The Best Things in Life are Not Things
How the holiday of Sukkot contains the key to finding happiness.
When Thomas Jefferson was tapped to draft the Declaration of Independence, he famously included something as an “inalienable right” that wasn’t a right or priority before in a world that people were simply striving to survive. Every citizen of the United States of America, Jefferson concluded, will have the right to pursue happiness.
Though Jefferson described happiness as a pursuit, we live in a time where it has become an expectation, an entitlement. And yet, it remains as elusive as ever, maybe even more than ever.
Passover is the time we can achieve liberty and freedom. Shavuot is a time for a renewed commitment to Torah. And Sukkot is characterized as zman simchateinu, a time rich with potential for happiness. I might have assigned those designations a little differently.
On Passover we sit at a magnificently set table and recline as we drink four glasses of wine. Shavuot we indulge in ice cream and cheesecake, vehicles of boundless happiness and joy for many. And then comes Sukkot, which finds us sitting outside in a flimsy structure, eating off paper plates, fighting off bees, flies, the cold or the heat, and minimizing the variety of food at each meal so that we won’t have to carry out and in too many plates. Which sounds least likely to be anointed “a time for joy”?
Rav Kook points out that we find the sukkah as the symbol of our yearning for peace. Prophecies reference the day we will sit in the great sukkah. On Shabbos and Yom Tov evenings, we pray, "Blessed are You, God, Who spreads the sukkah of peace upon us and upon His nation Israel and Jerusalem.” What is the connection between peace and the sukkah?
Imagine you hire a contractor to build or renovate your house. You pay to build a house, which typically consist of rooms with walls and a roof. One day the contractor tells you he is done and you take a look. Lo and behold on one side, the walls don’t reach all the way to the ground and on the other they don’t extend all the way up to the ceiling. The wall has countless holes in it and the roof has a gap. Infuriated, you confront the contractor.
Without missing a beat, he replies, “What are you upset about, the wall comes within three tefachim (9-12 inches) off the ground, so it is as if it is connected. And the other wall extends up 10 tefachim (30-40 inches from the ground), but because it is aligned under the edge of the roof it is as if it extends down to meet the wall so that is a full wall. And in terms of the roof, the gap is less than 9 inches so I consider the roof complete.” Would you be satisfied with his explanation?
And yet, when it comes to building a sukkah, we are obligated to have walls and a roof. Nevertheless, God essentially tells us, “You know what, here are creative ways to define walls and a roof. Use the leniencies of lavud, gud asik mechitzta, pi tikra yoreid v’soseim, dofen akuma, and I will view it as if the walls and roof are complete. If your wall comes within 3 tefachim of the ground, lavud, that is close enough. If you have a gap in the ceiling but it’s less than 3 tefachim, I will view it as closed, etc.”
When sitting in the typical sukkah, to see a complete structure you must employ your imagination and creativity to focus on what is there, not what is missing. These are the same ingredients to achieve peace, says Rav Kook. In addition, I believe these are the critical ingredients to not only pursue happiness, but to catch up to it.
We can focus on the details, the minutiae, the deficiencies and shortcomings, what is missing, and the gaps in our life, and we will be miserable. Or we can employ imagination and creativity and find happiness. Happiness is not the result of getting what we are missing, but it is achieved by focusing on what is there and seeing our lives as complete, even if it often takes imagination and creativity to do so.
Happiness doesn’t come from things, it comes from experiences and it comes from relationships. Don’t get me wrong, things are nice, they are good, and they are enjoyable, but we all know or have heard of plenty of people with lots of things who are still pursuing happiness who haven’t yet found it. And there are people who lack many things, but are very happy.
Emory University conducted a comprehensive study studying the relationship between wedding expenses and marriage duration. The two economics professors behind the study analyzed data from 3,000 married or once-married couples. They found that women whose engagement rings cost over $20,000 are 3.5 times more likely to get divorced than those in the $5,000 to $10,000 range. Men who spent $2,000 to $4,000 on their wife’s ring got divorced 1.5 times more than those who dropped between $500 and $2,000. Of course, these results are much more correlation than causation. There are happily married people with enormously expensive rings, but the study concluded that having an expensive ring or the capacity to buy other expensive things had an inverse impact on your having a successful marriage.
Rav Hirsch writes, “The madness with which we cling to our worldly possessions leaves no room for our true happiness.” Sukkot is the time for joy because we just finished standing in shul, begging for our lives and saying the word "who will live and who will die", thinking about the people who left the world this past year, and wondering and fearing who may not be here next Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Look back at the year we just experienced. Think of the people in the Bahamas whose homes right now look less sturdy or stable than our sukkahs and be happy for what you have. Think about the Jews murdered in Pittsburgh and Poway, guilty only of the crime of coming to shul, and channel your gratitude for being alive into happiness. Think about people in your life who would give anything to sit in a hot, humid, buggy, uncomfortable sukkah with a loved one who is no longer here. Consider the world around us and all that can go wrong and choose to see what is going right in your life. Use your imagination and creativity if necessary and see what is there, not what is missing.
The Shelah HaKadosh says there can be absolutely no anger in the Sukkah. We cannot and must not contaminate our holy sukkahs, designed to invoke happiness, with impatience, anger or harsh words.
In the sukkah, don’t feel the heat of the sun; feel the warmth of your family. Don’t focus on who is not at the table; focus on who is there. Don’t focus on what spilled; focus on how much is left to enjoy.
Immersing ourselves in the sukkah is the secret to finally finding happiness. Go out of your home with fixed walls and a full roof and step into your temporary and incomplete hut that takes creativity and imagination to see as a dwelling, and you will experience true happiness and joy.