The Partial Happiness of Sukkot

lulav_etrogBy Yaakov Mascetti*

There is a general understanding that “happiness” is an emotion experienced by the individual upon attaining complete satisfaction – the state of perpetual search, of yearning, and of disjointedness is, on the contrary, seen as one of tribulation, and of lack of happiness. According to this logic, utter individuality is synonymous with solitude and dissatisfaction, while the cohesive unity of the collective, in which the individual is rid of her yoke of subjectivity, brings happiness and support. Contemporary social realities seem to have tested various models, variations between these two poles, between the totalizing collective and the utter celebration of the individual. Sukkot and the imparted happiness that comes with it, may be considered as the alternative model to my rather polarized and schematic definition here above. Happiness as neither the outcome of absolute fullness or of an exasperated lack, but rather as the true offspring of a balanced partiality wherein the individual and the collective coexist in a state of fragile and tense equilibrium.

The feast of Sukkot is mentioned in Leviticus 23: 39-43:

39 Mark, on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the yield of your land, you shall observe the festival of the LORD [to last] seven days: a complete rest on the first day, and a complete rest on the eighth day.

40 On the first day you shall take the product of hadar trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the LORD your God seven days.

41 You shall observe it as a festival of the LORD for seven days in the year; you shall observe it in the seventh month as a law for all time, throughout the ages.

42 You shall live in booths seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in booths,

43 in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I the LORD your God.

The gathering of the four species for the lulav and the ensuing requirement to rejoice “before the Lord” (verse 40), and the commandment to live in huts for seven days (42), and the exodus (43), are all connected into one thread of thought in these verses quoted here above. Rav Samson Refael Hirsch (1808-1888) emphasizes the clear connection postulated by the text between the lulav and the apparently consequential rejoicing of the individual before God – “the commandment imparting to ‘take for yourselves’ was addressed to each and every one on the Israelites within the borders of the land, immediately on the first day of the holiday, and is the opening act for the rejoicing ‘before the Lord your God for seven days.'” Rav Hirsch then proceeds with a staggering close-reading of the above-mentioned verses, focusing on the connection made there between the happiness of the individual and his obligation to take the four species and put them together in an act of joy:

“Yet the one truly full existential happiness… will not be attained by the individual if he only relates to his household, no matter how luxurious it may be. For he will find happiness only ‘before the Lord’: as the whole people gathers before the Lord in his Sanctuary, individuality merges into the collective, as the will and experiences become one. The individual is nothing but a part of a collective that obeys to the commandments of the Torah, and his most intimate yearning is to be one of the stones in the large building, a building whose project is the Torah and whose architect is God… For only in relation to God will the individual supply to his lacks and find his completeness. And all the yearnings and ambitions of the individual’s will find their eternal realization only within the collective. Whether he sinks into the depths of sadness or he soars to heights of happiness, he will have to remember his place within the collective, and as he takes into his hand the token of that variegated social entity he signifies his being part of the people of God in God’s sanctuary – only then will he experience what the Torah calls rejoicing before the Lord.”

The lulav is, in Rav Hirsch’s interpretation, a sign of variety within a complex and collective unity, and as he seems to be saying here, is required to annul his particularity within or merge it with, the collective. But while there is this pull for the absolute and all-encompassing experiences in the sanctuary, Rav Hirsch seems to be also aware of the existence of a variety within that unity (the variety of the four species of the lulav), despite the fact that, as I have translated in a rather approximative way here above, he appears to be tendentially in favor of a total merging with the collective. The sanctuary is built with stones, and upon attaining an enlightened state of mind, each individual sees himself or herself as one of those stones, part of a larger plan designed by a universal architect.

Does that have to be the case? Must the individual really abandon his own personal distinctive traits in the name of a collective cohesion? The verses I quoted above seem to point in another direction, pace Rav Hirsch. Indeed the Divine commandment is addressed to the plural you, to each and every one of the Israelites – and yet that general state of joy is part of a larger picture called the feast of Sukkot, a joy to be experienced and expressed before the Lord, as each one of the citizens is required to live in huts. The galvanizing sense of collective cohesion is, I wish to argue, broken, discontinued by the paradoxical requirement to live seven days in provisional housing. The collective joy, furthermore, fails to establish a state of communion with God, for it can only be expressed “before the Lord,” while the celebration of the feast establishes a circumferential disposition of the people around God (a pun on the expression “ve-chagotem,” where “la-hug” in Hebrew means to go around something). The collective is, as Rav Hirsch states, a gathering of individuals – yet those subjects cannot lose themselves, but must rather establish, each and every one of them, a unique a specific relation with the Lord, like the different points on the circumference which are equidistant from the center. The species are always four, and even when bound into one well-wrought collective, they maintain their specificity – each category is necessary, each species is unique, even when the group is established. We may therefore want to argue that the happiness of this feast is not one of complete gratification, but rather of a systematized partiality, where the booths come to temper the intoxicating effects of an unbridled joy, while the Lord is always before the individual and not with the individual. Redemption, both individual and collective, both within the hands of the Israelite as he shakes the lulav and as the people are brought out of the land of Egypt, is thus a result of the acknowledgment and containment of that tension. And since Rav Hirsch uses the allegory of the sanctuary built with stones in order to shed light on his idea of a cohesive society and of a collective-oriented individuality, I would like to conclude with John Milton’s famous use of the same concept in his Areopagitica (1644):

Yet these are the men cried out against for schismatics and sectaries; as if, while the temple of the Lord was building, some cutting, some squaring the marble, others hewing the cedars, there should be a sort of irrationall men who could not consider there must be many schisms and many dissections made in the quarry and in the timber, ere the house of God can be built. And when every stone is laid artfully together, it cannot be united into a continuity, it can but be contiguous in this world; neither can every peece of the building be of one form; nay rather the perfection consists in this, that out of many moderat varieties and brotherly dissimilitudes that are not vastly disproportionall arises the goodly and the graceful symmetry that commends the whole pile and structure. Let us therefore be more considerat builders, more wise in spirituall architecture, when great reformation is expected.

Milton’s templar structure, presented as the allegory of an enlightened nationhood, rises out of differences that are refined by the enlightening influence of the Spirit from their state of sinful imperfection of “vastly disproportional” differences, an extreme and self-possessing state of individualism, into the partial perfection of a “brotherly” heterogeneity which conveys a “good and graceful symmetry” to the “whole pile and structure.” Empowered by the “liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience,” the pneumatological freedom of Milton’s citizen works with charity and faith for the undermining of license, fear, and the “iron yoke of outward conformity,” the utter disunion imposed by a “gross conforming stupidity” and its urge for a “rigid external formality,” in the establishment of what Paul calls in Eph. 4:3 the “bond of peace”.

Kohele t, of course, is a major contribution to the establishment of this partial rejoicing, but that is a whole other topic which I will leave for another piece.

May we all rejoice in the Divine as we perceive it in the face of the other, in her or his specificity, as we gradually refine our perception to see both the single species and the gathered lulav as one, within the framework of temporary and ephemeral nature of the sukkah. The Divine is not in the totality of presence, but is rather found in the partiality of the individual sphere and within the framework of a complex, variegated and fragile equilibrium with a collective.

*Yaakov Mascetti holds a Ph.D. and teaches at the Department of Comparative Literature, Bar Ilan University.