Feast Over Famine
The festival Sukkot shows Judaism's emphasis on enjoyment over asceticism, making it the perfect holiday for our affluent times
Most Jews still think that fasting is more righteous than feasting. Yet the Talmud suggests that in the world to come a person will have to stand judgment for every legitimate pleasure in this life that was renounced. The Nazirite--the person who gave up the pleasures of wine and family life to devote himself entirely to God--was called a sinner in the grounds that he gave up the joys of wine when the Torah did not require him to do so.
The perception that asceticism is superior to enjoyment is wrong. Many Jews who observe only one holiday a year make it Yom Kippur, a day of great deprivation since eating, drinking, washing, and sex are not permitted. Furthermore, Yom Kippur is a day of self-criticism, of repeated confession of sins, and even a day of Yizkor--the memorial prayer--in which the memories of departed loved ones usually bring up a good deal of guilt.
Since all this is hardly fun, presumably the one- or three-day observers feel that all this angst makes it the most holy day of the year. Sukkot--the Festival of Booths--gives lie to this perception; because of its joys, it is known throughout the Talmudic period asHa Chag, the
Rabbi Israel Salanter once wrote that to be a good Jew one has to have every human quality and its opposite. The Torah does not consecrate prohibition; it offers the full range of human emotion and behavior. There is "a time to cry and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance" (Ecclesiastes 3:4). Correct behavior consists ofwhen
one does all these acts, andhow.
As a harvest festival, Sukkot incorporates frank recognition and celebration of material goods. Jewish tradition sees material possessions as a necessary but not sufficient basis for spiritual fulfillment. As Maimonides writes, "The general purpose of the Torah is twofold: the well-being of the soul and the well-being of the body. The well-being of the soul is ranked first, but . the well-being of the body comes first." The well-being of the soul is more important, but the well-being of the body comes first, for it is the context for spiritual development. Thus, appreciation and enjoyment of material things is a legitimate spiritual concern. It all depends on how it is done. Prosperity frees the individual for personal development; but, worshipped or made absolute, wealth disrupts personal growth.