Yes, it’s true that the biblical mitzvah (commandment) of "rejoicing on the festivals" also applies to both Pesach and Shavuos, while the rabbinically ordained holiday of Purim is by no means lacking in heart-lifting and joyous (and often inebriated) celebration.
But there is something more, some extra measure of elation that is associated with the Succos holiday. The Torah hints at this in one of the places where Succos is discussed (Parshas Re’eh, in The Book of Devarim), employing an additional expression of rejoicing…after it has just instructed us to rejoice!
"You shall make the festival of Succos for a seven-day period, when you
gather in from your threshing floor and from your wine cellar. You shall
rejoice on your festival…A seven-day period shall you celebrate to Hashem, your G-d…for Hashem will have blessed you in all your crop and in all your handiwork, and you will be completely [or, exclusively] joyous (ach sameach)." (Deuteronomy: 16, 13-15 ; my emphasis. Translation from Stone Chumash)
Just what is it about Succos that necessitates the Torah to emphasize such an extreme level of joy (simcha)? Not, of course, that I am at all averse to being urged by anybody (and especially the Holy One, Blessed be He) to "get happy," or in this case, to "get really, intensely, and exclusively happy." (My cheerful wife will confirm that dark clouds of grumpiness DO sometimes characterize my weather pattern…so she, for sure, welcomes this divine directive.) For the sake of understanding, however, I must ask the question. What’s going on with all this joy on Succos?
The great Sages and commentators in our tradition have given many answers to this question. We will consider a few of them.
If we look at the verses quoted above, we can immediately discern one reason why Succos is a time of special simcha in the Jewish year. In a traditional agricultural society (which ancient Israel, living on the Holy Land, certainly was), the autumn was the season of the ingathering of the summer crops and fruits—the time of gathering in from the wine cellar and threshing floor. We, therefore, naturally felt joy at the blessings G-d had bestowed on us, in all our crops and our handiwork. What greater natural simcha than to reap, and then store for the winter season ahead, the bounty of G-d’s earth—and His Holy Land?
Now, most of us are probably rather remote from the rhythms of agricultural life. (I admit that the coffee crop is the only one I myself pay much heed to…and Starbuck’s seems always to be pretty well-stocked—Baruch Hashem!) However, the eternal observances of Succos are designed, in part, to help even us
city-dwellers focus our attention (for a week, anyway) on the agricultural blessings G-d so generously bestows. The beautiful mitzvah of the four species (arba’ah minim)—taking in our hands the fruit of the citron tree (esrog), the date-palm branch (lulav), the myrtle leaves (hadassim) and willow-branches (arovos), and waving them in all directions as we honor the One Who rules the whole universe—awakens the mind and soul to the fertility of G-d’s earth. [These four species also give symbolic representation to many important concepts, as expounded by our Sages.]
Some people might erroneously believe that Succos was "originally" an ancient agricultural festival, and that some time later in our history, it was transformed into a religious observance. Not so. Rather, the natural joy of each particular agricultural season (the harvest on Succos, the ripening of the first fruits on Shavuous, etc.) was intended by Hashem, from the very beginning, to be one component of each of the holidays—one of the "layers" of its meaning, if you will. Each holiday, however, also contains a unique historical remembrance for the Jewish people, while offering a unique spiritual opportunity to internalize important truths regarding our relationship to G-d.
As Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writes in his masterful philosophical discussion of the Torah’s commandments (Horeb):
"From one point of view they [the festivals] thus have their historical significance; on the other hand, they are all bound to corresponding seasons of the year. Thus each festival takes place at the time of the year when G-d reveals Himself in Nature’s evolution, in the same way as the deed that forms the basis of the festival reveals G-d at work in the sphere of human history. Thus, Nature and Historical Revelation coincide, complementing and supporting one another." (Grunfeld trans., pp. 85-6)
With all their many layers of significance, then, the holidays "…serve as illuminating beacons for our inner and outer life, by our taking their fundamentals and their teachings to heart. They are sanctities [i.e., sanctuaries in time], which bring about the ever-fresh revival of Israel’s spirit…" (p. 85)
Okay, so there is a natural joy in Succos at the ingathering of the harvest. But is there not an almost equal natural joy at the coming of spring, and the first ripening of the spring crop—the agricultural season that coincides with Pesach? Perhaps (you could argue) the first awakening of the earth after winter is MORE joyous than the ingathering. We still may be puzzled at why Succos is (as we saw) considered, in some sense, more joyous than any other holiday.
And another question to ask is: What particular historical significance does Succos have? In other words, if Pesach commemorates the time of our freedom (and our birth as a full-fledged nation), and Shavuos commemorates the time of the Revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai, what exactly does Succos commemorate?
I’m now going to answer ALL the questions quickly. (If I don’t get busy, Pesach will be here…and it will be time to ask a different set of questions.)
Think about when Succos occurs, with regard to certain OTHER recently completed sacred days. Hint: Apples and honey, with shofar blasts; a week of repentance; long 25-hour period of intense supplication (and equally intense hunger pangs). The Days of Succos joy begin—not coincidentally—four days after the completion of the Days of Awe, after that intense period of introspection and teshuva (repentance), and most significantly, after its culmination in the Day of ATONEMENT. We enter Succos, therefore, in a state of spiritual purity, cleansed of the stain of our past transgressions. After clarifying and strengthening our connection to G-d (our Father, our King) during the days of Awe, we are summoned to REJOICE before Him on the Festival of Sukkos, enjoying delightful meals and songs of praise (and a few l’chaims, for sure) and the holding aloft of the four lovely species. (Note: we do not pick up the four species on the Sabbath, however.)
What greater joy is there, truly, than being "reborn" in a state of purity? Than having been forgiven by G-d, and given a new chance and a fresh start? This is another layer—and perhaps the key one—in the joy of Sukkos.
But what exactly are we doing in huts (booths, sukkos)?!
"You shall dwell in booths for a seven-day period; every native in Israel shall dwell in booths. So that your generations will know that I caused Children of Israel to dwell in booths when I took them from the Land of Egypt…" (Leviticus: 23, 42-3)
Succos commemorates the divine protection G-d gave us when He took us out of Egypt, and led us in the Wilderness. As Rashi explains, the succah is meant to remind us of the miraculous Clouds of Glory that surrounded the Jewish People (like a giant, air-conditioned booth) in the Wilderness of Sinai. [Another opinion in the Talmud asserts that it is to remind us of actual booths, sukkos, that our ancestors constructed when they left Egypt.]
The important point, however, is to remember…and, more importantly, to take to heart NOW…that G-d has always protected and guided the Jewish people with a special providence-- hashgacha, in Hebrew. He protects us now. Otherwise, there is no possible way we would still exist as a people today—after all of our enemies’ attempts to destroy us. This is what the walls (and slender roof) of the Sukkah should call to mind: the watchful protection of G-d. It is therefore the most important holiday, our commentators tell us, for solidifying our emunah, our faith in G-d, and our bitachon, our sincere trust in Him.
We transfer our dwelling on Sukkos—physically, and psychologically—to a "temporary shelter," so that we may learn that it is NOT our solid roofs (or large, sturdy houses or worldly possessions) that ultimately protect us. Rather, it is Hashem, the Holy One, Blessed be He, Who protects us and guides us—as individuals and as a nation. He is the only ultimate Source of security. He is our Permanence. (And even the evanescent physical pleasures of life can be sanctified, transformed into something Eternal, within the holy walls of the Sukkah…and whenever we internalize that we are truly in His presence.)
Is there a greater joy than really believing (with strong emunah, and wholehearted bitachon) that the Almighty is our Protector, our Rock and our Shield? That His constant protection is our "booth in the wilderness" of exile?
When we combine all these concepts we’ve discussed—the ingathering of the harvest, our special state of spiritual purity (post-Yom Kippur), and the special injection of emunah and bitachon at the heart of this festival—is there any wonder that the Torah prescribes (and describes) the ULTIMATE JOY for Sukkos?
"A seven-day period shall you celebrate to Hashem, your G-d…for Hashem will have blessed you in all your crop and in all your handiwork, and you will be completely [or, exclusively] joyous (ach sameach)."
MAY WE ALL HAVE A TRULY JOYOUS SUKKOS, AND A WONDERFUL SHABBOS.