Feeling It When You're Not Really Feeling It: Being Joyful on Sukkot

The Torah commands us to be happy over Sukkot, but is it possible to feel real joy simply because it is a mitzvah?

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We are in the midst of the celebration of Sukkot, which we call zman simhateynu, the time of our joy. In the book of Deuteronomy (16:13), the Torah commands rejoicing for all members of the Israelite community: “You shall rejoice in your festival, with your son and daughter, your male and female slave, the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow in your communities.” No one is exempt, everyone must be happy.

How can the Torah command joy? Most mitzvot only involve action, which might lead to a disagreement about the specifics of the action, but are fairly concrete. Emotions, however, are anything but concrete. While we can eat or not eat something on command, is it possible to feel real joy simply because it is a mitzvah?

This verse in Deuteronomy is not unique in its directive to feel a certain way. Elsewhere, the Torah commands us to love God, our neighbors, and strangers, not to hate our fellow in our hearts, and not to covet our neighbor’s possessions. Commanding joy, however, seems particularly problematic, especially when personal tragedies or front page news can easily bring a person down.

Let’s start with the front page: another shooting in the United States, this time at the Washington Navy Yard, over 100,000 killed and chemical weapons used in Syria, devastating floods in Boulder, Colorado, endless political gridlock in the U.S. Congress. It’s difficult to feel joyful when thinking about all that is going on in the world.

And it can be even more difficult to feel joyful after experiencing a personal loss. According to halakha, Jewish religious law, mourning for a loved one is cut short by the onset of a Jewish holiday. For example, if a person lost a close family member right before Sukkot, then shiva would only last until the beginning of the holiday. The Talmud (Moed Katan 14b) actually derives this law from our verse in Deuteronomy that commands joy on Sukkot, explaining that communal celebrations take precedence over personal tragedy. I find this halakha one of the most difficult to explain and justify to families who have sustained a loss right before a holiday. Though shiva officially ends, it is difficult, if not impossible, for mourners to suddenly replace their grief with joy. How could they possibly fulfill the mitzvah of being joyous on Sukkot?

Maimonides addresses the challenge of how the Torah can command emotions. He explains that the Torah is really telling us how to act, not how to feel. By celebrating and acting joyous, even if we are not feeling it on the inside, we can fulfill the mitzvah of being joyous on Sukkot. And by appearing joyful, it is possible that we will actually begin to feel that way as well. This could certainly work, but it doesn’t seem right to command people to betray their feelings by acting joyously.

But perhaps we are not properly defining “joy.” Is joy only about smiling, dancing and eating? Or is it about something deeper? The Talmud (Pesahim 68b) discusses how we express joy on a holiday, and it reaches a helpful conclusion:

Rabbi Eliezer said: A person only has to choose whether to eat and drink or to sit and study [to experience joy] on a festival. Rabbi Joshua said: Divide it—half [of the holiday] to eating and drinking, and half of it to the house of study.

Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Joshua both believe that joy can be expressed on a festival through eating and drinking as well as through study. Study of course involves more than reading in a comfy chair, it is about contemplation, conversation, and connection. It helps us put our lives in perspective, and to be exposed to other ideas and thoughts from our tradition, as well as the larger world.

If we view joy in this way, as the satisfaction of both our physical and spiritual needs, then the commandment to be joyful on Sukkot becomes easier to understand and fulfill. Even if we are troubled by loss or the challenges that surround us, we can be comforted by learning, and the camaraderie and perspective that accompany it. And this too can bring us joy.

Rabbi Micah Peltz is a Conservative rabbi at Temple Beth Sholom in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.