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Parshot/Festivals

The greatest present is the present

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Rabbi Shmuel Kagan, Bnei Akiva

But there is another festival which brings this religious period to a close, and that’s Sukkot, culminating in Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. Sukkot is not only the finale in religious terms, it also marks the end of the agricultural season in Israel. For that reason, it’s known as zman simchateinu (the time of our happiness) because we look back over the past year, and take stock of the produce we have merited. Happiness is an emotion associated with completion and achievement.

Strangely, the mitzvot (good deeds) that are performed on Sukkot symbolise the process, seemingly ignoring the end-point that the festival celebrates. For example, we sit in temporary shelters reminding us of Hashem’s protection through the clouds of glory, as we travelled the desert for 40 years. These miraculous clouds escorted us as we began our journey after we left Egypt until we reached the destination of the promised land.

Secondly, the etrog, the rare citron fruit we wave as part of the four species, was chosen for such a mitzvah because it represents the process. The Gemara in Tractate Sukkah understands the Torah’s description of a “fruit of a beautiful tree” as referring to the etrog because the taste of the fruit is similar to the taste of the tree. The tree represents the medium through which the fruit receives its nourishment and sustenance. The fruit denotes the results as in “the fruits of one’s labour”.

Finally, the Gemara tells us that we haven’t experienced a true simcha (celebration) unless we have witnessed the joy of the Simchat Beit Hasho’eva. This refers to the procession where the water used during the Sukkot libations were transported from the gichon (river) from which it was drawn, to be poured over the altar of the Beit Hamikdash (Temple). The Jewish people sang and danced, escorting this special water through the streets of Jerusalem, the exuberance ending only once it had reached its destination. Usually joy is felt once the journey is completed, but here the end terminates the celebration.

Sukkot, the festival of joy, teaches us an important lesson about happiness. We shouldn’t wait for it. True, the completion of a process brings with it relief and often ecstasy, but we can’t be sure we will reach the end. We need to find meaning and pleasure in the process. We need to recognise accomplishment along the way, and celebrate what we have achieved while we move forward to the finish.

Let us use this special month of Elul not just as a preparation for what’s next, but to find joy in the present. Sukkot is found at the end of this festive season, but its message to us is not to wait for it to find reason for festivity.

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