on Sukkos reminds us of the sukkos the Yidden sat in when they were in the Midbar, which we all know is referring to the ananei ha’kavod, the protective clouds of glory. Actually, it’s a machlokes in the Gemara if that’s it, or if it’s referring to actual huts that they had in the desert, but we pasken like the opinion that it’s the ananei ha’kavod. Why did they need those clouds? Because they were stuck wandering in the inhospitable, dangerous desert for 40 years! At Matan Torah — and by this I am referring to the one that “stuck,” namely, the second set of luchos — Hashem told Moshe, “Salachti k’dvarecha.” He fully forgave Klal Yisrael and returned the Torah into their possession. It was an incredible high point. It was the day that would eventually become established as Yom Kippur for all generations. We were supposed to enter the Land post-haste, but we let the pressure get to us — what, exactly, that pressure was, is a whole subject unto itself — and we kept blowing it, again and again, culminating in the debacle of the meraglim. And that clinched it. We would have to wander for 40 years. Now, that was one serious low. Yet, the Torah makes a very big deal about how we followed Hashem’s direction throughout those years of wandering. “Al pi Hashem yachanu v’al pi Hashem yisa’u.” Whenever it was time to move, the cloud would show us which way to go. And when it was time to stay put, it was the cloud that would provide the clear indication for that.
Klal Yisrael is given a lot of credit for their behavior in that regard. Not only that, but the Torah recounts each and every station of encampment throughout their sojourn in that desolate no-man’s land, and Chazal tell us that it is like a king who is lovingly reminiscing about his frightful journey with his son.
And that’s really what life is about, isn’t it? There are ups and downs. High points and lows. Life is an ongoing struggle, and that’s what provides the fertile ground for real growth. Being aware of and feeling the burn of continuous challenge is the hallmark of a vibrant, engaged life. And that is definitely something to be happy about. The very real fact that it can be a difficult avodah to infuse joy into our lives is what most acutely brings to the fore that what we’re doing is for real. And that is definitely something worth embracing with joy.
But it goes even deeper. The joy of Sukkos is not only in the awareness that the “mundane” struggle of life is in fact meaningful, substantial, and endlessly significant; but also in the awareness that through it all, Hashem is with us. The clouds of glory — and our very own, hand-made sukkos by extension — represent the presence of the Shechinah protecting us, guiding us, with us through thick and thin. The journey through the desert was a rocky one, and our loving Father was there by our side throughout. “Here is where we got cold … Here is where your head started hurting you…” Hashem reminisces, k’vayachol, about every detail because he cares about us and he therefore values the struggles and challenges that we grapple with. He is there to celebrate with us our high moments, and to share our pain and sorrow during the more difficult moments. Whatever bumps and detours may have been experienced along the way, the final upshot of the journey is that Hashem is with us — guiding us, protecting us — and we are with Him. And there can be no greater source of joy than that.
Rabbi Yehoshua Berman is Rosh Kollel, Reshet HaDaf, in Ramat Bet Shemesh, Israel.