Sukkot as a Shivah of Simcha

Over Sukkot in Waterville, we had the opportunity to learn and celebrate with one of the center’s rabbinical student fellows, Max Edwards. Max is a fourth-year rabbinical student at Hebrew College in Newton, Mass. and is working with Rabbi Isaacs at Beth Israel Congregation in Waterville. We are thrilled to share the D’var Torah Max gave at Beth Israel Congregation during services on Shmini Atzeret at the end of Sukkot.

During the summer months of 2018 and 2019, the time when the sun is warm and inviting, when cool breezes cascade through alleyways and courtyards, I found myself mostly indoors, spending my days as a chaplain—sitting with patients and families in the ICU at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. The sun inside these rooms was typically minimal, and the breeze practically non-existent—instead giving way to fluorescent lights and the sound of a steady, sustained tempo of compressed air running from hardware to human. Joy is not typically the first descriptor I use when telling people about my experience at the hospital, but it’s not typically the last either. I once had a patient’s mother tell me that her time in the hospital with her daughter was simultaneously the happiest and saddest time in her life.

I was so taken aback by this comment that I don’t even remember responding directly to it, instead letting it sit and hang over the room like a canopy of emotion. Proximity can be enough, and experiencing the margins of life with someone sometimes doesn’t need any commentary.

Sukkot as a Shivah of Simcha

So much of this holiday season is centered around this idea of proximity. A curated proximity—to others, to God, to ourselves, and the tensions that come out of these encounters—wrapped together for me, in my experience at the end of Yom Kippur. There’s a tinge of regret and sadness for those moments I wasn’t able to rectify in the previous year, but also a real sense of joy for the feeling of newness and renewal, and the fact that a break-fast is minutes away. It’s the feeling of a real tension, and wanting to take a moment to let the day pass and begin anew in the morning.

But not so fast. We’re told in the Shulchan Aruch, the code of Jewish law about the Ashkenazi tradition, to go out immediately after Yom Kippur and start building your sukkah, so as not to delay the chance to perform a mitzvah. I don’t know about the rest of you, but one of the last things I think about doing after a 25-hour fast is manual labor. So what’s the value behind the push here by the Shulchan Aruch and this custom?

If Yom Kippur is our holiday of exposing and confronting the stripped-down versions of ourselves, Sukkot is our process of spiritual redressing; it’s our process of putting back on our layers, encountering zman simchateinu, the time of our joy, renewed and refreshed. And the way in which we kick off this period of spiritual redressing? We most literally and physically construct, because rebuilding and renewing ourselves after Yom Kippur is not instantaneous, it’s a project, a year-long project that we couldn’t possibly delay, because like repotting a plant, time is of the essence and we need our roots to feel firm and grounded.

Sukkot is the time of our joy, but it’s also the time of our transition—a transition out of Yom Kippur, and a transition into the new year. After all, we don’t begin a new cycle of Torah reading at Rosh Hashanah, the new year, but only after Sukkot, after we’ve given ourselves the time necessary to spiritually redress and begin the year.

Considering all of this, no wonder we dwell in these sukkot—temporary, flimsy, sometimes teetering structures. There’s an argument in the Talmud about the nature of the physical structure of a sukkah. Rabbi Eliezer says that the sukkot the Israelites dwelled in were actually sheltering clouds of God’s glory, not physical huts, while Rabbi Akiva says no, the Israelites did dwell in actual huts in the desert.

From a cursory look, one of these opinions of course is focused on the physical space and physical sense of dwelling and transition, while the other is perhaps a bit more spiritual—and wherever we ourselves gravitate, we need both of these to move us forward through the holiday, because when we’re in transition, much like the Israelites were in the wilderness, it’s actually quite difficult to know exactly what our needs are.

Sukkot is a seven-day period where the primary mitzvah is to sit, leyshev, in the sukkah. Surrounded by family, friends, community, and ushpizin, holy guests from the past, we experience a week of impermanence, with the knowledge that this is not what life ultimately looks like, yet it is a necessary mode to bring us forward out of the deep and into reality.

There’s another seven-day period where our primary responsibility is to sit and be surrounded by family and community members—the period of shivah after the death of a close relative. When sitting shivah, we are also in a place of impermanence, unsure of what we need, leaning on others for a helping hand after those intense, raw moments of life.

Like experiencing a loss, Yom Kippur is, in one sense, a point in time where we rehearse our own death; it is a day on the margins, merging life and death. We wander in white, emulating angels, we neither eat nor drink, as we contemplate who will live and who will die, constructing that intense, raw moment, and God willing when we come out the other side, Sukkot is there as a helping hand, our marker of transition as we strive for joy in the immediate aftermath of Yom Kippur. And this is where community comes in.

A personal confession: I’ve never had a sukkah of my own. When I was growing up, my family did not build a sukkah, and because of various apartments, roommates, and landlords, I’ve never actually been able to have a sukkah I call mine. This being the case, I’ve relied upon friends and synagogue communities to participate in the mitzvah of sukkah. The Shulchan Aruch writes that one is able to fulfill their obligation to dwell in sukkot by using someone else’s sukkah, and the Mishnah Berurah, a 19th-century commentary on the Shulchan Aruch, goes a step further and imagines this incredible, fanciful picture of sukkot. He writes: “This teaches that every person is fit to dwell in one sukkah—with one person coming after the other.” It’s as if the Mishnah Berurah is saying, “If absolutely necessary, all of us, the entirety of the Jewish people, can file in and out of a single sukkah”—that impermanent structure, like a doorway in the desert from a Cohen brothers’ movie, not entirely sure what lies on the other side, but 100 percent certain that we will find out together.

As we atone communally over Yom Kippur, we transition communally on Sukkot, in our own sukkot, in others’ sukkot, renewing ourselves together in our shivah of simcha.

—Max Edwards

The center’s rabbinical student fellowship creates opportunities for exceptional rabbinical students to spend time in Maine learning the ins and outs of small town Jewish life. Over the course of a year, our fellows spend an average of six extended weekends in Maine supporting our rabbis, teaching, leading services, and getting to know our community. Our communities benefit too—we love hearing these new voices, building meaningful connections with a young generation of aspiring rabbis, and sharing the magic of small town Jewish life with them. We are thrilled to share the wisdom and work of the fellows with you throughout the year. To learn more about the rabbinical student fellows program, and to learn about opportunities to spend time with the fellows, please click here.