As the final days of Sukkot draw near – and Shmini Atzeret, Hoshana Rabba and Simchat Torah wink in the distance – observant Jews around the world can be heard taking a collective sigh of relief.
Not that it hasn’t been wonderful, this alternate universe we enter into each fall, this mandated season of celebration and togetherness.
Of course it has been wonderful and joyous and also difficult.
And sometimes draining.
If it was only a party, we would not have to be commanded to be happy.
“V’samachta b’chagecha!” we are mandated. And you shall be happy in your holiday observance.
“V’hayeeta ach samayah!” we are instructed. And you shall be only happy.
At first flush, this seems an odd thing, this commandment to be happy.
Must we really be commanded to be happy?
Imagine commanding a child to be happy on their birthday. And if Rosh Hashana commemorates the birthday of the world, all of humankind should rejoice at this joyous celebration.
Yet as anyone who has taken the time to read the Machzor knows, the liturgy of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur is suffused with the awareness of our mortality. It is in our liturgy. It is in the wearing of the kittel.
On the High Holidays, we stand before God, petitioning to be included in the Book of Life for one more year. On Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, we are essentially rehearsing for our final days, putting our spiritual houses in order, contemplating our inevitable death so that we might know how to live.
And then, with the arrival of Sukkot, we have survived God’s judgment and the critical hour of the weighing of our souls and we are delighted to find ourselves still among the living.
Yet, if we are overjoyed to have merited one more earthly year, the question remains: why must we be commanded to be happy on Sukkot?
An obvious answer is that Jews live with knowledge of the fragility of happiness. How many celebratory moments – public and private – have been shattered by violence throughout Jewish history? Why else break the glass at a Jewish wedding, recalling the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem during one of life’s peak moments?
So, we can understand the commandment to be happy as a wise yet sad commentary of the existential state of living at the nexus of simcha and tsa’ar – joy and sorrow.
Yet this year, the message of V’samachta b’chagecha was driven home most poignantly for a community in Minneapolis and for me as well, because of my deep connection to this particular kehilla.
With preparations for the festival of Sukkot underway, a disgruntled former employee entered a business in Minneapolis – Accent Signage Systems – and opened fire, killing the owner, the manager, a UPS driver and several employees.
The business owner, Reuven Rahamim, was an active member of Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park, one of our kehillot, a shul where I have deep personal ties, where I had served as a Kadima USY advisor, whose previous rabbi – Hayyim Herring – had also been my own.
Immediately following the shooting, articles and tributes flooded the Internet, attesting to the fact that a man who served as the cornerstone of the civic and Jewish community had been brutally murdered.
Reuven Rahamim. It is worthwhile to ponder his last name – Rahamim -- which means mercy. By all accounts, Reuven Rahamaim was a man who fulfilled the promise of his name, which is one of God’s attributes, repeated throughout the Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur liturgy.
So, the family of Reuven Rahamim and his friends and congregants and workers are left with shattered lives, yet still mandated to be happy during the festival of Sukkot through Simchat Torah – which literally translates as The Happiness of the Torah.
And the friends and family and coworkers of all the victims of this latest workplace massacre are left shattered and wondering how they will ever be fully happy again.
This year, I fully understand God’s mandate to celebrate in the face of sorrow. V’samachta b’chagecha is a commandment because sometimes being happy is very, very difficult.