Union for Reform Judaism Member Congregation

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As you know, because I am totally obsessed with her, we’ve got a 2.5 year old. A few months ago, she started telling us that her room was too dark when she went to sleep, so we decided to get her a nightlight. We got a little one for the wall. It was simple and white and small. And, seriously, what were we thinking? It was completely inadequate and made no change for her. So we wised up, as parents eventually do – and we got her an 8 inch glow in the dark bear that can be set at any of 10 different colors. She loves this bear. It has really helped. Every night, she gets to choose what color bear will be and because she is a tech native—she does it herself with the bear remote. And every night, when she picks a color, before she hits the button she wants, she looks right into that bear’s eyes and she sternly directs the bear. If the night is a green night, she will say: “Be green, bear.” And then will turn him green. “Be blue, bear.” And then turns him blue.

This is what the overarching Sukkot commandment feels like to me. Sukkot is one of our Pilgrim holidays—there are three! This time of year is called z’man simchateinu—the time of our joy (Passover is called z’man cheiruteinu, the time of our liberation; Shavuot is z’man Torateinu, the time of our receiving Torah). But Sukkot is called Z’man simchateinu. We are commanded to be joyful. It is the only time we are ever commanded to feel joy.  BE JOYFUL, PEOPLE!  But we aren’t glow in the dark bears that work by remote.

This is hard…what if we aren’t feeling joyful? What if life is feeling difficult or sad or we’re tired or we’re clinically depressed or the world is falling apart…hypothetically speaking.

Now, to be fair, there is difference between happiness and joy—this isn’t just a happy go lucky feeling—this is deeper than that for sure. But joy is a deep sense of fulfillment and hopefulness and yes, even sparks of happiness. So if we are there—amazing. It can often come in fleeting moments of gratitude for where we are, who we are, who we’re with, the beauty around us—but even that, it’s hard to hold onto. So whether you are not feeling this z’man simchateinu thing right now or you are, but you’re also feeling everything else—how do we get there? How do we do this part of our holiday well?

WE TRAIN for it! Like any marathon or sport or instrument we play—we do things with our body and our mind to help us achieve what we want to achieve. And here, the primary ritual objects of Sukkot come into play. Like a medicine ball or free weights or a quarter mile track can train our physical body, the Lulav and the Etrog train our souls.

You may have heard this teaching that the Lulav and the Etrog can be compared to different parts of our bodies. Well, I want to suggest that they are here, laying on a table, or lifted in our hands, trying desperately to teach us a lesson. To teach us HOW to get into this z’man simchateinu fully—this time of our joy.

First, the Palm leaves are compared to our spines. What can we do with our spines this week to enhance our joy? We know what it is to be spineless. No real convictions, can’t stand up for what we believe, untrustworthy and kind of weak in a moment when we are called to be strong. So this week, let the palm leaves teach us to be spineful! It wasn’t a word until tonight, but now it is. How much joy we bring to the world when we stand up for someone who needs it. When we are strong in a moment that calls for it. How joyful another person is when someone nearby gets their back—perhaps not a coincidence that we “get each other’s backs!” So this week, let’s access joy as palm leaf practice: When you see someone getting made fun of, or teased, or someone who looks sad or is being treated poorly…be spineful. Verbally, and lovingly, and kindly, stand up for them. See what happens—see if there isn’t more joy in their face for what you have done! And don’t wait for it—go find your shot to do it.

The willow leaf is compared to our mouths. It is scientifically proven—I’m sure somewhere—that singing elevates our joy. It’s why we will sing Hallel tomorrow morning—songs of praise and joy. It’s why we sing in the shower, it’s why groups of adults still gather together for sing a longs in so many venues. Singing opens our heart—so sing this week! Sing something beautiful. Sing off key, and loudly, your favorite songs from your favorite times. Teach that song to someone you love. Learn a new song from someone you love—ask them—what’s your favorite, and can you teach me.

And if it is Brittany Spears or Lady Gaga—go with it—sing it together and feel joy bubble up in you both. Or sing alone or in public or to your mirror with a hairbrush microphone. Use your willow-shaped mouth to sing.

The myrtle leaf is compared to our eyes. Find something beautiful in nature this week. Our sukkah is inside, and it is LOVELY. So find something beautiful in there. Or make time to take a walk. And use your eyes purposefully. Ask yourself—what do I see that is beautiful? Look for a leaf that has turned colors. Look for a person who smiles back at you. Look as the wind picks up and blows nature all around us. Use your myrtle-shaped eyes to bask in the joy of appreciating this earth.

And finally, our sweet smelling yellow Etrog—it’s compared to the heart. The heart can bring pain, sadness, poignancy. So we need to exercise its joy chambers. Take your Etrog heart and choose to love openly and vulnerably and honestly this week. It’s hard to do this because we could get hurt. But even if our Etrog love is unrequited—how joyful WE feel when we openly love someone and take a risk to tell them. So this week of Sukkot, tell someone you don’t tell nearly enough how much you love them. And feel your joy grow.

Then we will have succeeded. We will have celebrated and achieved z’man simchateinu. A season of our joy. Together, in this harvest season. When our tradition is telling us: Be joyful, people! We can say—we are. Or we’re working on it. Or—we are closer now than we were before. And that is more than enough.

Chag Sameach.