– Author: Rav Sam Millunchick

What a terrifying prospect death is. The finality of it, a border only once crossed. Words only seem like it could have carried the exuberance of such a soul. In the face of death, all seems trivial – what could life mean when at the end, no matter which road we travelled to get there, we all end up in the same place?

Sukkot is a[1] holiday of death, of existential angst, of searching for a place of connection[2]. Chag HaAsif[3], the holiday of the harvest, is not coincidentally placed at the time of the year when things are coming to an end, tekufat hashana[4]. Sukkot is the holiday where we deal with exactly these issues – “What profit has man in all his toil that he toils under the sun?” (Kohelet 1:3). What can we add to the world, being so insignificant next to the Creator of All, “Then I turned to all the work that my hands had designed and all the labor that I had toiled to make; and notice, all of it was vanity and chasing the wind. And there was no benefit under the sun. So I turned to consider wisdom, the folly of ideas, and foolish behavior; for what else can a man do who comes after the king? Or what more than those have already done?” (ibid. 2:11-12) What is the human’s place in the world?

Inexplicably, Sukkot is also known as z’man simchatenu – ״And you shall rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days” (Vayikra 23:40). Further, the ceremonial water drawing, about which the Mishna writes “one who never witnessed the ceremonial water drawing, never witnessed simcha in his life” (Sukkah 5:1) took place during Sukkot! Where does simcha fit in with the existential crises of Kohelet and the time of the year in which we find ourselves? Why does Sukkot seem to trap us between competing eddies of simcha on the one hand and death on the other?

Circular reasoning

Kohelet wonders, throughout his Megillah, at the point of human endeavour. Incredibly, the nisuch hamayim, the pouring of the water on the altar at the simchat bet hasho’eva, also doesn’t seem to achieve anything – the water is drawn from the Shiloach spring, taken into the Bet Hamikdash, and poured down a drain on the altar that leads to an underground pool of water, the shitin. What could possibly be achieved in moving water from one place to another?

Primal avodah

The nisuch hamyaim is intimately connected to the major din that the world goes through on Sukkot – “the world is judged in four periods … and on Sukkot regarding water” (Mishna Rosh HaShana 17a). Water is the source of sustenance, and indeed defines God’s relationship with the land of Israel and the people of Israel – “For the land that you are about to enter and possess is not like the land of Egypt from which you have come. There the grain you sowed had to be watered by your own labors, like a vegetable garden; but the land you are about to cross into and possess, a land of hills and valleys, soaks up its water from the rains of heaven. It is a land which the Lord your God looks after, on which the Lord your God always keeps His eye, from year’s beginning to year’s end.” (Devarim 11:10-13) The nisuch hamayim, the central avodah of Sukkot, the chag of water, takes place on the central place of avodah in the Mikdash – the mizbe’ach.

The avodah around water first appears in a far more primal context, that of creation. The Torah relates that on the third day of creation, God created plant life – “And God said, “Let the earth sprout vegetation: seed-bearing plants, fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.” And it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation: seed-bearing plants of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that this was good.” (Bereshit 1:11-12) However, in the second chapter, when the Torah tells us the story again from the perspective of Man, we see that even on the sixth day the grass and trees hadn’t yet sprouted! “no shrub of the field was yet on earth and no grasses of the field had yet sprouted, because the Lord God had not sent rain upon the earth and there was no man to till the soil.” (Bereshit 2:5) It is here that Chazal find the locus of Avodah – service of God – in its most primal form. Rashi explains, based on a Gemara in Chullin (60a-b): “you must explain this verse also thus: “No plant of the field was yet in the earth” at the time when the creation of the world was completed on the sixth day before man was created, and ‘no grasses of the field had yet sprouted’ means “and every herb of the field had not yet grown”. But as regards the third day of creation about which it is written “The earth brought forth etc.” this does not signify that they came forth above the ground but that they remained at the opening of the ground (i. e. just below the surface) until the sixth day (Chullin 60a). BECAUSE GOD HAD NOT CAUSED IT TO RAIN — And what is the reason that God had not caused it to rain? BECAUSE THERE WAS NO MAN TO TILL THE GROUND, and there was, therefore, no one to recognize the utility of rain. When Adam came (was created), however, and he realised that it was necessary for the world, he prayed for it and it fell, so that trees and verdure sprang forth.”

The avodah that Adam had to perform to allow the grass to grow was the recognition of the rain’s importance. The insertion of consciousness and awareness into the equation was the missing link – it wasn’t that Adam did any mechanical action. Rather, Adam’s very recognition of the need for rain, and the act of facing God and asking for it, was the avodah that allowed the rain to fall.

This becomes the purpose of Adam in the universe – a world-consciousness, a being that recognised the lack in the world around him and reconnected to his Creator in search of the answer to that lack. This searching for connection, this turning to our Creator – this is the purpose of man. In the act of turning outward, we discover that all that the world is missing is intentionality, recognition. There is no need for mechanical interventions, for as Shelomo writes, “What real value is there for a man in all the gains he makes beneath the sun?”

The avodah of Man is to take reality as it exists and infuse it with consciousness, with awareness, and to act upon that consciousness. Karl Popper, the famous philosopher and historian of science, would often open his lectures with the command to “observe”, leaving his students stumped as to what exactly it was that he wanted them to observe. With this exercise, Popper was trying to demonstrate a fundamental but often misunderstood fact about life as a human being. One’s preconceptions of one’s world, the theory of being which they have developed consciously or unconsciously throughout their lives, affects what one sees, processes, and integrates into one’s life.

At any given moment, we are bombarded with millions of points of data. This information takes many forms, from sensory perceptions – touch, smell, sight, sound – to pieces of information relating to the people and places which comprise our world, including information about our very selves. Thankfully, our brains are structured to filter this information, allowing only a tiny amount of it to bubble to the surface of our consciousness. Crucially, we can change the focus of this attention spotlight, broadening or narrowing it through conscious effort.

Another key task of our consciousness, and the second part of Popper’s message to his students, is that more than simply changing the focus of our attention and data gathering, theories change the meaning of that data. Without a relevant idea of what a given thing means, and how to integrate that thing into our lives, it will lay inert, its secrets locked inside.

Crude petroleum has long been in menial use around the world. At times it was used as rudimentary fuel or medicine, though its transformative power lay largely untapped. It wasn’t until a chemist began refining petroleum in the late nineteenth century that its uses multiplied, today including plastics, wax, and a vastly improved fuel, allowing for an industrial and agricultural boom that helped drive the world into the modern age. What’s amazing is that this potential energy has been locked in the soil for thousands of years, unharnessed for lack of knowledge. It was human awareness and capability which allowed for the transformation and utilisation of a previously unusable material into one of the world’s main sources of energy.

The happiness of recognition

We can know understand the focus on happiness on Sukkot. As the Rambam writes – “The happiness with which a person should rejoice in the fulfillment of the mitzvot and the love of God who commanded them is a great avodah. Whoever holds himself back from this rejoicing is worthy of retribution, as [Deuteronomy 28:47] states: ‘…because you did not serve God, your Lord, with happiness and a glad heart.’” (Hilkhot Lulav, 12:15) The Simcha comes from the infusion of recognition of purpose into the world, into actions that are already being performed – and this infusion of purpose is the default nature of Man. When we become aware of the world around us, as it is, when we can see the connections inherent in the world and can act upon that awareness, we achieve simcha.

The alternative is a mechanical search for happiness, which, of course, always fails. This failure leads to a lack of kavod. Kavod literally means “weightiness”, the feeling that things matter. When infused with proper recognition, things generate their own kavod, their own purpose. When one fails to have such a recognition, one tries to manufacture their own kavod and inevitably fails, as the Rambam tells us in the continuation of that very same halakha – “Whoever holds himself proud, giving himself honor, and acts haughtily in such situations is a sinner and a fool. Concerning this, Solomon warned [Proverbs 28:10]: ‘Do not seek glory before the King.’ [In contrast,] anyone who lowers himself and thinks lightly of his person in these situations is [truly] a great person, worthy of honor, who serves God out of love. Thus, David, King of Israel, declared [II Samuel 6:22]: “I will hold myself even more lightly esteemed than this and be humble in my eyes,” because there is no greatness or honor other than celebrating before God, as [II Samuel 6:16] states: ‘King David was dancing wildly and whistling before God.’”

Here we see the contrast between the humble person – that one who recognises his place in the nature of creation, and that one who seeks kavod, ultimately leading to his own downfall. Either your life is important because you were created and you recognise that fact, or your life will never be important.

The weight of a soul

We can now understand the intimate connection between death and simcha. It is death that provides life with meaning. The finitude of the world creates a natural pressure, a drive to create and achieve, to fill that lack that death has created in the world. Simcha allows for us to fill this lack in the proper way. “It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for that is the end of every man, and the living shall take this to heart.” (Kohelet 7:2)

When we recognise the finality of death, we are spurred to see our own end, and appreciate what we’ve been given. For our lives are a gift, a gift that we had no right to receive and will relinquish when the time comes. The time in the middle is ours to fill – we can choose to fill this time with becoming and growing into the space that we were meant to occupy, to affect the world in the small way that we can, to connect to Hakadosh Baruch Hu by using what we were given and recognising its inherent value, and thus live in simcha. Or, we can choose to rage against our lives, to forfeit all the opportunities that our lives have afforded us, and try and create our own life, our own kavod. Ultimately, says Hashem, we will fail. True kavod, weightiness, mattering to the world, comes from living your particular life, with its particular challenges and gifts, in a way that recognises and connects it to its source, God.

This is why the Rambam brings David HaMelekh as an example of one who was truly happy – he didn’t force his life, he didn’t kill Sha’ul when he had the chance, he didn’t seize the throne when it was rightfully his. Rather, he responded in each situation without trying to force things to happen, allowing life to take its course and doing the best he could in each situation. “Thus, David, King of Israel, declared [II Samuel 6:22]: “I will hold myself even more lightly esteemed than this and be humble in my eyes,” because there is no greatness or honor other than celebrating before God, as [II Samuel 6:16] states: “King David was dancing wildly and whistling before God.””

There is another wonderful connection to Sukkot here. There is a machloket between Tannaim (Sukkot 11a) about whether or not the pasuk – “For a seven day period you shall live in sukkot. Every resident among the Israelites shall live in sukkot, in order that your [ensuing] generations should know that I had the children of Israel live in sukkot when I took them out of the land of Egypt. I am the Lord, your God.” (Vayikra 23:42-43) – is referring to actual Sukkot or to the Ananei HaKavod, the clouds of Glory that followed the Jews around in the desert. We can now understand the meaning behind the opinion that the Sukkot were the Ananei HaKavod – by stepping out of our normal lives into the Sukkot, we step, in a sense, out of the world and are able to take a look around with open, non-prejudiced eyes, and to see things for what they are, to recognise the true source of kavod in the world.

We now come full circle and understand that the two aspects of Sukkot are not contradictory; on the contrary, they complement one another! One who grants himself kavod will ultimately fail, “for what is the man who will come after the king”. However, one who recognises that חדוות ה׳ היא מעוזכם “the joy of the Lord is your strength” (Nehemia 8:10) that true simcha comes from fitting and recognising one’s place in Hashem’s creation, will flourish. “The end of the matter, everything having been heard, fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the entire man.” (Kohelet 12:13)

[1] Even the sukkah itself has to be built from dead things: פסולת גורן ויקב

[2] Indeed, the word קהלת which deals with these issues, means “gathering”, another synonym for אסיפה.

[3] See the usage of the root אסף to mean death:

בראשית פרק כה

(ח) וַיִּגְוַ֨ע וַיָּ֧מָת אַבְרָהָ֛ם בְּשֵׂיבָ֥ה טוֹבָ֖ה זָקֵ֣ן וְשָׂבֵ֑עַ וַיֵּאָ֖סֶף אֶל־עַמָּֽיו:

בראשית פרק כה

(יז) וְאֵ֗לֶּה שְׁנֵי֙ חַיֵּ֣י יִשְׁמָעֵ֔אל מְאַ֥ת שָׁנָ֛ה וּשְׁלֹשִׁ֥ים שָׁנָ֖ה וְשֶׁ֣בַע שָׁנִ֑ים וַיִּגְוַ֣ע וַיָּ֔מָת וַיֵּאָ֖סֶף אֶל־עַמָּֽיו:

בראשית פרק מט

(לג) וַיְכַ֤ל יַעֲקֹב֙ לְצַוֹּ֣ת אֶת־בָּנָ֔יו וַיֶּאֱסֹ֥ף רַגְלָ֖יו אֶל־הַמִּטָּ֑ה וַיִּגְוַ֖ע וַיֵּאָ֥סֶף אֶל־עַמָּֽיו:

דברים פרק לב

(נ) וּמֻ֗ת בָּהָר֙ אֲשֶׁ֤ר אַתָּה֙ עֹלֶ֣ה שָׁ֔מָּה וְהֵאָסֵ֖ף אֶל־עַמֶּ֑יךָ כַּֽאֲשֶׁר־מֵ֞ת אַהֲרֹ֤ן אָחִ֙יךָ֙ בְּהֹ֣ר הָהָ֔ר וַיֵּאָ֖סֶף אֶל־עַמָּֽיו:

[4] See the following sources:

שמות פרק כג פסוק טז

וְחַ֤ג הַקָּצִיר֙ בִּכּוּרֵ֣י מַעֲשֶׂ֔יךָ אֲשֶׁ֥ר תִּזְרַ֖ע בַּשָּׂדֶ֑ה וְחַ֤ג הָֽאָסִף֙ בְּצֵ֣את הַשָּׁנָ֔ה בְּאָסְפְּךָ֥ אֶֽת־מַעֲשֶׂ֖יךָ מִן־ הַשָּׂדֶֽה:

פסיקתא זוטרתא (לקח טוב) שמות פרשת כי תשא פרק לד סימן כב

וחג האסיף. זהו חג הסכות, שהוא זמן אסיפת כל תבואת השדה: תקופת השנה. ולהלן הוא אומר וחג האסיף בצאת השנה (שמות כג טז), למדנו לתקופה שהיא סוף, שנאמר ויהי לתקופת הימים ותהר חנה (ש”א א כ):

– Length: