By Joshua Spurlock
The English word “joy” and related words (such as “joyful”) appear 203 times in the English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible. The first instance of the English word “joy” in the ESV is in reference to Chag HaSukkot (the Feast of Tabernacles), in the Book of Devarim (Deuteronomy).
“For seven days you shall keep the feast to the LORD your God [Elohekha] at the place that the LORD will choose, because the LORD your God [Elohekha] will bless you in all your produce and in all the work of your hands, so that you will be altogether joyful [sameakh].”
– Devarim (Deuteronomy) 16:15, ESV
This verse follows HaShem’s (the LORD) instruction to be joyful for the festival.
“You shall keep the Feast of Booths [Khag HaSukkot] seven days, when you have gathered in the produce from your threshing floor and your winepress. You shall rejoice in your feast, you and your son and your daughter, your male servant and your female servant, the Levite (HaLevi), the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow who are within your towns.”
– Devarim (Deuteronomy) 16:13-14, ESV
What is it about Sukkot that links it to joy, and why might we need to be encouraged to be joyful in it?
Rabbi Avi Weiss notes that the use of the words for rejoicing or joy are used more in the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) for Sukkot than for Pesakh (Passover) or Shavuot (Pentecost), the other two pilgrimage festivals. Because of this, Jewish prayer books refer to Sukkot as the Z’man Simkhateinu, which means “Season of Our Joy” (Rabbi Avi Weiss, Florida Jewish Journal, Reprinted in the Sun Sentinel).
And Sukkot comes with much to be joyful about. It coincides with the harvest, as noted in Devarim, and so it is a time of rejoicing in HaShem’s provision; the successful completion of another year of work.
At the same time, Sukkot is celebrated primarily by living outside for seven days in temporary structures called Sukkot (the plural form of Sukkah), which may prompt some questions. While some people enjoy camping outside, it’s not exactly how everyone would choose to be most joyful.
As Dina Coopersemith asks in her article “Sukkot: Harvesting Joy” on Aish.com, moving outside and away from our homes is how we mark our material success?
Dina highlights that this is one of the deep truths hidden within Sukkot. While we certainly rejoice in HaShem’s provision, it is not the things we possess or enjoy that make us truly joyful. So Sukkot is about an even greater kind of joy.
For several of the Feasts of HaShem, there are books of the Bible traditionally read and associated with the holiday. For Sukkot, the Festival of Joy, it is the pensive and somber book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes). If there was ever a person who tried to understand joy, it’s the author of the book and for whom the book is named—Kohelet (translated as the Preacher in the ESV).
Kohelet, who is Shlomo HaMelekh (King Solomon), makes it his life purpose to discover the meaning of life and happiness. Instead, he finds “vanity” and unhappiness.
“And I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven [HaShamayim]… I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.”
– Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) 1:13a,14, ESV
Kohelet’s purpose, however, is not to bring sadness, and this is why it is read on Sukkot. While he failed to find joy in the things of this world, he finds the real meaning of life.
“The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God [Elohim] and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.”
– Kohelet 12:13, ESV
The Vilna Gaon, a Jewish sage, taught that simkhah, the type of joy associated with Sukkot, is an inner quality (“Why a Joy Filled Sukkot?”, Aish.com). Furthermore, the Jewish teaching to be “content” with what one has actually uses a related word for joy, sameakh, for the Enlish word content. Hence, one could say it is about being joyful with what one has, since true joy comes from trusting in HaShem (Ibid).
Shaul (Paul) understood this concept quite well. Despite a life filled with hardships and suffering, he found contentment—true joy—in his relationship with HaShem through Yeshua HaMashiakh (Jesus the Christ).
As he wrote to the Philippians,
“I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.”
– Philippians 3:10-12, ESV
What’s Shaul’s secret? How can he possibly be content—joyful—at all times? How can his circumstances vary so widely, hunger versus having plenty, and yet his attitude be the same? The answer is found in the very next verse.
“I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”
– Philippians 3:13, ESV
Losing Things, Yet Gaining Joy
In other words, all of Shaul’s joy and contentment came from the strength and power of HaShem. We can even take it one step further and say that it was Shaul’s relationship with HaShem through Yeshua that was the driving force of his life and the source of this joy.
“Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus [Mashiakh Yeshua] my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ [Mashiakh] and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ [Mashiakh], the righteousness from God [Elohim] that depends on faith—that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”
– Philippians 3:8-11, ESV
Did you see that?
Shaul counts all other things as though they were meaningless when compared to the joy of knowing Yeshua. In fact, he was willing to lose everything so that he could know and experience the life of the Mashiakh (Christ).
As Yeshua Himself taught,
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life [Chayei Olam]. If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father [HaAv] will honor him.”
– Yokhannan (John) 12:24-26, ESV
How ironic: to be truly joyful requires the willingness to lose everything for HaShem. It is the abandonment of all that the material world sees as reasons for joy that enables us to experience the ultimate joy. Yet this is not some type of mystical ascetic lifestyle where we learn to be happy through a simpler life.
It is a life defined not by physical wants and desires, but by loving obedience to HaShem our G-d.
As Yeshua taught,
“For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul? For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father [Av], and then he will repay each person according to what he has done.”
– Mattityahu (Matthew) 16:25-27, ESV
That last line there is critical to understanding this joy. It is not enough that one simply gives things up for HaShem. Fasting from food or giving one’s wealth away to the poor may be actions that HaShem could be calling you to do. But it’s not abstinence from wealth and pleasure that makes one joyful.
Rather, it is obedience and relationship with the Creator of the Universe.
As Shaul said,
“But godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content.”
– Timothy 6:6-8, ESV
Rejoicing in HaShem’s Provision
While wealth and material success is not the enemy of true joy, lusting after them is. The very next verses from Shaul remind us of the dangers of trying to find one’s joy in one’s possessions.
“But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.”
– Timothy 6:9-10, ESV
Sukkot is a key reminder that it is HaShem who provides for our real needs. In the explanation of the holiday, HaShem tells Am Yisrael (the People of Israel) that the sukkot (booths) that serve as the dwellings for this holiday are to remind them of a time when HaShem was most clearly the source of their provision—in the wilderness.
“You shall dwell in booths for seven days. All native Israelites shall dwell in booths, that your generations may know that I made the people of Israel [Bnei Yisrael] dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God [Elohekem].”
– Vayikra (Leviticus) 23:42-43, ESV
It is in one of the most desolate places on earth, in the wilderness, that HaShem teaches us about true joy and contentment in life.
As Moshe (Moses) reminds us,
“And you shall remember the whole way that the LORD your God [Elohekha] has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not. And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD. Your clothing did not wear out on you and your foot did not swell these forty years. Know then in your heart that, as a man disciplines his son, the LORD your God [Elohekha] disciplines you.”
– Devarim (Deuteronomy) 8:2-5, ESV
Did you see the references to food and clothing that Shaul mentioned in his discussion of contentment? It is HaShem Who provides for our needs, and it the relationship with HaShem that comes through faithful obedience to Him that brings us true joy.
Nekhemiah (Nehemiah), one of the great leaders of Yisrael, wrote of rejoicing in HaShem, saying,
“‘Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord [Adoneinu]. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.’”
– Nekhemiah (Nehemiah) 8:10b, ESV
So it is not a life devoid of “good things” that brings joy. It is HaShem, with or without such things, that is the ultimate source of life.
As Yeshua taught,
“And this is eternal life [Chayei Olam], that they know you the only true God [Elohim], and Jesus Christ [Yeshua HaMashiakh] whom you have sent.”
– Yokhannan (John) 17:3, ESV
May your Sukkot celebrations serve as a springboard to a true and lasting joy throughout the year. May your joy not be based on the things you have or the food you eat, but on your relationship with of our Heavenly Father through our Lord Yeshua HaMashiakh.