When attending a Jewish holiday or life cycle celebration, – a Sabbath meal, a Passover Seder or Hanukkah Party, a Bat Mitzvah, wedding, etc, you know to expect spirited participants, delicious and special foods and drinks, dancing, and singing. It is undeniable that we do know how to have a good time. And yet, our celebrations aren’t just ‘fun for fun’s sake’. There is, in fact a Divine imperative for joy. Our biblical texts teach is that simcha/joy, is a gift from God. Thus, every life cycle celebration or holy day observance is an opportunity to revel in all of the Divine gifts we are granted. Furthermore, Ecclesiastes notes: there is a time to dance, and a time to mourn’, emphasizing that in addition to the happy times, our lives inevitably will include grief and hardship. Living a Jewish life encourages us to embrace the depths of sadness and the fullness of joy throughout our lives.
It is no accident, that the fall cycle of Jewish holidays concludes with festivals whose essence is JOY. Sukkot, during which we build and dwell in that fragile hut and commemorate our ancestors’ wanderings in the wilderness, is also known as Z’man Simchateinu/ the season of our rejoicing. It is so named, the rabbis teach, due to our having completed the fall harvest (therefore having food to eat!), as well as having finished the process of repentance of the Yamim Noraim/The Days of Awe leaving us with a sense of security and fulfillment. The end of Sukkot rolls right into Simchat Torah (literally Joy of Torah) in which we dance and sing with our sacred teachings, having concluded the annual reading and beginning the cycle anew.
The Hebrew month of Cheshvan comes in the week after Simchat Torah. The Rabbis called it mar/bitter Cheshvan because there are no holidays to celebrate. And after the previous month of feasting, praying, dancing, gathering, and singing, Cheshvan can feel a bit dull and ordinary. And yet, knowing that joy is built into the Jewish calendar, as an intentional counterweight to the inevitable hard and sad times, we take comfort in knowing there will be a simcha or a festival, just around the corner. (The first night of Hanukkah is December 10, 2020).
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