Do you want to be happy?
Then here’s my advice: don’t try to be happy.
That idea comes from Oliver Burkeman’s excellent book The Antidote: Happiness For People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking. He tells us that significant research suggests that many of the ways we try to get happy (“Set a goal! Think positive thoughts! Imagine the life you want!”) are actually counter-productive.
Instead, he argues, we should realize that we may not achieve our goals, that negative thoughts and feelings are part of life, and that scary things happen.
…t]he notion that in all sorts of contexts, from our personal lives to politics, all this trying to make everything right is a big part of what’s wrong. Or, to quote [philosopher Alan] Watts, “when you try to stay on the surface of the water, you sink; but when you try to sink, you float,” and that “insecurity is the result of trying to be secure…” (8)
He calls this method “the backwards law,” and it’s a perfect message for Purim. which is the day when “everything gets turned upside down.”
On one hand, Purim is clearly a fun holiday. We wear masks and costumes. We hold parties. We have carnivals and celebrations. We let our hair out.
One the other hand, the Purim story itself is filled with tremendous anxiety and uncertainty. Will Esther be brave enough to speak to King Ahashuerus, even though it might mean she’d be killed? What would have happened if Mordechai hadn’t overheard the plot to kill the king, or if his courtiers hadn’t realized that Mordechai needed to be rewarded? Most of all, will the Jews survive Haman’s murderous plot?
Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that the word “Purim” comes from the word “pur,” meaning “lot” — as in “lottery.” Purim, at its core, reminds us that life is uncertain, scary and often gets turned upside-down.
Yet it’s that very lack of security that can lead us to a greater sense of fulfillment and happiness. As Burkeman explains,
…[t]o seek security is to try to remove yourself from change, and thus from the thing that defines life. “If I want to be secure, that is, protected from the flux of life,” [Alan] Watts writes, “I am wanting to be separate from life.” Which brings us to the crux of the matter: it is because we want to feel secure that we build up the fortifications of ego, in order to defend ourselves, but it is those very fortifications that create the feeling of insecurity…
“The desire for security and the feeling of insecurity are the same thing,” concludes Watts. “To hold your breath is to lose your breath. A society based on the quest for security is nothing but a breath-retention contest, in which everyone is taut as a drum as as purple as a beet.” Even if we temporarily and partially achieve the feeling of security, he adds, it doesn’t feel good…”We discover [not only] that there is no safery, [and] that seeking it is painful, [but] that when we imagine we have found it, we don’t like it.” (146-147)
Ultimately, Purim reminds us that we don’t have complete control over our lives, and in fact, trying to desperately hold onto safety makes us deeply unhappy, since we are not truly living life to its fullest. Instead, if we can embrace the fact that life can be scary and unpredictable, we can then be totally present in moments of joy.
In other words, to truly be happy, we need to turn our ideas of happiness upside-down.
“To me, every hour of the day and night is an unspeakably perfect miracle.” -Walt Whitman.
Hanukkah is not just about Maccabees and a tiny jar of oil. No, Hanukkah is about finding hope and beauty despite the darkness of the season. Soon after taking over, the Maccabees were themselves corrupt, murderous, and formed problematic political alliances not so different than that which they fought against. As for the oil – Meh. It doesn’t do much for me. I’m more of a ‘part the seas’ or ‘burning bush’ kinda guy. Call me older fashioned. Famously, the Talmud asks, “Mai Hanukkah”, “what is Hanukkah”? A lovely conversation follows in which we learn to light our candles with an increasing sense of the miraculous and light (Hillel’s position) rather than with diminishing illumination (Shamai’s position). The nature of Jewish textual study is an invitation into the text, so as my contribution to the conversation I answer “what is Hanukkah” differently than either Hillel or Shamai. To me, Hanukkah is a commitment to bring kavod (honor, or weight) to the world around us.
The gold of the Old Temple was valued by its weight. Similarly, the ability to appreciate beauty around us is to endow it with value. Beauty is more than just an aesthetically pleasing quality. It requires a level of attention, appreciation, and wonder on the part of the person perceiving the beauty. The human capacity for kavod (to honor and appreciate) aligns nicely with the Positive Psychology human virtue of appreciating beauty.
How do we notice the beauty around us?
The question is all the more significant in the darkest season, hence the importance of Hanukkah. We most easily perceive beauty in panoramic perspective that sees connections or in the microscopic view that searches for the unique.
Beauty is found in powerful similarity, in repeating patterns, in balance and in symmetry. Similarities and patterns are found throughout nature but are easily ignored. The fact that such intricacies in nature are constantly around us but we fail to notice proves that beauty is more than something being endowed with a particular aesthetic. The ability to perceive requires our attention. The pattern of milk as it swirls in a hot coffee cup, the patterns of our veins and arteries in our bodies, the waves of the ocean, patterns of the galaxies of the cosmos are amazingly beautiful. There are days when we miss what is right in front of us. Hanukkah reorients us to what we value (kavod) and to the beauty that surrounds us.
Beauty is found not only in the interconnective patterns all around us, but also in our ability to perceive what is unique. Where are patterns broken? What makes something different than my first perception? Can I take time to appreciate “blue.” Beauty ask us to invest attention and to value not just ‘blue’, but to perceive the difference between periwinkle blue, cyan, baby blue, powder blue, Bermuda blue, azure, navy blue, turquoise, or cerulean.
“Who is honored (mi mehubad)? The one who honors all life.”
Imagine seeing each person as a unique individual rather than like me or non-like me. Democratic or Republican. Young or Old. Jewish or Not-Jewish.
Regarding the unique character of every person, our sages put it this way:
“Here is the greatness of the Holy One Blessed One. Man mints many coins with one stamp, all of them the same as one another. When God minted every person with the stamp of Adam not one of them is the same. For this reason every single person must say “The world was created for me.” -Sanhedrin 37B.
Things you can do during Hanukkah to appreciate your capacity for kavod and your ability to appreciate beauty:
1) Each night of Hanukkah, after you light your candles, spend a few minutes thinking about what makes a particular person, object, or place so special. What are the unique qualities you find? Consider this person’s, this object’s, or this place’s connection to others. How vast a web of connection can you find? Share your thoughts with the people present if you’re lucky enough to light candles in this dark season with others.
2) This Hanukkah, find an occasion to say the Shechiyanu blessing beyond the first day. The blessing is said each time we do something for the first time or even the first time in a long while. Do something unique this week.
Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech haolam, shehechehyanu, v’kiy’manu, v’higianu laz’man hazeh.
Praise to You, Eternal Blessing One: for giving us life, sustaining us, and enabling us to reach this season.
When I cook in my kitchen, I have a lot of company. I sometimes speak aloud to my grandmother who helps me intuit when the recipe “looks right.” My father looks on when I make pizza—none was better than his. My mother-in-law sits at the kitchen table recopying her recipes, telling me stories about her life. They are blessed and welcome spirits who provide context for my life.
But I have other company, too—sometimes in my kitchen, but not always. They come unbidden, but are welcome. They teach me to receive every moment of life not in expectation, but as an astonishing and treasured gift—and above all—as a limited resource.
They are the souls who treasured a crumbling crust of bread from their meager prisoners rations in the labor camps. They are the mothers and children who starved in the siege of Leningrad. They are our ancestors who were caught in sieges when the first and second Temples fell, or when the Crusaders crushed their lives. They are the helpless and voiceless pawns caught in current national and global conflicts. They are our neighbors, nearby and a world away. And they remind me that human suffering at the hands of tyrants cannot be sorted into neat columns of place and time and nationality or placed in historical context. They provide context for the way people behave in the world.
Understandably, we try to do this, especially when the reality of the human capacity to harm others makes us feel as if we can’t breathe, either. It’s all just too big to grasp. But really, the tragedies are not about sheer numbers, nor the depth of an oppressor’s depravity. Every tragedy is individual. Mothers, fathers, sons and daughters—whose precious lives were cut short in the name of ideologies – were all once babes dandled on their parents’ knees.
I have no idea how those who survive/d in the most extreme suffering manage/d to open their eyes each morning. I would like to think I could, somehow, to be resourceful enough to not starve or freeze to death. To do whatever it would take. Would I be strong enough? Perhaps. Would the overwhelming pain of it all make my soul long to flee my body? Very likely. Would I be able to pray? I’m not so sure—because when I see the news, I am not so sure I can pray today, either.
The cultures that razed the temples to the ground, brought about the horror of the crusades, and the scourge of the diabolical reign of madmen in the last century were easily identifiable enemies. But the threat we now face is more insidious, and just as deadly. It emerged over the years with war games and paintball and laser tag and the Hunger Games. And today, just as in ancient Jerusalem, the oppressor’s culture is alluring to many even as it destroys the lives of innocents. Today, though, we have no idea if our neighbors are among those who are armed and ready to do harm to others and claim it as their right. Today, we do not know if our children are safe in their schools. How did this happen? In the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel: “Few are guilty, but all are responsible.”
Last Sunday was the second yahrzeit of those who were murdered in Sandy Hook. That town is right next door. Literally. Members of my congregation live there. And they will never, ever live “normal” lives again. Their friends and neighbors lost their children, their innocence, their sense of physical security and for many, their faith in humankind—forever. Children all over town have been traumatized beyond description. In Sandy Hook, as in all other communities in which such tragedies occur, the earth spins slightly off its axis.
Since that infamous day, over 70,000 of your neighbors have been senselessly murdered with guns, and another 200.000 have been wounded. The scale of these atrocities add up to staggering numbers while the ability of their assailants to be armed to the teeth (some 300 million weapons in civilian hands) is each day protected in the name of the chilling ideology that a one’s right to own a gun outweighs the rights of children (and all of us) to live in security. How powerful is the fear of an enemy that cannot be identified! We would, as a nation, never tolerate such an assault from an external enemy. And yet, it is nothing short of terrorism. In truth, the earth is spinning of its axis for all of us.
Rabbi Avraham Joshua Heschel said, when he attended a demonstration against the Vietnam war, “I am here because I cannot pray.” I get it. The anger and frustration have to be channeled into positive, wise and compassionate action.
And I have to ask each morning: what can I do to be worthy of this day, of the breath I draw? If I cannot utter a prayer, is there some way I can BE a prayer? Can I find the wisdom and strength to do whatever it will take, even in my own small way? I think of the Maccabees who were small in number and mighty in the strength that they drew down from the Creator of all life, and of the light and love and justice that are commanded to bring into the world. Like the oil that burned miraculously in the menorah of old, will I be able to burn bright enough, for long enough?
Think of Yael, who risked her life to ensure that the Maccabees would be victorious. Think of Judah and Mattathius who lead the few and the brave. We know our ancestors’ names not because they set out to do something earth-changing—but because they did something—and that something, eventually, changed the world. They remind us that when we respond to the call for justice, and do something—we are worthy of our breath – praying with each small act, lighting one small light at a time—and changing the world.
Since I moved to the Pacific Northwest a decade ago, people ask me how I deal with all the rain. Yes, it does rain a lot, but that doesn’t bother me. What did surprise me when I first moved here, and I still have trouble getting used to, is the early nightfall in winter. The reduced sunlight in winter feels very pronounced in this corner of the US, with sunset coming around 4 p.m. in the dead of winter.
And while the routines of life continue normally, there is one slight adjustment I make to my schedule in winter: I turn on my “happy light.”
A “happy light” is a colloquial term to describe a full-spectrum lamp, a lamp that gives off far more light than a standard lamp. It is used to treat Seasonal Affective Disorder, a documented condition wherein, specifically during winter, people will exhibit symptoms such as fatigue, lack of energy and concentration, tendency to overeat, and others. Since it is connected to decreased sun exposure, the lamp provides “light therapy” whereby exposure to the light is meant to counteract this absence of sunlight.
Now, do I clinically have Seasonal Affective Disorder? I don’t know, but I know during winter I tend to exhibit the aforementioned symptoms of fatigue and less motivation. And does the happy light work? I don’t know either, but it does feel good to get more light exposure during these dark times.
To use a happy light, one simply turns it on while carrying out normal functions. I usually put it on in the morning, so it is on while I have my morning coffee, fix breakfast for my kids and prepare lunches. The light is not meant to be used functionally as a normal lamp—i.e., lighting up a room or used for reading—rather one is meant to look upon it indirectly, and by doing so, maximize one’s exposure to the increased light in order to affect an internal change.
Today is the first day of Hanukkah. Last night we lit the first candle of this eight-day festival of lights. While we celebrate the historical story of the Maccabees and their victory over the ruling Greeks in the 2nd century BCE, and the rededication of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem to Jewish use, it is not a surprise that we celebrate a festival involving light during the darkest time of the year. Hanukkah overlaps with Rosh Hodesh Tevet, the celebration of the new month of Tevet. And as Rosh Hodesh is marked by the new moon (that is, no moon) and this month includes the winter solstice, one night of Hanukkah falls on the darkest night of the month that is closest to the longest night of the year.
So we create light to combat the effects of the darkness, and not just the physical darkness. Lighting the menorah is a form of “light therapy” to combat the spiritual darkness that surrounds us. Like the “happy light,” the Hanukkah candles are not meant to be functional or used practically, but are meant to be gazed upon to maximize one’s exposure to the increased light in order to affect an internal change.
How does it work? First, light the menorah. And when you look at the illuminated Hanukkah menorah, ask yourself these questions: What is the darkness that brings you down? Where in your life do you need illumination? What broken aspects of our society need to be exposed and brought to light? In what parts of your life do you burn bright?
Asking these questions and more will allow the light of the menorah to penetrate your inner being, And that should make us happy.
Teenagers Sasha and Malia Obama couldn’t keep a straight face during the annual Turkey Pardon Ceremony.
Thank God for their commentary in body language!
How could anyone keep a straight face during this grotesque theater of the absurd? Two turkeys, Mac and Cheese, named sardonically for vegetarian foods, were publicly pardoned. This took place just after 45 million un-named turkeys were slaughtered for the American celebration of Thanksgiving.
Maybe the pardoning ritual is an uncomfortable joke. Maybe it is an admission of guilt. Maybe it is an awkward attempt at an atonement ritual. Logically, we know that two spared lives cannot erase 45 million deaths. But maybe the ritual of pardon has some power.
Not as much power, though, as the ritual of a thanksgiving offering of animal life.
In Nepal, this week, many celebrated the festival of Gadhimai. In gratitude to this goddess, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of buffalo were butchered. Many American animal activists criticized the foreign festival; some drew parallels with American Thanksgiving.
Jewish parallels can be drawn as well. Some Jewish writers call Sukkot the Jewish festival of thanksgiving. During Sukkot, the Talmud says, 70 animals were offered on the altar. Lest readers be outraged by such decadence, the Talmud hastens to explain its meaning. Seventy animals hint at the 70 nations of the world. Delicately put, a thanksgiving offering touches a universal chord in human nature. Less delicately, a massive sacrifice of animals brings all people together.
Maybe this explanation seems obvious to you, but to me it begs for psychological and sociological interpretation.
Many Jewish scholars describe eating meat as a “compromise.” The Torah explains this through a teaching story: The original human beings were told to eat grasses and seeds. Only ten generations later, however, people and animals were killing one another. God wiped the earth clean with a flood and restarted it with some new rules. People, who could not avoid killing, could now satisfy their impulses by eating animals.
Perhaps partaking of meat at a festival affirms our species-being. Yes, we are aggressive, the ritual teaches, but we do not need to kill one another. Together we affirm a pact: we kill only other species, and only to eat. At American Thanksgiving, we affirm this pact with family and friends; in the Talmud’s vision of the Temple, strangers from around the world affirm it together. The Temple thus becomes a centre of peace.
Of course, some contemporary psychologists would object. Some may view these extravagant meat-based festivals as bonding rituals. But research shows that people who harm animals are more likely to harm people. The manifest lessons of peaceful festivals contain subtle, subliminal messages of aggression: Us versus them. Desensitization.
When you see through the manifest content to the mixed messages, it’s hard to keep a straight face.
Maybe the U.S.’s first daughters were simply uncomfortable watching their father tell bad jokes on TV. But to suggest that would be to underestimate teens. Real teenagers see inconsistencies, ask edgy questions, and work the answers out in deep private conversations.
That’s why I have tried to see this season through fresh teenage eyes. Thank you, Sasha and Malia, for helping me take another look at festive animal offerings and ask, “Why?”
Photo Credit: Dan Smith, Wikimedia Commons
This Thanksgiving, I felt so grateful for the presence of beloved family. Yet I was also mindful of a friend’s recent comment on the need to have sympathy for those who did not have family with whom to share the holiday. Whether by geography, strained or broken relationships, illness and loss, many could not share the holiday with families.
Others endured the indignity of not being able to afford a Thanksgiving meal. Suffering at home on the holiday, or visiting soup kitchens, it can’t be easy to be outsiders in a culture that seems to elevate “things” over people.
The holiday season has crept earlier, beginning around Halloween. That means that for two months the season of “sharing” can be painful for many people.
Isn’t it ironic that the holiday of “thanks” is celebrated with feasts where abundant food is consumed and discarded? Where is the connection of thankfulness to gluttony? What does this mean for our souls?
The greater irony is that the season of “giving” begins on the holiday of “thanks,” as feasting quickly gives way to shopping. It has become a season celebrating conspicuous consumption.
Enter #GivingTuesday, designated for the Tuesday after Thanksgiving – after the Black Friday and Cyber Monday shopping feasts.
Founded in 2012 by leaders at New York’s 92nd Street Y, #GivingTuesday is a global day dedicated to giving back. Its common purpose is: “to celebrate generosity and to give.” It brings together charities, families, businesses, community centers, and students around the world.
How can we give generously? Many of us will write checks to charities at year’s end. These tzedakah dollars are essential to countless organizations doing so much good in the world.
Yet, as important as that giving is, it is not enough. The real impact on our world and on our life’s purpose comes through generous acts of doing. By getting involved, we can make a difference in people’s lives while living our values.
Doing good becomes a natural habit through experience. There are many hands-on ways to give. The Jewish Council for Pubic Affairs will participate in the Food Stamp Challenge, starting the Sunday after Thanksgiving, to raise awareness of hunger and poverty in the United States. For one week, participants will limit their food budget to the average food stamp (SNAP) benefit. The Jewish Federation of Greater Metrowest is holding a “Community Challah Bake” to benefit hundreds through Jewish Family Service and local food pantries.
It is important to contribute generously to sustain social justice, learning and religious organizations. But this week, we can commence the season of “giving” with mindfulness of our values and commitment to nurture generous living. True giving won’t be found at stores. It requires a heart-opening to the needs of others, and a commitment to make a difference.
I’ll be at the Challah Bake on Tuesday. How will you get involved?
The human trait of Hakarat HaTov, literally “noticing the good” but often translated as gratitude, is a perfect character trait to find within us and to continue to cultivate more of, especially the week of Thanksgiving.
In the Passover Haggadah we are reminded of the word Dayenu, “it would have been enough.” This song is based on a Psalm that reminds the Jewish People: If God had only taken us out of slavery it would have been enough. If God only gave us the Torah, that would have been enough. But there was more. We were given the Land of Israel, the Shabbat, the Holy Temple, holidays to celebrate, food to eat, drink to quench our thrust. Any one thing would have been enough of a gift, but in fact we have so much!
In developing our gratitude it is helpful to be “grateful for the partial” (click for a video). So often we have a fine day until X, or Y, or Z happens, and then suddenly we forget all the perfectly fine things that happened. Hakarat HaTov, noticing the good, reminds us to accept the good as genuinely good, and not let the negative in our life so easily overshadow the positive. As it turns out, our brains are wired to notice unpleasant threatening stimulus, but we can also notice the good.
I once heard a story of a Spanish sea captain who would put on his reading glasses every time he ate strawberries.
“Why do you do that,” his crew finally asked.
The captain replied, “I love strawberries. The difficult things in life always seem bigger than they really are, so I wanted the good things to appear bigger too.”
Making your Thanksgiving meaningful.
A) One time each day, take some time to consider something nice, good, or kind. It might be a loved one, a great song on the radio. It might be chocolate. Spend a few minutes thinking about it. Being “grateful for the partial” means noticing that this person, thing, or activity is somehow part of your life. Where do you feel this gratitude? Maybe a warmth in your chest? Perhaps a smile comes across your face. As it turns out, gratitude has a feeling.
B) This week, make a “gratitude list.” Actually write down 10 people, activities, or things that make your life better. Each time you sit to write your list, be sure not to repeat previous items. If it is possible, reach out to another person to share your gratitude – especially if they are involved or responsible for what you are grateful for.
Start now!! List 5 things you are grateful. Share your list with others. Invite them to add to the list, and watch it grow.
Recently a woman asked me if it was okay during her prayers to pray to her deceased mother. She said,”the first thing I think of when I start to pray is my mother. My friend told me that I was being a bad Jew because there was something, my mother, between me and God. Rabbi,” she asked, “Is there something wrong with my prayers?”
This brings us directly to the question of Halloween, and what it is that we believe, or not, about ghosts. Years ago, I had a congregant whose son spoke to his beloved but deceased Bubby through a conch shell that she had given him. I once counseled a woman whose phone rang every day precisely at the same time. She was certain that it was her father calling. He had passed away several months before. Do we believe in ghosts? Why not? Religiously speaking, believing in a God you cannot see or hear or touch but still feel in deep relationship with, is even more complicated. So why not ghosts?
The Zohar, Judaism’s primer on mysticism, teaches that when a soul departs, the soul of the departed experiences three things simultaneously: a) The soul enters into the Mystery of the Infinite One. To my mind, it’s something like what happened to Yoda and Obi Wan Kanobi; they became one with the Force. b) The soul remains to comfort those who mourn. c) The soul enters into Gan Eden and experiences the delights that he or she enjoyed while on earth.
What I told the woman who asked me about praying to her mother is the following.
“I believe that your relationship with your mother is foundational in your understanding of the transcendent. I do not believe that you confused your mother with God, but that she is the closest access point you have to loving energy beyond our own realm.”
Do we believe in ghosts?
I’m not sure, nor am I that curious. It doesn’t make someone a “bad Jew” to answer this question with a “yes.” Tevye’s wife certainly believed in ghosts. I’ve performed several weddings where the spirit of late relatives, mothers, fathers, grandparents, were invited, and welcomed by name.
In the end, I am glad that my friend is still comforted by her mother in this different capacity, that a young boy with his conch shell still has an active connection to his deceased grandmother, and that at 3:15 every afternoon, when her phone rings, my former congregant still has her father.
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Every year, I do my best to engage with the process of teshuvah (repentance) during the High Holidays. A few weeks ago, I made resolutions, asked for and received forgiveness, cast away my sins, felt spiritually renewed…and then the craziness of the year began, as it does each year: right now, my partner and I are settling into our new apartment and unpacking boxes. I am starting new jobs while getting acquainted with a new city. Despite my best intentions, I’ve lost sight of the higher self with whom I am trying to align. Like many of us, I am overwhelmed with the business of life at this time of year.
At the end of this week, we enter the month of Marcheshvan, most notable for its lack of holidays. And last week, at the end of Sukkot, Jewish communities around the world began to add the words to the Amidah that we will say until Passover: mashiv ha’ruach u’morid ha’gashem (“the One who causes the winds to blow and the rains to fall”).
Why do we say this as we enter Marcheshvan?
According to the 12th century commentator, Rashi (in his comment on Lev 25:21) the ancient Israelites would “sow…in Marcheshvan, and reap in Nisan.” Planting seeds at this time could be precarious: Marcheshvan’s ancient name, Bul, suggests it was capable of bringing both floods, and raindrops (from Mar-). The story of Noah’s flood that we read this week expresses our anxiety that the small and fragile seeds we plant, whether physical or spiritual, will be washed away by disaster. In our own lives, the intentions we sow need a special kind of nourishment.
A Hasidic teaching from the Alter Rebbe explains that water, the essential ingredient for life, is an expression of Divine love. Rain is life-giving, and the slow downpour of water sustains the world – whereas a flood of water overwhelms us and is destructive. After the holiday season and the intimate moments with God it hopefully brought, we ready ourselves for the long period until Hannukah by praying that God hold back the flood, showering us instead with the divine “rain” we need in order to continue to nourish the seeds of the highest intentions that we sowed during the High Holidays.
As we emerge from the aseret y’mei ha’t’shuvah (“the 10 days of repentance”), we pray for the capacity to integrate the insights we received during this time into the everyday. During the onslaught of the ordinary, it is all too easy to succumb to old habits. But as we enter Marcheshvan we are invited to consider how to more mindfully re-enter the day-to-day business of our own lives. This month gives us the space we need to bring the resolutions we made during the “high” of these holidays into our everyday functioning. And during this time, along with our ancestors, we ask for the blessing of steady rains to nourish the seeds we have planted.
Whether it is recommitting to a regular spiritual practice, to deepening our learning, or to nourishing our creativity, only we know what nourishment and love will help the seeds of our intentions break open and take root in the ground of our daily lives. Through careful tending, when the time arrives to stop praying for rain at the beginning of Passover, we will be able to reap the fruits of our labor and truly taste our freedom.
Yom Kippur is an exhausting day. By the end of the day, we’re tired, we’re hungry, and we’re just ready to be done. But traditionally, even if you’re exhausted, there’s a mitzvah to fulfill the next day: on the day after Yom Kippur, you’re supposed to build your sukkah.
What’s fascinating is that the day after Yom Kippur was also seen as the first day of building for the two most important structures in Jewish history—the mishkan (home for the Ark of the Covenant), and the First Temple in Jerusalem.
And these three structures—a sukkah, the mishkan, and the Temple—reflect three different levels of permanence.
The ancient Temple in Jerusalem was awe-inducing. It was at the top of a mountain in Jerusalem, and for most people, it would take days or weeks to travel there. It was a mob scene, with thousands and thousands and thousands of people in one location. If you went there, you would have thought that it would last forever.
Except it didn’t. The Temple was destroyed. Twice. The permanence was an illusion.
In our lives, too, we often look for stability, because it gives us reassurance. But we also know that our lives can change in a flash. Whether it’s our health, our finances, or our relationships, even if we think things will be there forever, we know that the vagaries of life and chance have their say, too. So yes, when we find a sense of security it can be comforting, but we also know that we can’t rely on it – too many things can happen.
The mishkan, in contrast, was the ultimate in portability. It was intentionally designed to get dismantled and rebuilt at every spot along the Israelites’ wanderings. Its impermanence was its defining feature, and a reminder that God could live anywhere.
And because the Ark of the Covenant wasn’t rooted down in one place, it became more than just a physical home for God; it was a spiritual home, as well.
The Torah says that when the mishkan was finished, God proclaimed, “Let them build a sanctuary for Me, and I will dwell in their midst (b’tocham).” The Hebrew word “b’tocham” certainly means “in their midst,” but it also can mean “in them.” So it could read, “Let them build a sanctuary for Me, and I will dwell inside the people’s hearts.”
It’s like the story of the young man who wanted to be a rabbi. He told his rabbi, “I have gone through the Torah over twenty times.” “Ah,” said the rabbi. “That’s wonderful. But how many times has the Torah been through you?”
Our greatest treasures are not the things we physically own, but the values that guide us. Remembering what we stand for, who we want to be, and how we want to live allows us to deal more easily with the ups and downs of life.
The sukkah lies in between the Temple and the mishkan in that it is “semi-permanent.” It comes up for a week, and then goes down. It has a roof, but you have to be able to see the sky. It has walls, but not four of them, ensuring that our tent is wide open.
So with its sense of semi-permanence, the sukkah reminds us that even though that nothing lasts forever, we still need to build. Why? Because Judaism strives to create more blessings and justice and peace, and those things don’t happen by accident. They happen when we ourselves create them.
Will we be guaranteed success? No. Will they last forever? No. But for as long as they remain, we embrace them, we celebrate them, and we work to make more of them.
As Rabbi David Wolpe wrote last week, “Shelter and beauty and life are fragile, and to be joyously cherished.”
In the end, we should build our lives the way we build our sukkah—remembering that we are not eternal, but that while we are here, we have opportunities and responsibilities to embrace while they are ours to have.
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