V'samachta b'chagecha -- "and you shall rejoice on your festivals" -- is a mitzvah that applies to all three pilgrimage festivals. Of the three, we can find cause for joyful celebration on Passover and Shavuot, for both mark events that were central to Israel's emergence and continued existence as a people -- the Exodus from Egypt and the giving of the Torah.
On Sukkot, however, no such monumental event occurred. Yet we are enjoined to rejoice for joy's sake; and beyond that this is the one holiday that is described as "the time of our joy."
How is one to achieve this happiness? What is to inspire it? Isn't there something forced and unnatural in picking a time and saying, "Now let us rejoice"?
THE KEY TO HAPPINESS
The Hebrew language is not rich in synonyms, yet it has 10 words to describe happiness.
The Malbim explains that simchah, "happiness," is distinguished from the other terms that express this idea, in that simchah is constant, as opposed to gila, for instance, which denotes a sudden spurt of joy. The Vilna Gaon explains further that simchah is the inner state of happiness, rather than its outward expression.
The Kotzker Rebbe was known to say: "One of the three things that one should learn to emulate from a child's behavior is that a child is always happy."
Why is this so?
The Maharal explains that simchah describes the emotion one feels when one is complete and does not lack anything, while sasson is the momentary joy one experiences for gaining something or achieving some sort of renewal. Before a child's life is clouded with doubts, before he is frustrated by unfulfilled drives and ambitions, he is always happy, for he does not lack anything. But this state does not offer us an ideal to strive for. To be without drives or ambitions is to remain a child all one's life.
How then does one attain happiness while being involved in the vicissitudes of life? Life is full of needs and challenges, which, by their very nature, create vacuums to be filled.
JOY AND CLOSENESS TO GOD
The source of the happiness described as simchah lies in enhancing one's awareness of God and His providence, for with this awareness, one feels more complete. A person is beset with shortcomings and frustrations only because he considers himself a separate entity, unattached to God. Then his shortcomings are indeed shortcomings, and feeling that he is missing something is a true indication that he is genuinely lacking in an essential aspect of his life. Thus, atzav -- "despair" -- is a synonym for idolatry (Psalms 115:4), for its source is alienation from God.
Not so the person whose life is infused with faith and a keen awareness of God. Someone who recognizes that whatever travails and problems he encounters do not occur by chance but are part of a Divine plan designed for his benefit -- such a person is sameyach bechelko, "content with his lot." This does not imply the passive resignation of the simple-minded, but the joy-filled end-product of one's recognition of God and His profound ways!
OF CERTAINTY AND JOY
There is no joy, our Sages say, like the resolution of doubt. And there is no certainty other than that which results from tying one's destiny to God. This, in turn, is the key to one of the principles of chassidism expressed by Rabbi Nachman of Breslav: "It is a great mitzvah to always be in a state of simchah."
The joy of life was achieved by perceiving one's place in the world by the light at the end of the tunnel -- the light emanating from awareness of God.
This does not refer to divesting oneself of one's anxieties -- by way of Valium -- to better cope with life. But to an ultimate spiritual goal in one's constant ascent in emunah and avodah, "faith and Divine service."
BIRTH OF DESPAIR
When is despondency born? Two events produce an obfuscation of God's presence and thereby bring about confusion and unhappiness. One of these is the sins that the individual commits, drawing a veil between oneself and one's Creator (see Isaiah 59:2). This alienation from God produces despair.
In addition, a specific historical event produced a general Divine hiddenness: Adam's eating from the tree of knowledge. The word atzav, "despair," is used for the first time in Torah in regard to this occurrence. Death, the father of all sorrow, was introduced to the world on that day. Until he sinned, Adam had been enjoying the state of constant joy in the Garden of Eden.
The radical change from joyful awareness of God to Divine hiddenness and sorrow had ramifications in nature as well. Until Adam's sin, trees produced fruit swiftly and flawlessly, and women could bear children without pain. Just as God's word produced a tree effortlessly and flawlessly, so did the tree produce fruit. Nature as a whole functioned in this manner.
After Adam sinned, the word of God in creation became obfuscated, and nature was perceived as a self-contained, independent system, removed from its source -- from the word of God that animated it. From that time onward, humanity has been required to labor to bring forth the fruits of nature.
Often nature responds negatively and produces thorns and thistles instead of fruit. When success does come, it seems attributable to human control of the elements, rather than Divine providence. Yet the true human task is to labor to tame nature, while uncovering the word of God within it.
The three pilgrimage festivals mark periods of time set aside to restore joy and God-consciousness to the world.
While the Holy Temple stood, we were commanded "to come and see and be seen before God." This involved coming to Jerusalem, "the source of joy for the entire world" (Psalms 48:3). This was the geographic spot where, more than anywhere else, one had an intense awareness of God's presence.
By the same token, these holy days, following the agrarian cycle, offered opportunities to compensate for Adam's sin and bring humanity back in touch with God through nature.
Passover, the spring festival, was when the barley offering was brought. Shavuot was the time when the First Fruit offering was be brought. And Sukkot, the harvest festival, marks the time that, at the peak of bounty, man declares himself a mere tenant in God's world, taking shelter in the Sukkah that is roofed with harvest wastes. Rather than an obscuring veil, the natural flow of the seasons becomes a vehicle for contact with God.
Thus, Sukkot has within it a two-fold element of joy and Divine awareness. First, it concludes the process of rectifying the damage done by Adam, removing the general Divine hiddenness by means of appearing before God on a holy day. Secondly, Sukkot marks the end of the repentance season, when the individual is cleansed of his own sins on Yom Kippur.
The special celebration when water is poured into the wine trough of the altar expresses this twofold joy. Amidst singing and rejoicing, this Simchat Beit Ha'sho'eva celebration reaches a peak that is unrivaled throughout the year.
Generally, all offerings reflect a degree of Divine hiddenness. We take an object that is seemingly ours and offer it as a "gift" to God. The burning of the offering demonstrates that the material shell of matter is disintegrated, and the spiritual essence rises upward.
Were we to realize "the earth and all that fills it is the Lord's" in its fullness (Psalms 24:1), that everything material exists wholly by virtue of God's words, it would simply not be necessary to demonstrate the spirituality inherent in all creation through offerings.
On Sukkot, we consummate the rectification of the Divine hiddenness that pervades our existence, and we draw water, which is the basic element of life, from a spring. We pour it onto the altar, where it flows directly back to the same spring from which it was drawn. In doing so, we bypass the laborious process of using the water to grow crops or nurture animals, which in turn are consumed by fire on the altar, to return them to their essence.
Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner (20th century America) once summed it up succinctly: "We draw from the source and pour back to the source. One continuous flow, without interruption in the middle."
This direct connection with the Divine is the deepest joy imaginable.