December 14, 2018

Living in the Joy of Sukkot

One of my closest friends from childhood, who is of Russian descent, was recently at my 3-year-old daughter’s birthday party here in Los Angeles. After the party, as my wife and I collapsed on the couch, exhausted, he looked at me quizzically and said, “You know, the one thing that really weirds me out is how you Americans constantly make your kids smile for every picture like they’re some mannequin in a store.”

I cracked up and agreed. It does, indeed, seem to be a uniquely American phenomenon. It got me thinking: Why do we do that to our kids? I then started to wonder about the history of happiness and what this all meant for me going into the Jewish holiday season — and in particular, Sukkot. 

Americans’ obsession with happiness is often associated with the phrase written by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence that says all human beings are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Lberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” This concept of the pursuit of happiness, which historians believe Jefferson acquired directly or indirectly from the writings of philosopher John Locke, was considered the foundation for maintaining one’s liberty, in that it enabled the individual to perceive and seek the greater good and resist enslavement to the desires and determinations of another — even if, in so doing, the individual needed to sacrifice their immediate personal desires. Alas, that rather complicated concept has largely been overtaken by the notion that we have the God-given right to find happiness in our selfish drive for personal satisfaction, often through materialistic endeavors.

One might see that misperception of happiness becoming the norm through such things as the creation of America’s ubiquitous “Happy Birthday” song in 1926, McDonald’s marketing of the Happy Meal in 1977, and The Walt Disney Co.’s former mission statement, “Make people happy” — along with, of course, the company’s labeling Disneyland “The Happiest Place on Earth.”

Why are Americans so obsessed with happiness? And why is happiness so elusive? Even more pressing, what if this pursuit of happiness is misguided and the real treasure is not happiness but joy? 

Joy, a Jewish Conception of Happiness

Although the value of happiness is ingrained in the American psyche, it is not an inherent, fixed part of the human experience. I would argue that it requires construction like any other trait. Carol Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford University, recently wrote about the mistake of telling students to “follow their passions.” Passions are not found, they are developed and worked on, she wrote. Only through a process of investment and development do we develop passions. And the same goes for happiness, which, to be sustained, requires development and cultivation.  

“If happiness requires construction, there is no better place to start building toward it than with a sukkah. Observing Sukkot is the ultimate expression of the joyful life.

If happiness requires construction, there is no better place to start building toward it than with a sukkah. Observing Sukkot, or “tabernacles,” is the ultimate expression of the joyful life. 

To the unacquainted, the holiday of Sukkot seems anachronistic at best. It’s no wonder that in the various studies of American Jewish observance — from the Pew Research Center to Gallup — the surveyors typically want to know how many Jews light Hannukah candles, sit around a seder table for Passover or attend High Holy Days services, but they don’t ask about Sukkot. Observance of the holiday seems to have fallen into oblivion for most Jewish Americans. 

This is ironic because in the days of antiquity, Sukkot was the most significant holiday — mentioned more times in the Bible and involving more animal sacrifices than the other holidays. The Bible even refers to Sukkot as hag (holiday) with no qualifier. And, Jews are enjoined three times to “Be joyous on this holiday” — “Visamachta vichagecha.”

From a rabbinic perspective, Sukkot also stands out. Unlike during Passover, the full Hallel is recited each day of Sukkot. The Mishnah tells us that during the Second Temple period, a water libation ceremony was performed with water drawn from the Gihon spring outside Jerusalem and then brought to the temple, where it was poured on the altar. This ceremony on Sukkot, known as Simchat Beit Hashoeva, was accompanied with music and dancing and so much joy that the Mishnah tells us that a person who had not experienced it had never experienced real joy. In Judaism, joy and Sukkot are synonymous. 

Sukkot may even predate the time of Moses. The Book of Jubilees, an apocryphal work written 130 years before the Common Era, notes that Abraham observed the holiday: “And Abraham built sukkot for himself and his servants in the seventh month, and he was the first to celebrate the festival of Sukkot in the Holy Land.” 

The Bible describes two compelling existential reasons for the mandate to sit in a rickety hut. Exodus refers to Sukkot as an agricultural “feast at the year’s end,” and as “chag haasif,” the festival of ingathering, during which, by leaving their homes and entering the transitory booths, Jews make a statement of gratitude, acknowledging that everything comes from God. Likewise, when the Jewish people are about to enter the land, when things are going well, Moses admonishes them to give credit to God, and not to say, “Kochi v’otzem yadi asa li et hachayil hazeh,” or “It is through my strength and my might that I have accomplished all this.”

In Leviticus, when Sukkot is mentioned it is to remind us of the wandering we did in the desert and the total reliance we had on God. The wandering in the desert symbolizes the wandering we all do in life, and the sukkah represents the very transience of life. 

Whether from Exodus or Leviticus, it becomes clear that the cornerstone of the Sukkot experience is hakarat hatov — gratitude. This focus on gratitude may even have had an impact on the early pilgrims to America and the creation of Thanksgiving, also an autumnal holiday. Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, notes in regard to the Plymouth Rock pilgrims: “Now, they didn’t go out and build huts, obviously. But the notion that one would be thankful for a bountiful harvest was certainly one they would have learned from the Hebrew Bible.”

With such feelings of gratitude, it is no wonder that the liturgy refers to Sukkot as “Zman simchateinu” — the time of our joy. What is joy in Judaism? Maimonides, the great medieval legalist and philosopher wears both hats when he tells us that joy, simcha, is not merely eating good meat and drinking wine — what he calls “simchat kreiso,” the happiness of one’s gut. True joy, he argues, is when we feed converts, orphans, widows and others who are destitute and poor; and when we are with our children and spouses and make sure that others share in this experience as well. Thus, Rabbi Norman Lamm, former president of Yeshiva University, explains that true happiness is “attained only when I forget about myself, when I lose myself, when my concern is with making others happy.”

Yet, we are constantly distracted. How possible is it to stay present? That’s where Sukkot comes in.

Every culture has its talking points. Live in Washington, D.C., and politics is the main conversation; live in Manhattan, and finance is often on peoples’ minds. After having lived in Los Angeles for almost a decade, I would say that what people talk about most here is the cost of real estate. I recently met a very successful lawyer who earns way more money than I will ever make, and he lamented that “Notwithstanding the fact that I’ve made good money, I look around me and see how much my peers make, and I say, ‘Aah, maybe I could have made more.’ ”

On Sukkot, this kind of conversation can stop — if not to end, at least to pause.

Ernest Becker, the Jewish-American anthropologist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Denial of Death,” pointed out that although all creatures end up dying, only we human beings know we are going to die; and because of that knowledge, we compensate with what Becker calls “affirmation systems.” We become workaholics; we become obsessed with problem-solving and fight — however we can, in the most impotent ways — against the fear of death. We pursue the misguided belief that if we only work harder, only show more effort, only succeed more, then we will achieve exultation, joy and happiness.

Our houses are the greatest illusions of all. They make us feel protected and secure, but the sukkah’s structure forces us to stop comparing and to start being. Four walls are not even necessary; 2 1/2 will suffice. A roof is no roof if we can’t see the stars and allow for some vulnerability. And, the sukkah is not a house; it is a shoddy suggestion of a house, and a reminder that our joy and security are not driven by what we put around us but what we put ourselves into. Vulnerability and authenticity are the currency of intimacy, what need to be exchanged to achieve closeness and connection.

Sukkot, then, is the holiday of vulnerability. Unlike other holidays, on Sukkot we can’t just dip in, utter a few prayers and feel like we checked off the box. Sukkot mandates presence, which puts us on the path to a true feeling of joy.

The Magic of ‘Hygge’

In the most recent rankings of the World Happiness Report — in which America is ranked 18th and Israel 11th — the top-ranked countries all have high levels of income, freedom, trust, generosity and long life expectancy; but above all else, the currency of happiness in these countries is found in personal relationships. 

As has been widely reported, Denmark is always in the top five of these rankings. Some of its citizens’ high level of happiness comes from having a top-notch education system, extensive government services and a stable government (supported by the highest tax rate in the world). But most of Denmark’s secret sauce comes from a very simple idea called “hygge” (pronounced hue-guh).

My mother’s best friend from college happens to be Danish, and I asked her what hygge is about. She explained that it basically means spending quality time with people you really care about in an easygoing environment.

“The joyfulness in Denmark is because we spend time with each other, drink tea or coffee, eat crackers with cheese, and just look at one another in the eye and talk,” she said. 

“That’s it?” I responded with bemusement.

“That’s it,” she said. “We feel good when we are present, when we make others feel our presence and that we care.”

Hygge makes good sense. It promotes trust and helps remove stress. It creates a space that puts the relationship above all else. In America, our culture of individualism — no matter how strong our Gross Domestic Product — has not translated into higher levels of personal well-being or joyfulness. 

“Unlike other holidays, on Sukkot we can’t just dip in, utter a few prayers and feel like we checked off the box. Sukkot mandates presence.”

To me, the joyfulness of Sukkot has a hygge-like essence. It’s why the great Chassidic master, Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Peshischa, was madly in love with the holiday, exclaiming that “there is no other mitzvah like dwelling in a sukkah during Sukkot: a person enters into it with his entire body, his clothes, his shoes.” He’s saying that Sukkot is a holiday where we have real presence, where we are enjoined to just be. It’s the presence of being, of being secure with the One above and with our most intimate friends and family. 

PERMA

As Jewish Americans, we struggle with being present, which impedes our pursuit of joy. Martin Seligman, a founding leader of positive psychology, provides a very simple formula for joy — or “subjective well-being,” as he describes it. In his book “Flourish,” Seligman uses the acronym PERMA to represent what he sees as the five key elements to happiness: Positive emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and Achievement. 

As I see it, Sukkot can serve as the absolute, God-given opportunity to start a life of PERMA. Here’s how it can work:

P — Positive emotions refers to the pleasant life, or feeling good; and this optimism, joy and gratitude are key to and part of the gratitude we feel on Sukkot.

E — Engagement is the presence of a flow state, or what is sometimes called “being in the zone.” Did you enjoy building the sukkah? Were you completely absorbed by what you were doing? Were you enveloped in the experience of Sukkot?

R — Relationships are everything. Be in the presence of family and friends, sharing in the intimacy of those around you. When was the last time you laughed with best friends? Invest in these relationships and honor them above all else. It’s the ultimate irony: If we selfishly want to feel good, we need to be with other people. 

M — Meaning is the awareness that something is bigger than us. It’s when we ask questions, engage in dialogue, clarify purpose and tell our story. What better time to do that than in a sukkah on Sukkot?

A — Achievement. We all just finished the High Holy Days. Now we get to sit back and enjoy.

Fred Rogers of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” once said, “What is essential to life is invisible to the eye.” Using the sukkah to arrive at equanimity where we have emotional and psychological stability free from pain or any other phenomena that cause us to lose balance of mind, we get to feel the invisibility of presence — hygge, simcha!

On this Sukkot, let’s heed the advice of my Russian friend and stop forcing our kids to smile. Let’s learn, engage, ask and struggle. If we want to be joyful, be joyful. Construct it. Be with the people you love. This requires sacrifice. This requires doing.

You don’t need to be Danish to be joyful. Just be Jewish and reclaim Sukkot.


Noam Weissman is the Senior Vice President, Education of Jerusalem U, a digital media company focused on Israel education and Jewish identity.