Tonight begins the 8-day festival of Sukkot (7 days in Israel and in the American Reform movement). One of the core texts from the Torah we learn about the festival of sukkot is v’samachta b’chageicha, v’hayita ach sameach—we should rejoice in our holiday and we should feel nothing but happiness. We even sing a catchy chant using these words. But, is it really possible to command happiness?
We live in challenging times. Wars, diseases, and injustice around the globe, it’s no wonder that this year’s most famous song was so uplifting. Pharrell Williams helped to get us all out of our funk when he sang:
It might seem crazy what I’m about to say
Sunshine she’s here, you can take a break
I’m a hot air balloon that could go to space
With the air, like I don’t care baby by the way
Because I’m happy – Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof
Because I’m happy – Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth
Because I’m happy – Clap along if you know what happiness is to you
Because I’m happy – Clap along if you feel like that’s what you wanna do
I think Pharrell Williams sang the song that we really needed to hear this year. Happiness isn’t easy to come by, but it’s something we’re all searching for—not just on the weeklong holiday of Sukkot, but all year round. But what really is happiness? Because if we don’t know what happiness really is, then maybe we’re wasting a whole lot of precious time in our lives by seeking it out!
In his book Stumbling on Happiness, Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert uses cutting-edge research to show that happiness is not really what or where we thought it was. We often think we know what will make us happy, but we really do not. We also say we are happy but oftentimes, as Gilbert explains, we are just misusing the term “happy.” Reading Gilbert’s book forced me to think of new ways to think of happiness and to bring more happiness into my own life.
I love how Gilbert begins his book Stumbling on Happiness: “Despite the third word of the title, this is not an instruction manual that will tell you anything useful about how to be happy. Those books are located in the self-help section two aisles over, and once you’ve bought one, done everything it says to do, and found yourself miserable anyway, you can always come back here to understand why.”
Rather than thinking about this pursuit of happiness as a search for a life in which we’re always happy in the sense we typically think of happiness—always smiling, laughing, you know, Disney’s concept of Mr. Bluebird on my shoulder—I’d like you to consider three words that better define what we’re seeking. Not happiness, but contentment, gratitude and meaning. Let’s explore these three concepts:
Contentment requires that we look around at our family and our home and our lot in life and we say “Baruch Hashem”—blessed is God for my life. I’m not a fan of saying Baruch Hashem in a reflexive way every time someone asks how things are going, but I do believe we need to spend more time feeling grateful for what we have. That is contentment.
Now, let’s look at another better way to think of the goal of happiness and that is gratitude. Studies have shown that people who practice gratitude in their daily life are happier than those who do not. There seems to be a clear connection between learning to be grateful and living a more fulfilling life. Social science research has demonstrated that cultivating gratitude, learning to recognize and respond with thankfulness to the goodness of other people and the beauty in life, as opposed to complaint or indifference, stimulates a host of benefits.
Gratitude means being attuned to the gifts that have come our way. Sukkot, is almost completely about expressing gratitude. The Avinu Malkeinu prayer we sang on Rosh Hashanah (we omitted it this Yom Kippur since it fell on Shabbat) is all about the gratitude we give to God. In fact, the vast majority of our prayers consists of offering gratitude to God for our lives.
And this brings us to meaning: In an article in The Atlantic in January 2013, the author takes a look at happiness through the perspective of Viktor Frankl, a prominent Jewish psychiatrist and neurologist in Vienna, who was arrested in September 1942 and transported to a Nazi concentration camp with his wife and parents. When Frankl’s camp was liberated, most of his family, including his pregnant wife, had died, but he survived. In his bestselling 1946 book, Man’s Search for Meaning, which he wrote in nine days about his experiences in the camps, Frankl concluded that the difference between those who had lived and those who had died came down to one thing: Meaning, an insight he came to early in life. As Frankl saw in the camps, those who found meaning even in the most horrendous circumstances were far more resilient to suffering than those who did not. “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing,” Frankl wrote, “the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
I wish you a Chag Sameach—may Sukkot help you find contentment, meaning and gratitude in addition to joy.
At the end of the Day of Atonement we petition: “Breathe into me of Your spirit, and I will live a new life, the life of an infant reborn.” And when the shofar blasts we look around at the nursery that is our prayer community feeling fragile and seeing fragility in others. We emerge from our houses of worship full of newborn hope.
It’s a season of great possibility and there is quiet joy in our fresh start. But there has also been pain inherent in our repentance. Now, the tenderness of relinquishing aspects of self has to be folded into the overarching sweetness of life. And the swell of our sacred year, with its flow from one holiday to the next, bears us on its course.
We are carried from otherworldly interiority back to bodily being, into the simple joy of sitting elbow to elbow with family and friends under an arbor decorated with the fruits of the season. The holiday that’s called “The Season of Our Joy” mediates between our deep internal work and resumption of our work in the world. As transitional as the sukkah is nomadic, this next holiday transports us from the shock of re-birth to the vigor of life through a series of reintroductions to the most basic joys of being a human being on this earth.
Today I am a woman in overalls making sugar cookie dough for my great grandmother’s plum pie, the one containing concentric rings of plums standing on end so the pie looks like a crown for the “Head” (Rosh) of the year. And my husband is a be-aproned man par-boiling cabbage for his mother’s stuffed cabbage recipe, the one he keeps in our recipe file in her ten pages of longhand. We have been to the botanical garden to load our car full of palm tree clippings. We’ve solved a simple engineering problem in our slight sukkah design modification. Soon our young adult daughter will come to sift through the box of decorations and we’ll indulge in some nostalgia as we laugh over the slightly mouse-eaten paper bag pumpkins our daughters made decades ago.
There’s no time to linger in the gestational womb that was Yom Kippur. There’s so much to do!
The current is fast and it’s moving me out of my precious transcendence but, even so, on into new stages of teshuvah, if I think of teshuvah as return. I am still in the process of returning to my serious missions in life, forgiven for my mis-deeds but not dismissed from my responsibility to follow through with my unique contribution to creating a heaven on earth. I am returning by way of this interim passage through engagement in my most elemental gratifications: my motherhood, being a partner and a daughter and a friend, being out of doors, using my ingenuity, building things, creating beauty, and preparing to feed wave after wave of the people I love most.
When I really get back to work I will have sat under the stars every night for a week. I will have experienced still more Days of a different Awe in a different House of the Lord. This is simchat mitzvah, the joy I experience allowing the mitzvot of preparing for Sukkot to nurture me in my born-again vulnerability, guiding me home, showing me, anew, my deep roots in domesticity, nature, and relationships.
The Big Bang has always evoked a sense of mystery, awe and curiosity among scientists and laypeople alike. But while the Big Bang has been well-established and well-documented in the scientific community for over 50 years, the question of how the universe expanded from “minuscule” to “gigantic” in a fraction of a second was the subject of a variety of theories. One proposed idea was called “inflation theory,” and while it was theorized and generally supported, there wasn’t enough evidence to determine if it was true.
Until this week.
On Monday, scientists announced that they had discovered the proposed “gravity waves” that now provide us an understanding of what happened within the the first 0.00000000000000000000000000000000001 second of the birth of the universe. To get a sense of just how important this finding is, consider that the discovery of the Cosmic Microwave Background radiation — which helped us get to within 380,000 years after the Big Bang — led to a Nobel Prize for Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson.
But while the science itself is quite exciting, what’s even more powerful is how scientists are responding.
One video that has been making the rounds is Professor Chao-Lin Kuo telling Professor Andrei Linde (one of the people who helped develop inflation theory) that after many decades, his theory was now supported by hard evidence:
There are several moments that are wonderful here (my favorite is when Linde and his physicist wife Renata Kallosh nearly collapse over the news), but there is one line Linde uses that borders on the religious.
“This is a moment of understanding of nature of such a magnitude that it just overwhelms,” he says. “Let us hope it is not a trick. I always live with this feeling: ‘What if I am tricked? What if I believe in this just because it is beautiful? What if…’” — and he trails off.
In other words, Linde had faith his theory was true, but until Kuo knocked on his door and reported his results, he didn’t know if his faith would be justified. Linde had no idea Kuo was coming, so his wife thought it was a delivery and asked, “Did you order anything?” “Yeah,” he answers, laughing, “I ordered thirty years ago! Finally, it arrived!”
Andrea Denhoed nicely describes how Linde must have felt at that moment:
It’s rare enough for a person to have a life’s work; to be able to see the validation of that work firsthand is understandably an overpowering experience. Linde might not call those years of waiting “faith,” but what he describes sounds somewhat like it—the persevering hope in the face of doubt and self-questioning: “What if I believe in this just because it is beautiful?” Faith, after all, is not just a religious category, and science isn’t divorced from our human capacities for aesthetic appreciation and awe.
Belief, joy, awe, curiosity — these feelings are more than religious. They are more than scientific. They are reflections of the best of what it means to be human. They are the sources from which both religion and science spring.
Indeed, while we marvel at the cosmos and the mind-blowing nature of the early universe, we also need to marvel at the human side of these findings.
Yes, it is inspiring to consider the ingenuity that has helped us get closer and closer to the first few moments of our universe.
But what truly gives me hope, what truly makes this potentially Nobel-Prize-winning discovery so special, is the unbridled joy and excitement of seeing a person’s deeply-held belief system vindicated.
We may never come close to reaching Andrei Lin and Chao-Lin Kuo’s intelligence. We laypeople may never truly grasp inflation theory. But we can all understand just how Andrei Linde must have felt when Kuo knocked on his door and said, “Your evidence is here.”
“How do I go on?” I was asked recently at a service following the death of a beautiful woman in our community. The neighbor asking had lost a good friend, someone with whom she shared culture and tradition, language and passions. My neighbor was bereft but she was also scared. This was not the death of an old person who had lived out a full life. This death at early age was a reminder to us all that we are not in control of our own mortality. Knowing this, understanding the power and potential of loss, how indeed are we to go on?
Most of us manage day to day by simply avoiding thinking about just how fragile life is. To live moment to moment with that level of uncertainty can indeed be incapacitating.
In trying to answer my neighbor’s question, I drew on the one of the central teachings of the holiday of Sukkot, which we are now celebrating. On a purely programmatic level the holiday is a drag, coming on the heals of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur it can feel like too much. But the message of the holiday is profound.
On Rosh Hashana, we embrace the reality of life, in all its messiness, filled with missteps and unfulfilled dreams. On Yom Kippur, we simulate our own death, not eating, abstaining from sex, and wearing white to simulate shrouds. We confront our own mortality. If take it seriously, we too are left asking “How do I go on?”
Only days afterwards, our tradition has us sitting out in temporary booths looking up at the stars in the sky. In prayers, Sukkot is referred to as z’man simchateynu –the time of our joy. Having faced death, we feel life’s fragility. Our tradition knows this and prescribes a way forward. The structure of a Sukkah is a metaphor for life. It is temporary and while affording us some level of comfort it cannot protect us from all harm. Sitting in the Sukkah we are able see the grandeur of the universe in the rising and setting of the sun, the moon and the stars. And we are meant to be happy. It is precisely the recognition of just how fragile, just how temporary, just how grand life is that allows us to embrace the joy of the everyday.
I could not take away the deep loss or the fear from my neighbor. They are the painful reality of living. Try as we may, we cannot avoid the realities of mortality. Instead, I offered her the wisdom of Sukkot. Go home, kiss your boys, tell your husband you love him. Notice the splendour that is your life. Cherish the moments that are, because while they are temporary, they are also extraordinary. Truly value the time that we do have. Live life with joy.
Think about an activity you love to do that gives you a good challenge. Maybe it’s playing tennis. Maybe it’s sailing. Maybe you’re like me, and it’s working on the Saturday New York Times crossword.
Whatever it is, when you’re deeply involved in that activity, you’re in a state that’s known as “flow” — a state of pure enjoyment. Time seems to run at a different speed, you’re totally focused on your task, and afterwards, you feel a real sense of accomplishment.
“Flow” was first described by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and he argues that flow arises when we find challenges that are just ahead of our skills. And beyond the fact that being in flow just feels really good — it’s a state of pure enjoyment — there’s another very important aspect to it: flow pushes our skills to a new level.
If you are a tennis player, for example, you had to work your way up from getting the ball over the net (or not hitting it so hard so that it went over the fence) to improving your serve to nailing your backhand. Each new challenge was also an opportunity to improve your ability.
As Csikszentmihalyi phrased it:
Pleasure is an important component of the quality of life, but by itself it does not bring happiness. Sleep, rest, food, and sex provide restorative homeostatic experiences that return consciousness to order after the needs of body intrude and cause psychic entropy to occur. But they do not produce psychological growth. They do not add complexity to the self. Pleasure helps to maintain order, but by itself cannot create new order in consciousness…
[In contrast,] enjoyable events occur when a person has not only met some prior expectation or satisfied a need or a desire but also gone beyond what he or she has been programmed to do and achieved something unexpected, perhaps something even unimagined before.
Enjoyment is characterized by this forward movement: by a sense of novelty, of accomplishment. (Csikszentmihalyi, Flow, 46)
In other words, joy expands who we are. And that’s a message we need to remember for Sukkot.
Sukkot, along with Passover and Shavuot, are called the “three pilgrimage festivals” because they were the three holidays when all the Israelites were commanded to come to the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. Each of the holidays also has their own name in our liturgy. Passover, understandably, is called “the time of our freedom.” Shavuot, which marks the giving of the Torah, is naturally called “the time of the giving of our Torah.” Sukkot’s title, however, is a little more mystifying — it is called “the time of our joy.” Why is that?
There are any number of reasons, but one of the explanations recalls an ancient tradition from Temple times. On Sukkot, there was a ceremony called “the drawing of water,” and the Rabbis taught, “One who has not witnessed the celebration of the water-drawing ceremony has never seen real joy.” (Sukkah 51a)
What was that “real joy”? Well, according to the Mishnah, people danced and sang, and the wisest and most pious men would juggle torches. While that sight would certainly make people smile and be happy, I think there’s a deeper lesson.
Because Sukkot was one of the three pilgrimage festivals, the population of Jerusalem would increase dramatically, so before the holiday, the priests and Levites would make major renovations to the outer courtyard. They would add some extra balconies, and the courtyard ended up being a little bigger than about the size of a football field.
But lots of people were coming for the holiday. Lots of people. Probably more than what the courtyard could handle. If you want an image, think of MetLife Stadium, but instead of everyone being in the stands, everyone is on the field. But, the Rabbis said, “Miraculously, tens of thousands of people were able to crowd in.”
Now, since thousands of people were coming, they certainly may have been a little physically cramped. But these thousands of people were not coming at any time. Instead they were coming at a specific time — Sukkot, “the time of our joy.” And joy has a miraculous quality to it, because when we are feeling joy, we can somehow always find room for more.
Think about this way: if you have a child, when your child was born, you didn’t say, “Well, since I have only 100 points of love, let me now figure out who I’ll love less.” No! Instead, the joy you felt caused your heart to grow. Miraculously, that joy led you to find room for more holiness, more specialness and more love than you ever thought possible.
Indeed, as Csikszentmihalyi taught us about being in flow, when we are doing anything that gives us real joy, we are learning new things and we pushing ourselves. We discover that joy helps us grow — and that there is no limit to its expansiveness.
So on this Sukkot, may we strive to create a little more joy in this world. We’ll find the room.
(Cross-posted with Sinai and Synapses)
“There is nothing new under the sun.” -Ecclesiastes 1:9.
A High Holiday Prayer, as I imagine it, of a beloved, longtime member of my synagogue…
“In time for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur I am thankful for so many things: The gift of health, for me and my family, that we live in relative security, that we do our best with what we have – but thank the Lord -God knows that nobody’s perfect. This year, again I will try to be a better person. It’s important to try, so I’ll sit and I’ll listen, and I’ll pray, but thank the Lord – God understands that in reality I’m not so different than I was last year. -Amen.”
This is my third high holiday season off the pulpit, and frankly, the only time I really miss it. I miss that guy, and every synagogue has one, who comes early, one of the last to leave, but in fact seems to be going through the motions. I perfectly aware of the lesson that to recognize these qualities in another suggest something similar in myself? Sometimes he’ll cross his arms over his gut, as if to say, “go ahead, rabbi, try and inspire me.” Honestly, I always enjoyed the challenge and if unsuccessful, I would consoled myself with the tantalizing idea that perhaps there is a genetic predisposition for religiosity, ‘so what could I do if he’s not interested?’
The way we approach the High Holidays is completely in our control. That’s what I should remind him. It’s a matter of perspective. A late rabbinic colleague of mine, Rabbi Eddie Tennenbaum (z’l) would say, “If you feel distant from God, who moved?”
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught: “(There is a) statement from the book of Ecclesiastes ‘There is nothing new under the sun.’ And I disagree with that statement! I would say there is nothing stale under the sun, except that human beings become stale.”
If you have been approaching the high holidays every year, and it’s become stale, consider this perspective, and hopefully it’s new for you, and might add meaning to the holiday around the corner:
At this time of year we are not only accountable for our mistakes and need to seek forgiveness for them, but also, and just as importantly, we are accountable for all the moments of joy and celebration that came our way and we failed to take part.
Consider this: What moments of joy were out there and I was too busy? It’s missing the joy, the extraordinary within the ordinary, that makes man stale. Let this be the year you see the forrest AND the trees.