Joy – Sukkot


We are commanded in the Torah to be joyful on the festivals, as it says ושמחת בחגך (דברים טז, יד).

The Sefer HaChinuch (סימן תפח) tries to clarify exactly what it means to be “joyful”. He connects this mitzva with the mitzva of bringing a korban Shlamim in the Beit Hamikdash and uses a Gemara in Chagiga (6b) as proof that this mitzva is incumbent on both men and women. Bringing the continuation of this Gemara (Chagiga 8a), the Sefer HaChinuch says that this mitzva also involves – eating meat, drinking wine, wearing new clothes, giving fruit and “sweets”(?) to the children and the women and, when the Beit Hamikdash existed, also to play various musical instruments in the Beit Hamikdash, specifically mentioning Simchat Beit Hasho’eva on Sukkot. He brings another Gemara (Pesachim 109a) that the meaning of “joy” when the Beit Hamikdash existed – was to eat the meat of the korban Shlamim, but now that the Beit Hamikdash no longer exists, the meaning of “joy” is for the men to drink wine and for the women to dress in nice clothes. The Sefer HaChinuch ends by saying that the Torah warns us to also include the poor, the converts and the weak, as it says אתה והלוי והגר והיתום והאלמנה.

This מצוות עשה applies to all the festivals equally – Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot. However, unlike Pesach, which is called זמן חרותנו and Shavuot, which is called זמן מתן תורתנו, Sukkot is not defined by a specific “historical event”, but rather by the more “generic” זמן שמחתנו, seeming to indicate that chag Sukkot is not celebrated to “remember a specific occurrence” (although in the Torah it does mention that HKB”H “placed” us in Sukkot when we left Egypt – as the reason we celebrate this chag - but if so we should sit in sukkot during the month of Nisan, when we left Egypt. See the shiur on Haazinu).

From this it would appear that Sukkot has an “added edge” when it comes to “joy”, as is hinted at in the special mention by the Sefer HaChinuch regarding Simchat Beit Hasho’eva and Sukkot.

In this shiur I would like to peel away a few layers and try to understand in more depth what “joy” really means, in general and specifically on Sukkot.

We all know the verse from Tehilim (100, 2) עִבְדוּ אֶת ה' בְּשִׂמְחָה וכו' which seems to indicate that there is a מצוות עשה to serve HKB”H out of “joy”. However, if you search Sefer HaChinuch, which lists and discusses all 613 mitzvot, for this specific מצוות עשה, you will not find it. There is no “stand alone” מצוות עשה that specifically addresses serving HKB”H out of joy (with the exception of the mitzva above specifically regarding the chagim).

This question is addressed by the Mefarshim and the consensus is that the reason that there is no “separate” mitzva to serve HKB”H out of joy, is because in fact ALL the mitzvot embody this requirement – it is a prerequisite for ALL of the mitzvot in the Torah and is learnt from the negative, from the passuk in the klalot in parshat Ki Tavo (Devarim 28, 47) תַּחַת אֲשֶׁר לֹא עָבַדְתָּ אֶת ה' אֱ-לֹקֶיךָ בְּשִׂמְחָה וּבְטוּב לֵבָב מֵרֹב כֹּל – that we are receiving the curses because we did not serve HKB”H out of joy.

In other words, “joy” is the default, it is the state of mind which is the starting point in our service of HKB”H, or at least – should be!

If this is the case, why do we need a specific mitzva to have joy on the chagim? If “joy” is assumed and applicable to all the mitzvot, such a mitzva would appear to be superfluous, since it is already implied in ALL the mitzvot, including the chagim.

The answer to the conundrum lies is the space between the theory and the reality. In theory, HKB”H created us with a “default” specification, that we are required to serve Him out of “joy”. However, the reality is not so “simple”. To achieve “true joy”, the “joy” that HKB”H requires from us in our service of Him, is not so easy to apply and the reason for that is - because we have a yetzer harah.

As explained in my shiur on Devarim, the yetzer harah is an angel with an absolute sense of אמת. The yetzer harah, like the other angels, lives in Heaven where everything is run according to מידת הדין, unlike here on earth, in this world, where HKB”H rules over us with מידת הרחמים. HKB”H saw fit to place specifically this angel, the yetzer harah, (also known as the שטן, the מלאך המוות or by the abbreviation of his name ס"מ), in charge of the 5th level in Heaven called מעון, which is the storehouse of “joy”. Why specifically this angel in charge of a treasury that seems to epitomize the opposite of his nature? Perhaps because this specific angel had the original טענה against creating man in the first place, perhaps HKB”H put him in charge of making sure that man would meet the expectations HKB”H had when He created man.  If HKB”H designed man by default to serve Him out of joy, then it becomes clear why HKB”H is so uncompromising in this respect and appointed an angel who is equally uncompromising, totally “black and white” and without sentiment when it comes to evaluating and enforcing our service of HKB”H out of joy.  

In order to evaluate whether our service of HKB”H is out of “true joy” or out of “artificial joy”, this angel constantly tests us (we sometimes use the expression “tempts us”), by placing us in circumstances where we have to make a choice between “permissible” joy and “forbidden” joy.

Everything that HKB”H created in this world was done so for our benefit, so that we would derive joy from it. There is a “permissible” way to derive joy and there is a “forbidden” way. The yetzer harah constantly tries to test us by making the “forbidden” way appear more attractive than the “permissible” way and it is our job to choose between the two. If we had to rely solely on our own natural instincts in this regard, we would choose poorly. For this reason HKB”H gave us the Torah, which tells us - what is permissible and what is forbidden, so we can choose wisely. The yetzer harah is the “counter weight” to the Torah to ensure that we choose freely and wisely and if we don’t, he holds us accountable – totally accountable (it is not for nothing that he is called מלאך המוות). This is the fabric of HKB”H’s world, to ensure free choice.

 It is therefore understandable that HKB”H created man with biology and physiology which is capable of experiencing the concept of joy, both the permissible and the forbidden kind. Every possible type of joy that a human can experience exists in both forms – the permissible and the forbidden - and in most cases they are separated by a “hair’s breadth”. They both have the identical biological and physiological mechanism in the body, but what separates them is the metaphysical.

To illustrate, two examples (of many):

Food. I have met very few people who despise chocolate cake (preferably with chocolate chips added). When a person eats chocolate cake (with chocolate chips added), they experience joy. They cannot help it. Physiologically, on a chemical level in the body, the chemical reactions that take place in the digestive system, that subsequently stimulate hormonal reactions in the brain, (due to the chemical compounds in the flour, the chocolate, etc.) stimulate areas of the brain that interpret them as “pleasure”. Science has only begun to scratch the surface of the complexity of the human organism, but has already identified certain regions in the brain that are termed “pleasure centers”, which are activated by various neurotransmitters (hormones) such as dopamine, endorphins, serotonin, oxytocin, etc. that scientists call the “feel good” hormones. A person who eats a slice of chocolate cake cannot help but feel joy. It is one of the many mechanisms that HKB”H “programmed” our bodies with. The question is not what transpires after we swallow a slice of chocolate cake, that is a given. The question is what transpires when we are presented with a slice of chocolate cake? According to the fabric of our world, (that HKB”H also designed and programmed), we are faced with a free choice. On the one hand we have the counter-balance, the yetzer harah chiming in – “You know you like chocolate cake! What are you waiting for? Eat it already! You know it makes you feel good! You know that you are going to eat it all anyway, even if you do it in stages! If Hashem didn’t want you to eat chocolate cake, he wouldn’t have given man the know-how to make chocolate cake! If you don’t take the slice, someone else will and then you will be left with nothing!” On the other side, we have the “voice of reason”, the teachings of the Torah also chiming in – “There is no problem to eat the chocolate cake, if Hashem didn’t want you to eat chocolate cake, he would not have given you the wisdom to be able to make it. However, before you eat it, first make a bracha with kavanah, thanking HKB”H for the chocolate cake. Also, while we are at it, you know there is a mitzva – ונשמרתם מאד לפשותיכם and you know that you already had a piece of chocolate cake for breakfast. Do you really need this piece of cake now? If you go overboard, you will put on weight and harm your health.”

Sex: There are few pleasures in this world that rival the “pleasures of the flesh”. When a person engages in the various stages of the “pleasures of the flesh”, they experience joy, whether it is the joy of sight, the joy of smell, the joy of touch. HKB”H designed men and women that way for a purpose – קיום העולם. If it was a hardship, the world would cease to exist, because nobody would want to do it and it wouldn’t happen. Again, you have the same conversation going on, on both sides. The yetzer harah – “What harm can it do to look, it’s not like you are actually ‘doing’ anything? So what that there is nobody else around, you are a responsible adult, you can control yourself! Really dood! you are going to be a cretin and not smile back? Where are your basic manners? What harm can just one more glass of wine do? You know how to hold your liquor!” The Torah – “There is no problem with this at all, as long as …… it is your wife, it is the appropriate time of the month, the week, it is consensual, etc.”

Partaking of the “forbidden” kinds of joy is basically equivalent to גזל – stealing something that does not belong to us. The yetzer harah is an expert at minimizing this. “What did you really do? You ate a slice of chocolate cake without saying a bracha! Big whoop! It’s not as if you committed armed robbery and held up an armored car and stole a million bucks or something! There is no statute of limitations against eating chocolate cake!”

Since the various forms of joy stimulate the pleasure centers in the brain, partaking of them in the “forbidden” form develops addictions. A major purpose of the Torah regarding the “permissible” forms of joy is directed at preventing addictions. Someone who forms an addiction subsequently finds it extremely hard to reverse. This is the way the yetzer harah works – he causes you to develop addictions. We don’t tend to think of anger issues, looking at things we shouldn’t, etc. as addictions of the same scale as heroin or alcohol addictions, but they are exactly the same and need to be remedied in the same way, by the same professionals as for drug or alcohol addiction, with psychological and/or medical help.

We experience millions of these nexus interactions throughout our life, many of which transpire in mere milliseconds. And always it is the same pattern – the yetzer harah pushing us down the path of “Here! Now! You are going to miss out! You are not going to live forever ….” And the voice of reason of the Torah pushing us in the direction of “Think carefully before you do this! Do you really need it? What harm are you causing by doing this?”

In 99.9% of cases you can experience joy in either case, whichever voice you choose to listen to. The Torah does not advocate leading lives of a monk or a nun! The Torah does not deny us the pleasures of this world. It encourages us to live life to the full, to eat, to drink, to listen to music, to look at beautiful things, to enjoy aromas, to experience all the joy that exists in this world - within the confines of the Torah. That is the hair’s breadth. It is mamash a hair’s breadth, not like the yetzer harah would have us believe - that the two are separated by a chasm, they are not! In 99.9% of the cases the difference is “livable” and in most cases the joy we eventually get by waiting or refraining far surpasses the fleeting, short lived “joy” we experience if we don’t. 

This is the job of the yetzer harah, to evaluate whether you can distinguish “permissible” joy from the “forbidden” kind and to hold you accountable if you cannot. 

It would be so much easier if we had no free choice and there was no yetzer harah to contend with. However, at the same time - the שכר would be substantially less. The enormous שכר we receive for controlling our yetzer harah is immeasurable, not perhaps in the short-term, fleeting framework of this world, but definitely in the framework of the bigger picture of eternity!

HKB”H gives us the gift of life for a very short time, 70 years, 80 years (95 years if we are extremely lucky) and being born is like - winning the lottery! HKB”H gives us a proverbial “supermarket cart” and says “Ready, set, go!” and we have only a short time to run around the mall and fill the cart, because when the buzzer sounds, whatever we have in the cart is what we get to keep. Everywhere we turn we see bright, flashing lights and loud sounds urging us to slow down. “What is the rush? Stop here and relax for a minute, take a breather – enjoy the moment!” Our feet hurt, our back aches – what harm can it do to stop for a second?  To take a load off, to enjoy ourselves! The lights are so bright, so enticing, the sales pitch is so convincing … and we are so weary of the constant superhuman effort. Then suddenly the buzzer sounds – BZZZZZZ! Game over. Time to tally up!

Further up the line we see those with impressive tallies boarding the 747 at gate #1 with a one way ticket, first class, proudly holding in their hands a gilt edged deed to primo real estate on the “good side of town”, while those with smaller tallies, though their bellies are full of innumerable plates of chocolate cake (with chocolate chips added) huddle into economy class, clutching a faded rental contract for a seedier part of town. The term of the contract – FOREVER! And they are pleading with the flight attendant - “Please, just ten minutes more before we board, to fill the cart a little more, 10 seconds, 1 second!” But the buzzer has sounded, time is up and the tally has already been made.

The tally doesn’t always seem fair. You have one person with a full cart who is not even allowed on the plane, while another person with only a tiny crumb in his cart is given front row seats in business class. This is because - the tally is not according to volume, but effort! Someone was born a genius, with millionaire parents and had time to sit all day studying Gemara, so he managed to finish Shas 8,000 times over during his life. 8,000 times!!! Another was born with abusive parents in a slum, surrounded by drug addicts where his only connection to Shas was a faded election flyer plastered on his mailbox. But he managed to hear, (not even understand much), a 5 minute shiur once a week given by a volunteer rabbi at the bus station while waiting for a bus. He could have put on his earphones and listened to rock music on his MP3, but he chose to hear the shiur instead. It’s all about effort, not volume.

This is our life. Millions and millions of fleeting, 1 second (or less) nexuses where we make the choice which voice to listen to, the instant gratification voice or the “boring”, “dull”, “party-pooper” voice.

If only it was that easy to make the right choice!

We love to look at others and their issues (like anger or greed) and scoff - “What is their problem? I do not have any trouble controlling my temper, or my appetite. Why can’t they be like me? They are simply not trying hard enough!” But the scoffer himself has trouble controlling his mouth. For him anger and greed are easy to control, but his mouth is not. This is because the scales are not balanced when we are born. Most of us are here with “baggage” from a previous גלגול, with predispositions to fail in certain areas - anger, pride, selfishness, greed, violence, problems controlling our mouths, our eyes, our hands, our feet, our ears – that we are sent here to fix because the previous גלגולים failed to. It is not a fair game, in fact in most cases the scales are not tipped in our favor to begin with! To fill our carts in such a game seems insurmountable, but what HKB”H requires and what the yetzer harah tallies in the end is – how much effort we made!

Joy is HKB”H’s default. He expects us to serve Him out of “joy”, the permissible type of joy. This does not mean denying ourselves the pleasures of this world, but rather filtering out the clutter of the yetzer harah, who is always pointing us toward the “forbidden” types of joy, that are inevitably louder, brighter, more intense and more appealing than the permissible kind. Modern, western culture is expert at marketing these kinds of “joy”.

The yetzer harah must have “invented” the art of modern advertising, which explicitly aims to “hoodwink” a person into thinking that something is better than it really is. For example, taking a dark, brown colored liquid, carbonating it, pumping it full of sugar (and other chemicals that can melt metal) and advertising this despicable goop as “The Taste of LIFE!” using bright colored logos and billboards, depicting youngsters in the peak of life and health, frolicking with bottles of the stuff. Those who are hoodwinked to actually drinking it – feel really good when they do, because this goop has been designed by chemists to evoke pleasure reactions in the brain!

Real life is not “intense” enough for everyone, so modern western culture seeks to intensify it even more. Hollywood is expert at this, taking real life and amplifying it X1000 to make it more intense. After watching a few movies like that, simple, true, “real love” is no longer enough. According to Hollywood, it has to be love so intense that it is only real if the sunset is a very specific shade of purple-orange and you are standing, hanging over the bow-end of a towering ocean liner, with the waves crashing below you, dolphins bounding, the wind gusting in your hair and a haunting Gaelic Celine Dion melody booming in the background. That is real love! Not surprising how many divorces there are when 99.9% of the people are disappointed they did not end up with that kind of “real” love.

The true reality is much less intense. It has a simple, pure beauty to it that is made by HKB”H, not by man. Man, who cannot come close to making that, tries to misdirect, to bombard you with an onslaught of the senses, to trick you into thinking that this must be the true joy, the true beauty.

Sukkot is called the time of our “joy” because it is on Sukkot we experience what real, true joy is. The Gemara and Chinuch specifically mention it – Simchat Beit Hasho’eva. Chazal say that anyone who has not experienced Simchat Beit Hasho’eva has not experienced true joy in their life.

This is the central feature for the entire nation for Sukkot, perhaps the highlight of the whole year – in the Beit HaMikdash. You would expect them to put on a production the likes of World Eurovision, with world class performers - Justin Bieber for sure, Elvis Presley (or at least a hologram of him), at the very least that tightrope walker who traverses from one skyscraper to the other. Top class lighting and stage layout, with laser effects. The whole shebang!

 Millions pack in to the courtyard, the anticipation is so high you could cut the air with a knife! Silence ….. and then two lonely trumpets sound and look –I can’t believe it! It is Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel juggling with 7 torches (like he did last year, yawn). And there is Yankel singing out of tune (like last year) in the baritone section of the Levi’im choir! And look at that lighting! The same smokey oil torches that smell like old Kohanim clothes (I meant it when I said you could cut the air with a knife). And this is the pinnacle of JOY!? Anyone who never experienced this, never experienced joy in their lives!? What about Elvis, what about that child prodigy singer from American Idol? (OK, perhaps not that – no idols in the Mikdash).

But you see - this was true joy. When I describe it like I have above, it sounds lame! But that is because we have become so conditioned to the sound of the yetzer harah, to the ruses of modern, western culture – that we can no longer distinguish what is real from what is fake!

They never allowed anyone to perform in Simchat Beit Hashoe’va unless they were a Gadol Hador! Because only they knew how to experience TRUE joy and convey it to the rest of Am Yisrael. True joy is not flashing lights and the loudest speakers. True joy is something deep inside us that each and everyone knows (deep inside) us that it is true and this is what we should be attracted to. But we are blindsided by the yetzer harah and his cohorts, who look so “cool”, sound so convincing, so enticing that we silence our deep, inner voice and succumb to the clutter.

The yetzer harah will tell you that the only pepper steak worth eating is in at Chez Henri, 301 Hwy 45 North, Columbus, MS. The sauce there is absolutely honed to perfection and if you get to Heaven at age 85, they ask you if you have had a pepper steak at Chez Henri and if you reply in the negative, you have to go back down in another gilgul. Never mind that Chez Henri is not Kosher! Such a culinary experience overrides kashrut!

The meat that people ate in the Beit Hamikdash on the chagim probably didn’t taste as good as Chez Henri’s pepper steak – it tasted one million times better, because it had a flavor that Chez Henri, in his wildest imagination, could never concoct! This meat was part of a korban Shlamim. Do you know what a korban Shlamim was? It signified peace in Am Yisrael, millions of עולי הרגל bringing a korban Shlamim - each at peace with one another. That is a flavor that is not man made, that is pure joy that only HKB”H can make.

In contrast, today we could enjoy a Chez Henri pepper steak and it would probably stimulate just the right pleasure centers in our brain, but eating it would not be true, lasting joy, it would be a fleeting culinary experience – because in one month’s time we will all be showing up (again) at the poll booths to vote in (I’ve lost count) yet another election – because Am Yisrael is split 60:60 (according to a recent poll by a leading Israeli daily newspaper). So what is true joy? The fleeting ecstasy of eating a treif Chez Henri pepper steak, or eating meat from the korban Shlamim and having all of Am Yisrael unified as one?

What is true joy? Watching a (yes, it is a really cool and technologically amazing) hologram of Elvis Presley or Michael Jackson (who are dead) performing and looking as if they had been resurrected? Or, watching Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel juggling seven flaming torches, with a radiant, ecstatic aura of true joy emanating from every fiber of his being? the same joy as David Hamelech who danced and performed acrobatics when he brought the Aron Habrit to Yerushalayim?

We have been so blindsided by the yetzer harah and his cohorts, we expect “joy” to be something else completely. The false intensity of a Hollywood movie, the same intense chemical reaction engineered to stimulate pleasure centers in our brains. These are not true joy, they are pale reflections of true joy.

Yes, eating meat activates pleasure centers in the brain, whether it is a Chez Henri pepper steak or, lehavdil, a korban Shlamim. It is not for nothing that the Sefer HaChinuch lists a list of material “pleasures” – meat, wine, sweets, fancy clothes etc. that are an integral part of ושמחת בחגיך. True joy doesn’t mean living like a monk or a nun and not partaking of any of these things.

True joy is partaking of them within the confines of the Torah and sidelining the yetzer harah. That is the TRUE JOY! It is a joy of celebrating HKB”H’s creation in all its unaltered-by-man glory and variety, in the form permissible by the Torah, so that when we tally up our carts, we merit business class seats on the plane, with a gilt edged deed to the best real estate in Olam Habah. The joy of Sukkot and Simchat Beit Hasho’eva may lack the Hollywood bells and whistles and the multibillion dollar advertising budget at prime time, but it is REAL, it is pure and it is beautiful, it is not all smoke and mirrors.

This is the joy HKB”H demands of us, not just on Sukkot, but in EVERYTHING we do in our service of Him. It is an honest evaluation of reality, constantly blocking out the clutter of the yetzer harah – and it takes ongoing, enormous effort. If it didn’t, the שכר would not be so great. The שכר is great and if we had any sense, we would grab it with both hands before it is too late.

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