Turns out Joy really is a choice and it’s sometimes hard to dwell there. During the Jewish feast of Sukkot, it is an actual commandment to rejoice, which seems easy enough. Just show up, right? Well, yes, yes and no. Can you dwell in that for a week? How about one satisfied, fully-contented couple hours?
During Sukkot, G-d calls His people to build booths, or tabernacles, and simply rejoice for seven days, feasting and singing in the wooden, open-roof structure. Here’s a great kids’ song. You can play it as you read. It’s is English and Yiddish.
So all was good with me for maybe twenty minutes at my in-laws and congregation, when sudden fatigue opened the door to a slew of painful emotions. I didn’t like this; I was utterly dissatisfied with that. I burned with annoyance at the way someone talked to my kid. My eyes lit into this close friend. I saw hurtful looks everywhere. All the fairy dust seemed like ordinary dust without my heart in it. My shoulders sagged. I lost my hold on joy, all around. I messed up on the song I was leading. My brows furrowed and I simply turned off for a bit, thinking no one really needed me. I was one big bundle of lonely upset.
All this at the start of a festival based on JOY(!!!), a seven-day harvest fest.
I wanted to leave the regular walls of the same-old room. I wanted to finally step into the sukkah and just look at all I had. I climbed the stairs to step onto the roof of my parents-in-laws’ building. There it was, branches of rosemary perched precariously with palm and citrus branches over twine to make a roof. We’re not talking deluxe. It is little more than a pergola. The ssukkah isn’t so fancy, though many families will even hang wallpaper or decorate like they are competing in a design war. The truth is that the structure is impermanent. It is not even, perhaps, up to building-code. There are three walls, not four, and a ceiling that could let in a deluge of rain. It can look a bit rickety.
The joy is in what permanent thing we fix our eyes on. The celing slats let in the moon. It is a ceiling adorned with palm fronds. There are bowls and boughs of hanging fruit and the choicest produce. We celebrate G-d’s permanence, G-d’s provision in the fall and year’s harvest. Now, I know we’re not farmers, but I certainly appreciate veggies and fruit, rice and all my carby-grains. We are the wonder inside the sukkah, celebrating together. It is simple.
We simply build this thing and hang. We chill and rejoice, shaking a bundle of greens called a lulav. In the lulav are willow, myrtle, a lushly green date palm frond before it has opened. They are a sweeping symbol of Sukkot. Also part of the team, rather, star of the show, is the etrog. It is like a big, bumpy lemon–warty, even. A really gigantic, warty, fragrant lemon. The smell could knock you off of your feet, in a delightful way.
The sukkah is dedicated as we bless G-d and make it gorgeous with decorations as personal as decorating one’s Christmas tree or making a personal pizza. It is about delighting in what we have been given. For this brief time on earth, there is joy. We have family, song, a voice, dancing, gladness, wine, challah, meals under the stars. Not by accident, Sukkot takes place after Yom Kippur, after we’ve looked some behaviors or attitudes in the eye. We’ve cleared out our soul to make room for joy–smiles that can last because there is no shame or regret from hurting those we love. We’ve all hopefully gone to those we may have hurt. Do you know the power, even, in forgiving yourself? We are a forgiven, free people. We’ve enjoyed the clean slate of Rosh Hashanah, the new year in the Jewish calendar, studded by blasts from the ram’s horn. Our soul is at attention. Our body is so ready to look back, say “thank you”, and let go a bit.
I’m all in when it comes to crafts, gardening, and any kind of party. It’s called being a teacher, with a focus on elementary ed. I know my way around craft glue, let’s just say. So, in Sukkot preparation, I planted pots of hanging greens–cranberry, ivy, even trails of purple succulents like rivulets.
I sliced and baked enough apples and mikan to merit the purchase of a dehydrator. My oven has been working overtime and I could start a potpourri business on the side.
I slid each fragrant slice onto thread for garlands. I sprayed enough laquer to make me remember how important ventilation is. Surely, my neighbors agree, as they will probably bill me for gas masks.
Eighteen gazillion fruit batches later, I picked up the kids, practically pushed them onto our bike, and pedaled hard. It was past dusk. I wanted to see that great big orb, lit like fire. (Amazing how the moon merely reflects the sun, isn’t it?)
Last night, the Blood Red Moon eclipsed the start of Sukkot. We built our gorgeous structure on the fifth floor roof of my in-laws and our congregational building. A monorail flickered by. People walked down below, a little like how people resemble ants from way up high. The needle of Tokyo’s incredibly high Skytree flashed its night time lights. We were happy. Our perspective changed, thinking of lasting things.
Here’s an animated, laid-back video set to the words of wise King Solomon about what kind of happiness we chase after.
(I suppose I’ve got the right idea for a “selfie”, but not a “coupley”. Oops).
For seven days, we get to step into this dwelling and let the world go by just a bit. It is like a seven-day shabbat. Nothing has to stir my heart or vex my mind if I don’t want it to. I get to very consciously decide what I let in, what gets to hang out in my head. And that is hard. Sometimes I want to pity or compare or stay in that mirror of disappointment, pick apart whatever was said like a bird trying to floss. Seven days is both a lot and a little. If I can choose joy these seven days, as commanded, then I truly have everything I need. Let’s just not forget the wine.
PS It’s not just about our happiness. Sukkot is not a feast of narcissism. In fact, it goes hand-in-hand with tsedakah, giving charitably and generously. Families invite guests and always, throughout biblical and current harvest time, a large portion of a field is reserved for those who don’t have. The harvest is about abundantly receiving and inviting new friends to take their fill of new wine, of doughy egg bread hot from the oven, of the full mercies from heaven. It is a building without a “proper ceiling”, a room without that fourth wall. It is a party that can flow freely, all eyes on the moon, hearts reflecting the sun.
*”God” is often written as “G-d” to place deep respect in writing the name of the Holy One, the Creator, especially as paper may be scrapped. Files may be deleted. Any person’s name could be chucked without any intended disrespect, but it distinguishes between us and G-d. I like this practice in Judaism and have been writing it as such for a long time.