“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.
Sukkot was never a big deal for me when growing up. Coming so soon after the pomp and circumstance of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, it seemed trite. After all, who needs a harvest festival in (then) 20th century America? Especially growing up in Southern California, where crops grow all year long? Worse yet, since I actually enjoyed my Day School, it meant taking numerous unwanted vacations when there was nothing to do (since the rest of the world, including my parents, were not on a Sukkot break). All this for some allergy-inducing palm fronds and an ugly lemon look-alike?
Recently, though, I have developed a completely different take on Sukkot. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are extremely synagogue-focused holidays.They are, famously, the two holidays each year when most Jews show up to shul. Despite the profusion of new Jewish ritual practices and alternative paradigms for religious expression, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur unabashedly call on us to sit in the pews, for hours on end, just as our parents and grandparents did.
Then, a mere four days after Yom Kippur ends, comes this weird agricultural festival called Sukkot. Sukkot gets its name from the sukkah, a temporary structure we are commanded to build immediately after Yom Kippur ends. (Shulkhan Arukh, Orah Hayim 624:5). We are supposed to eat and perhaps even sleep for the duration of Sukkot in this flimsy dwelling. At home. Outdoors. Relaxing while dining under the stars. Sukkot thereby becomes the antithesis of the High Holidays. It is the Slow Food Movement Jewish holiday, meant to be enjoyed with leisure, in the company of family and friends, while simultaneously re-connecting us to nature, ecology, and God’s beneficence. The sukkah is built with simple materials and decorated with children’s creativity and relative artistic talent. There are no stained glass windows, no fancy chairs or memorial plaques. When we eat in the sukkah, which are we supposed to do for each day of Sukkot, there is no specific order to what or how we eat. Sukkot at home is decentralized, democratic, inviting us to take initiative. We can even invite ghosts (deceased great Jewish leaders) to hang out with us!
I think there is an important message to this symbolism, one we need to reinforce especially after the High Holidays: Judaism primarily is a religion to be lived organically, inextricably interwoven into our daily lives, not just performed in special places at special times. We limit the potency and potential of Judaism when we treat it as a part-time religion. Sukkot gets us to bring Jewish experience into our own backyards, into the normal rhythms of our day and night. That is why, to me, it is the ultimate Jewish holiday, truly worthy of the name “hag” (festival).
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)
A documentary film called “Happy” came out last year, following a considerable amount of research and writing on the newly popular field of Happiness studies. It explores what it is that makes people happy. In a little over an hour, it tells an inspiring story of the path to happiness.
I watched it a recently in preparation for the Days of Awe, the High Holy Days. The film shows people who not only appear to be very content, but joyously proclaim how happy they are. This is contrasted against pictures of many of Japanese workers who are literally working themselves to death. Those who are happy are typically of modest means, and some are poor – that is – economically. But they are rich in a very important way – they are happy with who they are.
The keys to happiness documented by the film include:
- Being content and grateful for what we have,
- Having plentiful time with friends and family – indeed, lives that center around close and nourishing relationships,
- Close connections within community – and a shared communal life,
- Regular experiences of helping others.
All this contributes significantly to happiness.
In our often overworked, overstressed, sometimes fragmented lives, these lessons are important. The question is – how to get there?
The day after I watched the documentary, I went to the post office to mail a homemade Rosh Hashanah cake to my son who is in California. I was a little stressed because I didn’t have time to get packing supplies in advance. I asked the clerk behind the counter for help, and he grabbed everything I needed and offered to pack and seal the box for me. As he did, he started to tell me about how happy it made him to be helping people, and he was really glad to do this for me. And he went on to tell me how he holds three jobs and struggles to make ends meet, but he really does have enough, and he is grateful for it. All he really needs, he went on to say, are his wonderful family, especially the joy he gets from his kids. I just stood there nodding, nearly gaping at him for his perfect recitation of the themes of the “Happy” film. I asked him if he’d seen the film “Happy” and he said he hadn’t, but was so grateful for the suggestion. “Tonight,” he said, “is family TV night. I can’t wait to watch it with my kids.”
During the season of Jewish holy days, I am thinking about happiness as a Jewish value, experienced as wholeness and contentment. How does Judaism help us to achieve this sometimes-elusive goal? One significant way is through the weekly celebration of Shabbat. Another is through the rhythm of time marked by the festivals of the Jewish calendar, offering us an opportunity at the start of each season to feel and express gratitude, and to be fulfilled through community celebration. All of these days offer us a separation from the stresses and pulls of ordinary days, and a chance to truly “be” in our own quiet space and in the pleasure of company with family, friends and community. How much more joy can be experienced when we stop to experience this wholeness that comes from the cessation from striving!
This week we are celebrating the festival of Sukkot. It is a time to share meals in the Sukkah, the fragile hut reminiscent of the wilderness tents our ancestors inhabited. Sukkot customarily is a time for invited guests to share meals in the Sukkah. As I enjoyed my first two meals with community and family in the Sukkah at our synagogue and at my home, I was filled with contentment. This is what happiness is about – gratitude and sharing, relationships and memories.
No wonder the Sukkah is a symbol of peace. With a little more time together for Shabbat, and our years punctuated by joyous seasonal festivals like Sukkot, we can palpably feel that we are all part of one family. On this Sukkot, that is my hope and prayer. May the source of Peace spread over us all a Sukkah of peace.