The Pursuit of Happiness
Yes, we all are entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Life and liberty come easily, but it seems that while we indeed pursue happiness throughout our lives, true and lasting joy evades us.
What is the secret to happiness? How can we avoid depression? As always, the Torah has the answers to our struggles and this time it is found in a profound understanding of the holiday of Sukkot.
We can begin to discover what the meaning of Sukkot is from the special prayers we recite on the holiday. In the main blessing of Shemoneh Esrai, we describe Sukkot as Zman Simchateinu - the Season of Our Joy. This does not mean that we enjoy ourselves in this season, (although we may love Sukkot and the pleasures of eating outdoors). Rather, the explanation is that Sukkot is a time when we can access true joy and bring it within ourselves.
A holiday is never merely a memorial for an event but a marking in time of when, due to a historical event, we changed as a nation in our very nature and soul. Every year when we meet the holiday once again we are given access to potential qualities and to grow in ways that we were not capable of doing before the festival. The holiday increases the reach of our souls.
On Sukkot, the historical event is that we dwelled in Sukkot or huts, during the 40 year sojourn in the desert after we left Egypt. God tells us to observe the holiday, "So that your generations will know that I placed the Children of Israel in huts to dwell therein" (Vayikra 23:43). What is the significance of this event?
The focus seems to be, "I placed the Children of Israel in huts to dwell therein." God Himself directly put us in our "homes" in the desert and was distinctly involved in our lives. The Jewish people in the desert lived with a clear reality of God's presence. They witnessed daily miracles such as manna falling from heaven and water coming out of rocks. The Clouds of Glory enveloped their entire camp, protecting them from intruding enemies and bad weather. The Sukkah is actually built to remind us specifically of these Clouds of Glory as stated in Talmud Sukkah 11a. There was a special closeness between God and the Jewish people in the desert and when we leave our homes and go out to live in our Sukkot, we are reminded of that unique 40-year clear connection that we had with God.
This is why Sukkot is called the Season of Joy. You can't live with the clarity of God's presence without becoming a happier and different kind of person. Living with God in a Sukkah, even in our times, indicates that God provides. And whatever I have is not based on my own talents but what God is giving me. I'm not a success or failure. I can only try my best and God will decide if I succeed. We are always living in a Sukkah, in God's dwelling. We are never alone.
If you know that God is with you through all of life's struggles and that He is personally sending you any challenges that arise, you can more easily accept them in stride. God is Ultimate Goodness and He will never send any challenge if it is without a constructive purpose. These ideas comfort us during difficult times, allowing us to maintain equilibrium and happiness.
We are used to thinking that happiness must be triggered, that we cannot bring happiness to ourselves. If I have a child, I am happy. If I win the lottery, I am joyful. But the truth is quite the opposite. Joy is not based on what we are given in our lot in life. We can increase our own joy. If we are being commanded to celebrate a holiday and experience a season of joy, we are being told by God that joy is not a reaction to outside events but something we can bring to ourselves.
How do we bring joy into our lives? This is an art we must learn and Sukkot is the time of year when we can access it. Sukkot then becomes the most crucial holiday in terms of dealing with life.
We all know that everything depends on attitude. Take this example:
Two patients are in an old age home. One says, "Thank God, my family cares so much about me. Not a week goes by without a visit and when they come they always bring something! It could be an apple or a candy."
The other patient says, "What a horrible family I have. Once a week is all the time they have for me, after all I have done for them as a mother? All I'm worth is a candy or an apple!"
They're describing the same thing, yet they're describing opposite experiences.
The essential ingredient of our joy is not what we have but what we are and how we think. We can strive to have more but we must also love what we have already. Even simple, commonplace pleasures must be highlighted.
There is a Yiddish story written solely about an orange. It is called The Morantz, "The Orange." The orange was received as a present on Purim in Russia. Oranges in that part of the world were rare in the 1800's. The first day people from all over town came to look at it. Wow! What an unbelievable sight!
The second day they came to smell it - an incredible aroma. The next day they peeled it, saving each piece of peel with care in order to make marmalade. Then they divided the sections of the orange and crushed it in their mouths, feeling the delicious juices. An incredible experience.
And then they had the marmalade that lasted for weeks. A memory for a lifetime - the Orange.
Most of the time, we hardly stop to even notice the blessing and the pleasurable taste of the food we are eating. Oftentimes, before we realize it, we are finished eating without having focused on an appreciation for the pleasure that God has given us. We must focus on the many pleasures we enjoy already in order to attain happiness.
This is what the Mishna states in Avot 4:1, "Who is rich? One who takes pleasure and joy in his lot." Bill Gates is not necessarily the richest man in the world. You can have a net worth of 50 billion dollars but if you don't enjoy and appreciate your wealth and are always looking for ways to get more, you will never be happy nor rich. A homeless man may only have $100 to his name but if he is satisfied with it and counts his blessings, he is richer than you.
On Sukkot, by going out of homes to a temporary dwelling, we show that we don't need all of our material possessions to be happy. Happiness is not based on having but is based on being and enjoying. We train ourselves to appreciate the very basics of life. Whatever we have is appreciated and enjoyed.
Our taking and waving the Four Species on Sukkot also expresses an aspect of joy. The Midrash Rabbah (30:12) in Emor sees in the Four Species a oneness in the diversity of the Jewish people. The etrog (citron) has taste and fragrance, representing Jews who possess knowledge and good deeds. The lulav (palm branch) has taste but no fragrance, symbolizing Jews who have knowledge without righteous deeds. The hadas (myrtle branch) possesses only fragrance, representing those who have good deeds without knowledge. Finally, the aravah (willow branch) has neither taste nor smell because some Jews have neither good deeds nor knowledge.
We take all these species, which together represent the entire Jewish people, and we proclaim a oneness with all types of Jews. We accept upon ourselves the fostering of relationships with the totality of the Jewish people. We realize that everyone contributes to the nation and we attempt to see the positive qualities in other people rather then the negatives. This brings joy to ourselves and to others.
This concept of focusing on the positives of others is also learned from the order of sacrifices that is brought on Sukkot. Throughout the holiday, we bring 70 sacrifices, corresponding to the 70 nations of the world. (The Torah views the nations of the world as 70 roots with many other nations as branches.) This is because we see all nations of the world as important. Each has a specific role to fulfill in God's world and we pray to God, through these offerings, that He inspire them to true service of Him. It is especially on Sukkot that we do this because, as mentioned, it is called "The Season of Rejoicing." When we are happy with ourselves, we look at the world positively and can see good in others, even other nations, even if those nations are presently our enemies.
Sukkot is perhaps the most important time of year. It is a time when we receive divine help in attaining happiness and joy. Without happiness, life can be one long misery. God will grant us this assistance as long as we show Him that we are trying to access it.