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by Mendel Starkman    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

Atop a small hill lived a simple man with his family. They lived a rather plain lifestyle, their only income derived from a small vineyard just outside of their house.



Atop a small hill lived a simple man with his family. They lived a rather plain lifestyle, their only income derived from a small vineyard just outside of their house. The man would cut the grapes from the vines, drop them into his wagon and take them to sell in the market. He made a decent living, and was able to support his family’s basic needs.

One day, the man started thinking. He was already producing grapes and he was maintaining a basic income. However, if there was something he could do to the grapes to make them more valuable, he could sell them for more, rewarding himself with higher profits. Then it hit him. Instead of taking the grapes straight to the market, he could squeeze them, ferment the juice, and sell the forthcoming wine for much more than plain grapes. The farmer-turned-entrepreneur immediately got to work on his new idea. Over the course of the year, we publicly read each of the five megillot: Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther.

Each megillah has some connection with the day on which it is read. For example, the megillah of Esther is read on Purim because it relates the story and hidden miracles involved with Purim. Lamentations is read on Tishah B’Av because it laments the destruction of the holy Temple. The question is raised: what is the connection between the megillah of Ecclesiastes, which is read on Sukkot, and the festival itself? In this megillah, King Solomon downplays the pleasures of this world. He discusses how they are "hevel -- void of meaning and fulfillment." He concludes with the famous advice to "fear Hashem and guard His mitzvot, for this is Man’s whole duty" (Ecclesiastes 12:13).

The only worthwhile pursuit is to perform Hashem’s mitzvot because this was Man’s purpose in the creation. What do these messages have to do with the joyful festival of Sukkot? In order to answer this question, we must first understand what Sukkot is all about. The Rambam, one of the leading Torah scholars of the Middle Ages, points out that while there is a mitzvah to be happy during all of our festivals, the event of the Simchat Beit HaShoevah caused extra rejoicing during Sukkot. This rejoicing was centered around the water libations. On each evening of the intermediate days of Sukkot, people would gather in the Temple.

Live music was played with various instruments and people would dance and sing praises to Hashem. The festivities of the Simchat Beit HaShoevah were so great that the Talmud attests that one who has not witnessed it has never seen real festivities (Tractate Sukkah 51a). However, the Rambam adds, not everyone actively participated. The only ones who danced and sang were the great sages of Israel, the heads of the yeshivot, the Sanhedrin and the like. Everyone else came to watch and listen. Rabbi Dovid Soloveitchik points out that the Simchat Beit HaShoevah was not a frivolous experience. It involved a special kind of joy -- a joy about being involved in performing Hashem’s mitzvot. This effect was compounded by having the sages actively rejoice, as this channeled the people’s delight to be in relation to the mitzvot. The Rambam explains that the joy in performing mitzvot is true joy, in its purest form. A person should not perform them as a burden which he is forced to do.

Rather, he should act with gladness and ease, knowing that he is fulfilling his purpose in creation. We were put here to serve our Creator by doing His mitzvot. Fulfilling that purpose should elicit true joy. While physical pleasures are dependent on outside factors, the happiness involved in mitzvot stems directly from the mitzvah itself. Other pleasures are superficial and temporary, while mitzvot are true and fulfilling. This feeling is a very important aspect of our Divine service. In fact, the Orchos Tzaddikim, an anonymous classic work on Jewish ethics, explains that a mitzvah performed with joy is a thousand times greater than one that is treated as a burden. Rabbi Dovid Soloveitchik explains that with these ideas, we can understand why we read the megillah of Ecclesiastes on Sukkot. We know that Sukkot is a time for happiness. However, we also know that the joy experienced during Sukkot was a spiritual experience that was based on mitzvot -- not superficial, physical factors. In order for a person to feel this unique, spiritually based joy, one must first step back from the pleasures and desires of this world. This is what the megillah of Ecclesiastes is all about and is why it is specifically read on Sukkot. Once we take to heart its lesson that this world is temporary and unfulfilling, we can then learn to experience a new level of joy, through the performance Hashem’s mitzvot. This is the special happiness involved in the festival of Sukkot.

There is a law about Jewish festivals that does not seem to fit with this philosophy. The Code of Jewish Law (529:2-3) states that the proper way to celebrate during our festivals differs for different categories of people, depending on what makes them happy. Men should rejoice with meat and wine, women should have new clothes and children should be given candies, in accordance with one’s means. In this way, each group will be happy in their own way. Rabbi Isaac Sher, an early 20th century Torah scholar, asks that we know the joy one should have during our festivals is spiritually based. It should be a joy that is saturated with Torah learning, and with fear and love of Hashem.

Yet, the happiness discussed in this law seems instead to be a joy in feeding one’s physical desire for food and luxuries! How can this be the proper way to approach our festivals? Rabbi Sher answers that the mitzvah to rejoice during our festivals is very unique. While many mitzvot involve actions, like putting on tefillin, rejoicing is more of an emotional mitzvah. Each mitzvah has two parts: the mitzvah itself, and the intention to be performing that task for the sake of Hashem.

For example, with tefillin, there is the action of actually wrapping the leather straps around one’s arm and head. Then, there is the additional intention that the tefillin are being worn specifically in order to fulfill this mitzvah. The same two-part formula is necessary for emotionally based mitzvos as well. The emotion takes the place of the action, and must be felt strongly -- almost as if this emotion were itself an action. In addition to this feeling, there is also the second aspect that one intends to fulfill a particular mitzvah. However, unlike a physical mitzvah, it can be difficult to make one’s self feel the proper emotion. We are supposed to be happy during our festivals, but it can be hard to actually make ourselves feel that way. Only special individuals are able to feel tremendous joy about the festival itself. However, a good portion of the Jewish population has trouble. Therefore, the Code of Jewish Law tells us to eat or buy new clothes. This way, we will cause ourselves to feel happy, creating the necessary level of emotion. Understandably, men, women and children eachhave a different medium to cause themselves to feel this way. Once we have that emotion, we can apply the intention that we are fulfilling the mitzvah of being happy during our festivals.

Essentially, we have created joy and channeled it to be for the sake of Hashem. In this way, the law to have certain physical pleasures during our festivals does not contradict the spiritual joy that we are supposed to experience. Rather, it is a means through which we can cause ourselves to have joy, for a spiritual purpose. Mitzvot can be viewed in a way similar to the farmer’s grapes.

The grapes are valuable, but they can be made even more valuable if they are turned into wine. Likewise, our mitzvot are themselves already tremendously valuable. Imagine how much greater they become when they are performed with joy! With the proper outlook, we can enhance the mitzvot that we already perform to make them so much more valuable. May we all take this lesson from Sukkot and increase our levels of joy, especially when we are performing Hashem’s mitzvos.


Mendel Starkman, a native Atlantan, is studying at the Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim in New York.

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