Sukkos: The Antidote To A Year Of Covid-19

On one level, the Yomim Noraim were already the antidote to the tzaros of 5780. Hopefully we’ve done teshuvah for the past, been forgiven, and are in store, G-d willing, for a much better year. Even the simcha of Sukkos can be seen as a remedy for the malaise of a dark and difficult year. But I believe that there is a much deeper reason to look to Sukkos for a corrective and even panacea for the depression, anxiety and distress that have plagued us for most of last year.

Let us begin and end with a tiny but telling vignette from the life of the Brisker Rov zt”l. He was walking in Yerushalayim with some talmidim and noticed a sweet group of children playing happily, the delight readily visible on their shining faces. “Do you know why children play so cheerfully?” he asked his accompaniers. “The answer is,” continued the Rov, “that all of creation is permeated by simcha. Young children are still close to creation; they are therefore full of joy. As we grow and age, we become ever more distant from creation and so our joy in life diminishes” (Rav Moshe Mordechai Shulsinger, Peninei Maran Hagriz).

To understand these profound words, we must analyze the source of joy in general and the special joy of creation, according to the Torah.

The posuk (Divrei Hayomim I 16:28) teaches us, “Glory and majesty are before Him; might and joy are in His place.” Chazal (Chagigah 5b) derive from here that “there is no sadness before Hashem.” They also rule that “the Shechinah does not rest out of depression, but only out of the joy of performing a mitzvah” (Pesachim 114a). Obviously, when Hashem created the universe, before sin marred His work, all was perfect, serene and full of joy. This concept is reflected halachically when we offer a chosson and a kallah at sheva barachos the blessing of “shehasimcha bime’ono.” The Aruch Hashulchan (Hilchos Kiddushin 62:40) codifies that “we mention the joy in heaven because in this world the joy is never complete; only in heaven is it perfect.” Thus, we can begin to understand the Brisker Rov’s appreciation of children playing happily because they are closer to creation. We asked during the recent days of Selichos, “Please answer us because of the innocent children who have not sinned.” Those who have not sinned are indeed closer to the perfection of creation, before anyone transgressed the word of the Creator.

However, to connect this to the fundamental joy of Sukkos, we must look even deeper. The Mishnah (Sukkah 51a) states emphatically that “whoever has not seen the joy of Simchas Bais Hashoeivah [on Sukkos in the Bais Hamikdash] has never witnessed true joy.” The Medrash (quoted by Rabbeinu Bachya, Vayikra 2:13; Bereishis Rabbah 5:4) reveals that the source of this unique exaltation may be found in creation itself. The nisuch hamayim – pouring of the waters upon the mizbeach – was a consolation to the cry of the waters below on the second day of creation. Hashem declared (Bereishis 1:6), “Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it separate between water and water.” Rashi comments that “this was a barrier between the waters above and the waters below.” The Medrash is more specific: “The waters below cried, ‘We, too, want to be near the King.’” Hashem therefore ordained that it be only the subterranean waters that would be poured onto the altar every Sukkos.

What is the eternal significance of this primordial cry and the Creator’s response?  My rebbi, Rav Yitzchok Hutner ztl, explains (Pachad Yitzchok, Rosh Hashanah, Maamar 13) that there are tears of teshuvah (Tehillim 119:136) and there are tears of joy. He explains, in a depth beyond the scope of this essay, that “the tears of happiness testify to a far deeper joy than that which is reflected by a smiling face.” The requiting of the waters below when they are poured on the mizbeiach results in the ineffable joy of Simchas Bais Hashoeivah. That profound ecstasy is the result of the yearning and attainment of closeness after an apparent rejection. It is the joy of rebellion that has been transformed into submissiveness and humility. It is the joy Rabbeinu Yonah speaks of (Shaarei Teshuvah 4:8) when he evokes the “happiness of the baal teshuvah when he receives his forgiveness.” This sublime joy is rooted in creation itself, as the Brisker Rov noted in the smiling faces of the children who are still close to the creation in its pristine perfection.

Rav Yonasan David takes this concept even further by considering the words we utter throughout Tishrei morning and night. From Elul through Sukkos, we speak of our longing for Hashem: “One thing I asked of Hashem…that I dwell in the house of Hashem all the days of my life…Conceal not Your presence from me.” We also beg throughout Tishrei, “Do not throw me away from before You and do not remove your holy spirit from me.” We borrow Dovid Hamelech’s passionate plea to Hashem to return to His good graces. This concept flows from the return of the waters that have gone so low and then rose to the highest place of honor on Hashem’s altar in the Bais Hamikdosh (Kuntrus Sukkos, Maamar 10:7, page 50).

We can now better understand the honored place of Maftir Yonah before Ne’ilah on Yom Kippur. Yonah is known as the novi of teshuvah, since he brings the entire city of Ninveh to repentance. However, Yonah is also the one who became a prophet at the Simchas Bais Hashoeivah in the Bais Hamikdosh (Yerushalmi, Sukkah 5:1; Tosafosi, Sukkah 50b). The Gemara there concludes that “this [the story of Yonah] teaches us that ruach hakodesh – the spirit of Hashem – only rests upon a joyous heart. Not only is this the statement of Rav Yonah about Yonah the novi, but it is Rabbeinu Yonah (Shaarei Teshuvah, ibid.) who reveals to us the connection between teshuvah and true joy.

We may add another teaching of Rabbeinu Yonah that brings all this together.

The Gemara (Sukkah 53a) records that there were two distinct songs rendered at the Simchas Bais Hashoeivah. Those who had always been religious and perfect sang, “Fortunate is our youth, which did not embarrass our old age.” The baalei teshuvah sang, “Fortunate is our old age, which has atoned for our youth.” Rav Moshe Chevroni asks: How could the always-righteous sing with such apparent arrogance, declaring their lifelong perfection?

His answer is that Chazal (Shir Hashirim Rabbah 5:3) expound that Hashem asks of His children, “Just open for Me a tiny door of teshuvah and I will open [giant gates] for you.” Rabbeinu Yonah (beginning of Shaarei Teshuvah) gives chizuk to those who fear that they are too far gone to repent: “Hashem helps those who do teshuvah even if they are basically incapable of doing so. However, He awakens in them a pure spirit to receive the great gift of His love.”

Rav Chevroni concludes that there is no arrogance here. The baalei teshuvah were expressing their resounding gratitude to Hashem for helping them repent. This is not a contradiction to free will, for “one who wishes to become purified is helped by heaven.” Thus, Rabbeinu Yonah, true to his word, encourages us to take that first tiny step. Just as at the Simchas Bais Hashoeivah Yonah became a prophet by attending, we can all borrow the joy of Sukkos to return to Hashem’s patiently waiting open arms.

On Sukkos, we can all become happy children once again. All we have to do is take a baby step and Hashem will do the rest. We can return to creation to discover the water that rises from the depths to the heights. Yes, children are closer to creation because each moment to them is a new exciting adventure. It is an opportunity for greatness, despite where and what we have been.

Yes, Sukkos is the long-sought antidote to Covid-19, because we can cast away our discontent by entering Hashem’s private abode.

The Shechinah is in the sukkah, although it doesn’t seem royal from the outside. We welcome our giants of the past and sing joyously with them. They are our ancestors and we are their children. We can relax and bask in their holiness, because we have returned to the moment of creation, when the lowest became the highest and our smiles and laughter returned.

A gutten Yom Tov to all.