Surprised by Joy

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By Rabbi Raymond Apple

C.S. Lewis wrote a book about his early life titled “Surprised by Joy.” The name is from a sonnet by William Wordsworth mourning the death of his daughter Catherine in 1812.

Lewis said that joy was “almost as unlike security or prosperity as it is unlike agony. It jumps under one’s ribs and tickles down one’s back and makes one forget meals and keeps one (delightfully) sleepless o’ nights.”


Lewis is trying to say that joy is a deep pleasant feeling that suffuses every part of your life, coming upon you with a glowing feeling that things are going well.

Joy surrounds you in the sukkah in a combination of aroma, food, company, song and gratitude for one’s blessings. Judaism also believes in welcoming the joy-giving presence of God.

Symbolism of the sukkah

A sukkah must not be too high. A person must not be too high and mighty.

A sukkah must not be too small. A person must not belittle himself.

The walls must be able to withstand ordinary gusts of wind. A person must stand up for his principles.

The stars must be visible through the foliage on the roof. A person must always see and strive for the Divine light.

Adventures of the etrog

One of the Four Species used on Sukkot is the etrog. It is the odd man out, the only plant that is not bound together with the others.

The etrog is called in the Torah “the fruit of a goodly (beautiful) tree” (Leviticus 23:40). Each of the four plants symbolizes a part of the human body. The etrog is the heart, which makes the body function. It also represents the Jewish people, a small separate group who exemplify ethics. The four plants symbolize four Biblical figures: The etrog is Abraham.

The name etrog is from a Persian root tarag and the original name might be torange. The etrog was known for its aroma and medicinal properties.

In size, the etrog must not be smaller than an egg, even though today’s eggs are regarded as smaller than those of Talmudic times.

Etrogim used to be rare and expensive. The question arose: “If one has to choose between visiting a town that has a sukkah and one that has an etrog, which should be chosen?” The answer: “The one with the etrog!”

Can one use an etrog owned by the synagogue? The members of the shul are partners who jointly own the appurtenances of the synagogue.

Each festival has its theme. Sometimes, it is the individual and his soul. Sometimes, it is the family and its future; sometimes, the nation and its quality; sometimes, the people and its ethos. With Sukkot, it is nature and God’s bounty.

Maybe if you live in a rural environment, you already have nature as your neighbor, but if you are a city-dweller, there is a special dimension to be found when you build your annual sukkah, however small it might have to be if its nook is hemmed in and its corner is precious.

So many of our streets are concrete jungles, so many houses are brick building blocks, so many apartments are anonymous pigeonholes.

Living in Jerusalem, I constantly wonder why the ubiquitous building projects seldom have sukkah balconies. In our case, there is a sukkah balcony, which is one of the jewels of our home. Having a sukkah makes sure that at least once in a while, you encounter a bit of fresh air and greenery. Even if it’s only for eight days you can get a tiny taste of nature.
In the cramped conditions of urban living, we don’t all have the chance of building our own sukkah, so we try to make do by being invited to someone else’s or spending time in the synagogue sukkah. Some of us can do both.

I well recall, even after many decades, the fragrance of a certain synagogue sukkah I patronized as a child; I still vividly remember the greenery around the walls, and I inhale the air and can taste the Kiddush-time sponge cake. That synagogue had its sukkah in an open area outside the shul, and nothing could rival it.

Up until recent times, city dwelling was rather rare. The Torah makes a special point of Cain building a city (Genesis 4:17). That “city,” however, was probably only an encampment of two or three houses. In the Biblical era, the only city with urban status was probably Jerusalem, though in modern terms Jerusalem was not much more than a village. The Mishnah Megillah speaks of villages, towns and cities, but none of them had any pretensions to city status in modern terms.

Until quite recently, most people lived in relatively small settlements, and indeed, up to 200 years ago, no more than one person in 50 lived in what we today would call a city. So it’s only recently that the sukkah was desperately needed as a fleeting contact with nature. How they managed to build sukkot in Eastern Europe I have no idea.

Move on to today, and you see how hard it is to find a nook that is open to the sky, and how important it is to have a festival that gives us a feeling for branches, greenery and the fresh air. Because of the sukkah, the Jewish people always had a feeling for nature and gave thanks to the Creator. And thanks to the Arba’ah Minim (“Four Species” or “Four Kinds”) used on Sukkot, we Jews saw, held and celebrated samples of God’s creation.

Rabbi Raymond Apple served congregations in London before becoming chief minister of the Great Synagogue of Sydney, Australia, for 32 years. Now retired, he lives in Jerusalem.

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