By Rabbi Andrea Steinberger
The other day I sat with two college students and talked about how they are doing these days. They both spoke about how much they just needed to keep going: Get the online classes done. Write their papers. Not think too much. How they have dreams that are on hold. They have not chosen to reflect very much because it makes them sad. At this particular time, during the pandemic, they need to think small. What do I need to get accomplished today? Do I have what I need today? Thinking too much about the present is crushing. And thinking about the future seems futile. This is their coping strategy. And it makes them sad. I think many of us can relate to these feelings of just seeming to be immersed in the day to day struggles right now. Seven months into a pandemic has made many of us aware of just how long this journey is. Perhaps at times, we have felt reflective and contemplative about the whole thing. And now, we feel overwhelmed with the daily details and how there seems to be no end in sight to our wandering. And now comes our joyful holiday of Sukkot, a holiday of celebrating JOY amidst uncertainty.
Sukkot comes just four days after Yom Kippur, a holiday in which we deprive ourselves. We become so self-critical, focusing on our flaws, depriving ourselves of food, drink, sex. And this day is important to us, of course, as Jews, but the assumption that depriving ourselves is more important than enjoyment is wrong. Each year we move away from Yom Kippur onto the holiday of Sukkot, a holiday that commemorates and finds joy in the wandering, the day to day. Some other holidays, such as Passover, celebrate our freedom -- the ending points. Sukkot asks us to remain in the journey, day to day grind, and find joy within the simple pleasures of life.
How many of us realize how little joy we have in our everyday life? Many parents will say that the day to day life of raising children is just so tiring -- The lunches, the snacks. The constant cleaning up. And now the virtual school. It feels as if there is no break in sight. There is just so much anxiety and worry and feelings of being overwhelmed. Parents will say that they are far happier when the simple pleasures and small miracles and joys of every day are celebrated.
The holiday of Sukkot celebrates finding a sense of joy, even amidst the impermanence of things. We build a sukkah, a temporary booth, and we use it for seven days, spending joyful times eating and talking with friends and family. What meaning can we find in sitting in this impermanent structure? Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks describes this feeling of finding security amidst uncertainty in this way: “Security is not something we can achieve physically, but it is something we can acquire mentally, psychologically, spiritually. All it needs is the courage and willingness to sit under the shadow of God’s sheltering wings.” I know this is a terribly hard year, where we continue to try to practice patience, flexibility, safety, judgment at all times. We may not always be able to say with confidence that we are completely safe. But we may be able to find moments of joy, sitting together with friends over a good conversation, a good meal. Perhaps that is true happiness, finding a way to feel secure in moments of joy, knowing how fleeting they may be.
Isn’t that the incredible genius of the holiday of Sukkot? Many of us might feel that sadness is a more important feeling than happiness. It feels more real to us. But an expert will tell us that a well-rounded person is one who has every human quality and its opposite. And so it is with our holiday of Sukkot. To everything there is a season. There is a time for every experience under heaven. A time to laugh. A time to cry. A time to mourn and a time to dance. This year, our worries are many: Financial. Health. Political. Existential. It is a period of time that is ripe for celebrating the holiday of Sukkot. We can look at our cultural tradition of putting up a Sukkah and staying outdoors at a very inappropriate time when the weather is not as pleasant, and even in these days, find the simple pleasures of eating a little lunch, sitting outdoors with another person, sharing a laugh, enjoying one another’s company.
May we each find pleasures during this week of Sukkot, remembering that even in our wandering, we can find moments of JOY.
Andrea Steinberger is a rabbi at the Hillel at the University of Wisconsin, teaching, learning, questioning, and helping students create and expand their Jewish lives and practices during their college years.