Succot: What's There Really To Be Happy About?
Rabbi Natan Lopes Cardozo, in his book, "Thoughts to Ponder", as a question that strikes at the very essence of the holiday of Succot:
Perplexing, however is the fact that the festival of Succot is considered to be the highlight of joy and happiness. Speaking specifically about Succot, the Torah states: "And you shall be happy on your festival" (Devarim 16:!4). This means that we should experience the most exalted form of happiness at a time when we have to dwell in structure which is far from being secure!
In fact, Jewish law makes it abundantly clear that the Succah must be built in such a way that it is not able to stand up against a strong wind, that its roof must be leaking when it starts to rain, and that it must contain more shadow than sunlight.
These conditions should, in theory, make us feel distressed since the Succah seems to represent the vulnerability of man. So why command us to be joyful, precisely at a time when one is confronted with all that can go wrong in life?
However, Jewish law holds a great surprise. It stipulates that the Succah's interior should reflect a most optimistic lifestyle. Its frail walls should be decorated with beautiful art... Its leaking roof, made from leaves or reeds, should be made to look attractive by hanging colorful fruit from it. One is required to bring one's best furniture into the Succah... One should eat from the most beautiful plates... Meals should be more elaborate than usual... All this seems to reflect a feeling that this world is a most pleasant place made for our enjoyment and recreation.
So why sit in a weather-beaten hut?
Rabbi Cardozo answers this question by making a distinction between the exterior walls of the Succah and the interior of the Succah, and it is from this basis that I would like to suggest my own answer to the question.
The Vilna Ga'on says that there are two Mitzvot that a Jew is able to fulfill with his entire body: 1) The Mitzvah of sitting / living in a Succah, and 2) The Mitzvah of living in the Land of Israel.
It is from here that we see the strong connection that exists between the holiday of Succot and the Land of Israel, and I believe that it is this connection that can help us to answer the original question.
Generally speaking, when one reads a newspaper, listens to the radio or watches the news on TV, what one hears about Israel is less than positive and can give one good reason to despair over the future of the Jewish People in the Land of Israel. This feeling of despondency could lead a Jew who currently is not living in Israel to reject the notion of him visiting Israel, let alone considering living there. For the Jew in Israel, it can cause despair, that all hope is lost, and that the future is going to be bleak.
More often than not, the external face of Israel is not pretty. There is the Arab - Israeli conflict, the religious - secular conflict, the economy, and corruption... Yet, when one is able to look past the exterior, and look within, when sees a totally different picture.
Israel today (and Jerusalem, in particular) has become the world center for Torah study. Israel is on the verge of becoming the largest Jewish community in the world, where in a few short years, the majority of the Jewish People will be living in the Land of Israel - something which has not happened since the period of the 1st Temple. Israel is one of the only Jewish communities in the entire world today that has a positive growth rate. It seems that not a day goes by where we hear of another new breakthrough or development in the field of medicine, technology or the environment that has come out of Israel. Just this past week, an Israeli professor (a Religious Zionist) from the Hebrew University was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics (which follows last years Israeli Nobel Prize winners for their work in chemistry). The list goes on and on...
The reason why the holiday of Succot is referred to as "our time of happiness" is specifically because it forces us to look past the exterior, and to look within. Both Israel and the Succah, at first glance, don't inspire a feeling of confidence and security, but when one gets a closer look, one realizes that there is much to be seen that lies just beneath the surface, and once one is able to reveal the inner beauty he sees that there is much to be thankful for, and many reasons to express happiness... in spite of all of the challenges that we may be facing.
May we all be blseed, this Succot, to be able to find the good that exists within all of our lives, both on the individual level and the national level, and may we merit to have this feeling of happiness carry over into the rest of the year.