Happiness Happens

Behind every meaningful practice stands its theory. This Shabbat we begin Sukkot, our eight-day festival of booths and thanksgiving during which we celebrate the wandering and journey of our ancestors from slavery to freedom.

Sukkot’s bounty includes ecological sensitivities as we honor the interdependence of humanity and nature. Following Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, Sukkot represents the laboratory of our best intentions and goals for the coming year. It offers a vision we can see more clearly from outside the walls of our homes. We dwell in temporary booths instead of in the midst of our hectic and disheveled living rooms. We see our lives from a different perspective. This festival week is a time of peace and compassion, a holiday of hospitality as we welcome family and friends into our sukkot and as we give of our own harvests to others in need.

There is another image of Sukkot that I appreciate in theory, but this is the one I find a challenge to put into practice.

“And you shall be completely happy,” declares the Book of Deuteronomy in its reference to Sukkot. Sukkot is subtitled z’man simchateinu (the season of our joy). The Zohar, Judaism’s mystical interpretation of the Torah, states, “It is necessary for you to rejoice within the sukkah and to show a cheerful countenance to guests. It is forbidden to harbor thoughts of gloom, and how much more so feelings of anger within the Sukkah, the symbol of joy.”

Easier said than done. In routine times, we can’t always control our mood, or feel as we might wish to. These days, for sure, we carry with us a variety of necessary and very mixed emotions. How wonderful is the premise of this holiday, the imperative of happiness? A theory we can truly understand and, at the same time, find difficult to put into practice.

We are all exposed to moments of sadness, trouble, anger or upset. We are all distressed by the illness or struggle of dear ones and friends. We are all concerned about events in the world around us. Even at moments of complete joy in our lives, how can we not be sensitive to the different experiences of others? At end of a Jewish wedding ceremony, the groom breaks glass demonstrating this important awareness and perspective.

“And you shall be completely happy.” Really? As individuals who know the full variety of life’s blessing and burden, this can be a difficult mitzvah to fulfill. And yet, it might also be among the most important of our tradition’s imperatives for living.

Happiness, at least as Judaism understands it, is a state of mind. It doesn’t come from pleasure, wealth or even health. Happiness reflects satisfaction. It results from gratitude and appreciation for the gift and mystery of our lives. Even when we hurt, we can impose onto our day a moment of contentment, or maybe delight. All we have to do is see it either around us or within us. I always counsel those who face a personal challenge to look for such moments. It’s a better way to cope.

The Talmud speaks about this type of happiness. Since the Torah teaches that everyone should rejoice, the rabbis wonder, “How can someone be made to be happy?” Their answer: “With what is suitable for them.” For some, it may be a physical comfort. For others, happiness might derive from the people with whom they are spending time. For those of us who are comfortable today, happiness may be the result of our achievements. For those of us who are in need or who know pain, our happiness may simply lie in the memory of — and hope for — better times.

The Psalms also seek this frame of mind. “I am ever mindful of God’s presence … so my heart rejoices, my whole being exults…. In Your presence is perfect happiness.” (In traditional Jewish practice, most often we recite these words during the Yizkor service.)

Rashi explained that the happiness spoken of is timeless, not bound to any season or particular situation. “It is the happiness now before you, closest to you,” he taught.

That’s the answer to my Sukkot problem. We don’t have to find happiness in all that happens — it’s just not possible or even right. But during this beautiful festival of Sukkot, we can gather with those closest to us and celebrate the goodness and dignity of our lives. We can find happiness by giving thanks for all that sustains us: shelter and food, faith and morality, the caring of our friends and the love of our families. In these most basic of joys, even if we struggle some, we can be satisfied. They are the reasons we can consider ourselves “completely happy.”

Shabbat shalom! Chag sameach!