“You shall make the festival of weeks with the first offering of the wheat harvest
and the festival of the harvest shall be at the changing of the year.” (Ex. 24:22)
Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi (1932–2009; professor of Jewish History at Harvard and Columbia University) asserts the Jewish people remembers through re-enactment. So on Sukkot, we assemble the lulav and etrog, build a sukkah, and invite our Biblical ancestors to join us. Of course, Jewish law has much to say about the proper way to shake a lulav, what makes a sukkah kosher (or not), and which ancestors get invited to the party. That doesn’t make Sukkot special; every Jewish holiday’s ritual observances are strictly circumscribed by halacha (Jewish law). However, Sukkot is the only holiday, in which rejoicing is commanded (“…and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days.” (Lev. 23:40)). But is that even possible? Can emotions be commanded to appear “on demand?”
Rashi (an acronym for Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, the pre-eminent 11th century Jewish commentator) answers this question with a resounding “No.” Rashi interprets Deut. 16:14 (“You shall rejoice on your holiday…”), not as a commandment, but rather, as an outcome. That is, celebrating the holiday leads to rejoicing.
Rashi’s interpretation challenges thousands of years of tradition and anticipates modernity’s recognition that the search for meaning is what brings joy. And there are so many ways to celebrate Sukkot meaningfully. For some, observing the prescribed rituals according to halacha is primary. For others, it’s the customs of hospitality, or the gathering of the family, or the family recipes that appear each year in the sukkah (which may or may not be “kosher” according to halacha), or the holiday songs that bring joy and happiness. What makes us smile on Sukkot is not obedience to a command; it is the meaning we create.
Gut Yontif/Chag Sameach/Happy Holiday