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Sukkot and the Secret of Happiness

May 9, 2009 | by Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller

On Sukkot, we discover that happiness is never about having; it is about being.

Someone's luggage inevitably comes off the conveyor belt first. The odds (compared to say, winning a state lottery) are not really that heavily stacked against you, especially on a local flight. Yet after years of watching other people's luggage pass me by as I vainly waited for my non-descript suitcases, the one time mine came out first, I was in a state of disbelief. In my wildest dreams I never thought that I would be the lucky one!

I quickly filed the experience away in my "happiness" dossier and let its sappy sweetness soak my inner discontent. The problem, of course, is that within 20 minutes I was back into my just-off-the-plane-and-I'm-hot irritable impatient state that is as familiar and comfortable as an old shoe. Genuine happiness had eluded me once again.

Western society is infused with the right of the pursuit happiness. But do we find it?

Western society is infused with the right of the pursuit happiness. We hunt it down with relentless drive. Do we find it? I'm not so sure. Sure, no one is happy when they are hungry, cold, in pain, or deprived of companionship. But the tricky part is that being satiated, warm, healthy and surrounded by our fellow homo sapiens doesn't necessarily guarantee happiness.

Orchot Tzadikim, one of the classic Jewish ethical works, presents us with an interesting theory: Happiness is never about having (possessions, status, friends, etc.); it is about being. Ultimately it is about abandoning the role of a stranger in the universe, and becoming experientially mindful of God's constant love, wisdom and providence. The result is a continual feeling of serenity and content that is independent of outside factors.

By no means does this mean escapism or denial. It means acceptance of the fact that we are here to elevate ourselves and the world around us, and that we need the inspiration and challenges that God provides for this to happen.

Blessed With Opportunity

When we look honestly and ask ourselves when our peak moments of happiness took place, the ones that leave a life-long imprint, what do we discover? Almost invariably we find ourselves reliving moments of achievement and of real connection. Yet the sweetness of achievement can never really be separated from the challenges we have to face when committing ourselves to doing something meaningful. Both challenge and inspiration are gifts from God. The key to happiness is learning to recognize His gifts, both in the form of what we call "content" and what we call "discontent."

Let us hear the voice of one man, a member of a religious kibbutz:

When the war (Holocaust) ended we had nothing. I wanted to build. I had enough destruction, enough ashes. I met my wife the same week I arrived at the kibbutz. We understood each other, we needed to heal, and the only comfort we would ever know would come from building.

We were married soon after. I had nothing to give her that was really mine, and no money to buy anything. So I bought her a broom with the few coins that I got for doing odd jobs. It was my engagement ring, my wedding ring; it was my only real possession. We treasure that broom till today. Whenever I see it, I remember where I came from and how blessed I am to have the opportunity to build my family.

We will never find happiness when all we see is the surface of life, without examining its core. The number that symbolizes this idea is the number seven. Why seven? All physical objects have six sides -- the four sides, plus top and bottom. We describe this as "surface." Under the surface is the inner dimension of the object under study. And it's the inside, not the surface, which gives it form.

Similarly, the surface of life is not its essence. Seven is the number that tells us that we can and must have both, the surface and the essence, to really have the wholeness that life offers, and the serenity that is its natural child.

Cloud of Glory

Shabbat, the holidays, and the sabbatical year (Shmita) all revolve around seven. Of these, only Sukkot is called "the season of our happiness." Why Sukkot?

Interestingly Sukkot doesn't celebrate the sort of major historical event that took place on a specific date (like Shabbat which is the day God rested, or Passover which is the Exodus from Egypt). Sukkot celebrates our survival in the desert while living in shacks for 40 years. All requirements of a sukkah (impermanence, a ceiling made of materials taken from the earth, a roof that is not fully closed, the stars must be visible, etc.) help it retain its shack-like status.

While we were living in shacks, we were surrounded by clouds of Divine glory that were sent to protect us from every possible harm. The Torah tells us that our path was determined not by anyone's navigational skills, but by the direction taken by the pillar of cloud that led us by day, and the pillar of fire by night. We lived constantly with both challenges -- as is symbolized by the fragility of the sukkah itself, and the inspiration given by the clouds.

A sukkah is defined as having more shade than light, yet we must still be able to see the stars. The light is dimmed, yet clearly visible. That is the reality by which we live, and through which we ultimately achieve happiness and fulfillment.

Seven Ways

How do we bring the joy of Sukkot into our lives and keep it there? We can do it by changing the way we think. When we look at life in a way that includes God in our moment-to-moment equations, we can change our willingness to embrace challenge instead of retreating in fear, and to be open to giving and receiving love.

Orchot Tzadikim presents us with seven (surprised?) ways of thinking that can change our lives.

  1. Knowing that wherever we are, and no matter what negative choices we made in the past, God is compassionate and loves us more than we love ourselves. As long as we are alive, there are opportunities to find love and meet challenges.

  2. Learning to recognize the ultimate Address of all the goodness that we experience. It is God who provided us with family, gave us access to friends, and most of all it is His living presence within us that inspires our self-expression. When we ask what we like best in the person we love the most, inevitably the answer will be "s/he is loyal, trustworthy a real straight arrow"; "s/he is sensitive, when we are together I feel understood"; "s/he is caring and giving." None of these traits describe a physical characteristic. They are all expressions of the infinite light of God within us.

  3. Letting go of thinking that God owes you a spouse/job/home/ because you live a decent life. Believe it or not, God was coping long before you were on the scene, and will continue to do so when you leave this world. Rather than thinking in terms of entitlement, learn to think honestly. We are the constant recipients of gifts that we can never repay.

  4. Letting go of blaming other people for your life's challenges. God designs them for you. No one can increase or decrease the quality or quantity of the challenges that you will face. To paraphrase the Talmud, God has many bears and many lions.

  5. Knowing that our hearts are an open book. God "reads" us and isn't deceived by any of our mind games. Happiness depends to a large degree on how much integrity we have when confronting life.

  6. Learning to take responsibility. Our need to be awakened by the disturbing and chaotic nature of this world is sometimes precipitated by our deep spiritual slumber.

  7. Appreciating that the need to earn a living brings out our creativity, that the temptation to cross lines financially brings out our morality, and that facing our limitations draws us closer to humility and having an honest relationship with God.

We are all in this together. We have different challenges in our lives and different paths that can lead us to inspiration. But we are bound together. This idea is symbolized by the four species that we join together on Sukkot. They grow in different climates, and have different qualities -- the etrog (citron) is the heart, the lulav (palm) the spine, the hadassim (myrtles) the eyes, the aravot (willows) the lips. But on Sukkot, we hold them aloft, together as one, in recognition of the Power that binds us to a shared destiny.

The joy that we feel as we face life with faith has the power not only to change us as individuals and as Jews, but to change the face of the entire world. The 70 bulls sacrificed in ancient times in the Temple during the week of Sukkot symbolized the 70 aboriginal nations from which civilization stems. Each one, in their own way, will find the God of Israel, and discover the resources of joy within their collective souls.

May the day come soon all humanity comes together under the banner of the One Who sustains us all, and may we discover the life's true joy constantly brimming beneath the surface.



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