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Be Happy!

“Remember the month of Aviv and keep the Passover…”. In Parashat Re’eh we are given a description of the three major pilgrim festivals, Pesakh, Shavuot, and Sukkot. These are the Ḥagim. “Ḥag” is a cognate of the Arabic word word “Haj”. Just as Haj to Mecca is a requirement for the Muslem (if one can afford it), so is the Ḥag to Jerusalem if one is a Jew.

The grandchildren of the great medieval Jewish commentator Rashi, building on his commentary, note that the word Simkha, “happiness” (which like “V’ahavta” is an imperative: “Be happy!”) occurs three times in the description of Sukkot (and with the extra command to be”Akh Sameakh”, “happy as well”, it is almost like a parents’ reminder: “Have a good time and by the way, have a good time.”) On the other hand, “Simkha” is mentioned only once for Shavuot, and not at all with regard to Pesakh.

The agricultural basis of these holidays provides a simple explanation. Passover is the time of lambing and the sign of spring, but there is great apprehension about the crops to come. The winter wheat is in, but the barley and vegetables will take seven more weeks. At Shavuot, the barley is in and one can breathe somewhat easier. But Sukkot is the grand Thanksgiving feast, at which rich and poor alike are assured enough sustenance. Judaism teaches that one has the right to enjoy the material benefits of this world and we are enjoined to rejoice in having them.

The Rabbinic linking of the three festivals to history also provides a reason for the differing amounts of required happiness. At Pesakh, Egyptian soldiers have been drowned; we cannot rejoice when others are suffering. At Shavuot, we can be happy that we have received Torah, but the incident of the Golden Calf fast on the heels of Mt. Sinai mutes our joy. But Sukkot celebrates the Mishkan (the portable Tabernacle of the desert). It provides the wholeness of having a spiritual center that moves with one — and that is cause for unbounded joy.

Let us examine this further in a Reconstructionist context. At Pesakh the non-Jew is treated ambiguously; there are both the Egyptian soldiers who are drowned, and the mixed multitude who are permitted to be fellow travelers with the Israelites. At Shavuot there is some happiness, for although the Torah was given to Israel alone. its moral principles are for all. At Sukkot, three groups celebrate together: Jews, Lovers of Israel (“Ohavei Yisrael”, non converted person who have a strong commitment to Judaism), and non-Jews alike. The Temple rites for Sukkot included sacrifices for “the seventy nations” (that is the whole world). It was the one time of the year that ancient Jews and non-Jews participated together in a Jewish ritual. In the Talmud, Tractate Taanit, it is pointed out that Jews are permitted to pray together with non Jews, in a non-Jewish service, if the prayer is for “rain” (signifying the essential survival of the whole community). And prayers for the coming rainy season are a central theme of Sukkot.

So the three “Sameakhs” mentioned in connection with Sukkot represent three experiences of happiness: that of the Jew, the Lover of Israel and also the non-Jew. It is only when all three are accommodated in their unique domains and ways, that the this triple happiness occurs.

Davar Akher (another explanation):

Pesakh marks freedom. But as African Americans learned a over a century ago, freedom without justice, equality, and prosperity is a hollow thing. Freedom alone is not worth rejoicing over. Or in the word of the popular song, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose / Freedom ain’t worth nothin’, but its free”

At Shavuot we have freedom and the Law. But we don’t rejoice fully over the Law because law is phrased negatively, in the form of restrictions: (no adultery, no perjury, no theft, no murder, no exploitation of workers, no workaholic ambition, no hostile takeovers of a neighbor’s possessions or loved one’s.)

Only at Sukkot do we see that the purpose of freedom and law is to create a society in which there is a bountiful harvest for all. The priests rejoice, the rich rejoice, and (akh Sameakh), also the poor rejoice.

Thus the function of freedom of choice and rule of law is to provide a structure called mitzvot, though which “We limit our own pursuit of happiness, so that others may pursue theirs as well.” Mitzvot are not “good deeds” nor are they merely “commandments”: they are the structure which enable us to limit our own pursuits, for the benefit of the wider community.

We are coming up on Rosh Hodesh Elul. Let us use the forty days before Yom Kippur wisely, so that when Sukkot comes we will all be thrice blessed with happiness.

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