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 as Ha Chag, the holiday.
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 of when one does all these acts, and how.
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.
On the Day of Atonement, Jews reenact their own death, only to be restored to life in the resolution of the day. Only those who know the fragility of life can truly appreciate the full preciousness of every moment. The release from Yom Kippur leads to the extraordinary outburst of life that is Sukkot. On this holiday, Jews are commanded to eat, drink, be happy, dance, and relish life to its fullest in celebrating the harvest and personal wealth.
But making joy holy means being selective in the enjoyment of God's gifts, not worshipping those gifts or those who own them. The first and foremost expression of this insight is to share the bounty and the joy. Gifts from the harvest were given to the poor: "You shall rejoice before the Lord. You, your son, your daughter, manservant and maid, the Levite.the stranger, the orphan, the widow in your midst" (Deuteronomy 16:11).
The entire Sukkot holiday is an object lesson in postmodern religious life. Nostalgia tends to romanticize poverty and the religious life of the old shtetl. But as affluence rises, the great religious calling is to learn to share the wealth and to learn how to consecrate it in enjoyment. Affluence and inherited wealth remove the "artificial" sources of purpose that most humans have faced throughout history: the need to earn enough to stay alive.
Tradition keeps pleasure balanced by interspersing corrective moves within the holiday to offset materialism. On the Shabbat that falls during Sukkot, for instance, the scroll of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) is read; its theme, "vanity of vanities, all is vanity," challenges the value of worldly living. On Hoshana Rabbah--the seventh day of Sukkot--Yom Kippur is summoned up again. By rabbinic interpretation, this is deemed to be the day on which the verdict of life and death, originally entered in the Day of Atonement, is finally sealed. The evocation of awe and the encounter with death challenges excessive materialism. A similar effect is implicit in reading Yizkor memorial prayers for the dead on the last day. This counterpoint keeps Jews from seeing good things, which they are encouraged to enjoy and celebrate, as absolute. The balance of pleasure and restraint is everything.
The high level of material well-being has removed the "artificial" source of values that most humans are confronted by: the constant need to choose and set priorities due to limited resources. When the imposed holiness of asceticism is removed, there is the challenge and the choice of finding the sacred amidst plenty and pleasure. It may be more difficult to do this religiously than to live properly in poverty. Thus, Sukkot is bound to be a major new focus of postmodern Jewish life.