The great dissonance of Sukkot has us going around in circles
A great deal of my formative education involved memorizing bits of general knowledge about Judaism and its practices: mishnayot in Pirkei Avot, blessings of all sorts, dates and the ordering of the parshiyot. One critical piece of the “yediyot klaliyot” curriculum in elementary school was learning the different names for the holidays. Sukkot is also Hag HaAsif, Zman Simkhateinu and “he’Hag.” These I knew by the age of six, but the deep stirah (internal contradiction) inherent in these names only dawned on me in my adulthood.
Sukkot is heHag — the paradigmatic, prototypical “chag.” It is repeatedly assigned that shortened handle: “he’Hag” in the Torah inevitably refers to Sukkot. In some essential way, the holiday embodies “hag-ness” more than the other hagim. No wonder, really, since the ritual, liturgy and theme of this holiday is all about circles, the very meaning of the word “hag.”
Implied in this general name for “holiday” are the iterative cycles of time that we encounter with every mo’ed (a complimentary term for holiday, which literally means an “appointment” or, more specifically, an “appointment with time”). Every Pesach, for example, we revisit the concept of herut (freedom); every Hanukah, the concept of hinuch-dedication. But the ultimate hag, the one known simply as “Hag,” takes the concept of circuits to an extreme.
Consider that Sukkot is the only hag defined as “tekufat hashana,” (Exodus 34:22), the turning of the year. That turning is played out symbolically by the hakafot of the hoshanot, the daily circuits around the bimah with the four species, culminating in the hakafot with the sifrei Torah on Shmini Atzeret/Simchat Torah. The very mitzvah of the four species is performed in the round. To bolster the cyclical nature of hag, the rabbis fixed the annual cycle of Torah reading to this holiday, creating endless possibility for further “appointments with time.” Sukkot definitely has us going around in circles!
Our liturgy alludes to completeness, a full roundness of experience — matters that will only come full-circle at the end of days. “May God re-establish the fallen Sukkah of David.” “May God find merit enough in us to seat us in the (celestial) sukkah made of the Leviathan’s skin.” Eschatological and mysterious allusions to restoring the dead, hints of the World to Come, weave in and out of the Sukkot liturgy as easily as the many references to bounty and blessing in this world. The meta-structure of Creation, this world and the End of Days are a definite subtext running through our observance of this holi
That Hag is also called “Asif” indicates yet another aspect of things coming full-circle. “A-s-f” means an ingathering, to be sure, but it also implies a conclusion — a final gathering. Va’yei’asef el amav/avotav is the biblical expression for death: “And he was gathered in to his people/fathers.” Sukkot marks the agricultural end of year: fields are emptying of their viable produce, grass-turned-hay is dry and dead, ready for baling. The schach which covers the sukkah must be of dead stuff — the refuse of the harvest. The cycle of growth is completed as the world around us turns dark and cold, a fact marked by other death festivals observed universally in this season.
If all the death and contemplating-of-ends that surrounds this holiday wasn’t enough, Kohelet serves as the ultimate buzzkill for this erstwhile Zman Simhateinu, our very Hag of Happiness. Kohelet, the Debbie Downer of the Bible, is the centerpiece reading for this holiday, recited in dirge tune on Shabbat Hol HaMoed. Kohelet’s driving message is that it’s nigh impossible to make any real difference in this world of endless circles, where we are all destined for death and eventual oblivion. Everything is repetitive, and far larger than any one person, and the world will outlive your brief time here; where can you find your meaning within these perpetual, unalterable cycles?
A generation goes and a generation comes, but the earth endures forever. The sun rises and the sun sets, and to its place it yearns and rises there. It goes to the south and goes around to the north; the wind goes round and round, and returns to its circuits….All things are wearisome, no one can utter it; the eye shall not be sated from seeing, nor shall the ear be filled from hearing. What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done. There is nothing new under the sun. (Kohelet, Chapter 1)
The marked emphasis on cycles, on death, on endings, and the concomitant sense of despair that often marks contemplation of the futility in finding any real meaning or purpose within these continuous patterns, seems absolutely antithetical to the essential characterization of this hag as “Zman Simhateinu,” the ultimate annual appointment with happiness. For how can one really be happy amidst all of this decay and death, where bright and hopeful beginnings mean little when reminded that they, too, will eventually end and be forgotten?
Beyond that, consider that the happiest moment of the entire year took place during Sukkot, at a celebration headlined by a reenactment of one of the foundational cycles in nature: the water cycle.
He who has never witnessed the festival of the water drawing (Simhat Bet HaShoeva) has never experienced true happiness in life. (Sukkah 5:1)
The ritual involves drawing water from the deep — from the Mei HaShiloach at the base of ancient Jerusalem — carrying it up to the Temple altar, and pouring it onto the altar, where it will cycle back to its source. One can almost imagine participants murmuring the following verse from Kohelet as they witness this rite:
All of the rivers flow into the sea, yet the sea is not full. To the place where the rivers go, there they repeatedly go. (Kohelet 1:7)
What a gorgeous dissonance the mishna presents here: the climax of joy set against the paradigmatic symbol of natural cycles that must outlive us, forever. This dissonance is sublimely instructive, and cuts to the very heart of why the holiday of joy is also the holiday of death. Truly, happiness can only really be found in our grasping of a moment, fully aware of its transience. I treasure my baby’s cuddle precisely because I know now, as an older parent, that I might never have a moment like this again. (Younger parents, may not find these moments as remarkable — younger people in general aren’t thinking about endings or missed opportunities to seize a moment. I know I wasn’t, and I didn’t.) We transcend our mortality and join in the unceasing hora dance by living our moments deeply, knowing they are fleeting.
He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy
He who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sunrise
— Eternity, William Blake
Old Kohelet knew that it is precisely the passing of time, the contemplation of death’s inevitability, that brings one to complete joy. There truly is nothing new under the sun: parents have looked upon their babies with shining eyes since the beginning of time, and will always continue to do so. But our greatest joy is when we sit in our sukkot, sinking deeply into the moment and making it uniquely ours — our sukkah, our baby, our joy — transforming the instant into eternity.
How very special are we
For just a moment to be
Part of life’s eternal rhyme.
— Charlotte’s Web, “Mother Earth and Father Time”
(These musings on inyana d’yoma based on the shiurim of R’ Matis Weinberg)