Toward the end of Parshat Emor we are presented with a description of the holidays spanning the Jewish calendar. The seventh month, what we now call Tishrei, is jam-packed, starting with Rosh Hashanah, continuing with Yom Kippur, and culminating in Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret. After a detailed description of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch summarizes their essence as a buildup and counterpoint to the holiday of Sukkot.
Both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are days of seriousness and somberness, permeated by negative emotions. Rosh Hashanah is a “a day of teruah, a day of shatteringly shaking us up out of ways of life displeasing to G-d” and Yom Kippur makes us “appear before G-d, ‘poor’ in every justification for further living and working” (Judaica Press translation). In stark contrast, on Sukkot we celebrate by “taking of the produce of the earth to gain the joy of living and working in happiness before G-d.”
Rabbi Hirsch then adds one simple, yet powerful, observation. Both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are one day each, yet Sukkot is comprised of seven days. The lesson he gleans from this straightforward calculation is that the Torah is prescribing what our baseline mood should be throughout the year. It shouldn’t be the “bowed down broken feeling” associated with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but the “happy joy of life” experienced while living “a life faithfully devoted to duty,” symbolized by the seven days of Sukkot.
If our status quo mood should be one of happiness, the challenge becomes, how do we work on getting to such a state? There is an entire field called positive psychology dedicated to the study of happiness and well-being. One important lesson that several positive psychologists make is that relentlessly pursuing happiness usually does not lead to happiness. Moreover, unless we learn how to understand and accept our negative emotions, we will also not likely find lasting happiness. Healthy negative emotions such as sadness, frustration, concern, guilt, and embarrassment serve functional value. If we try and suppress these negative emotions because they make us feel uncomfortable and we want to be happy, the less likely we will actually be happy.
Perhaps this idea is subtly hinted at within Rabbi Hirsch’s comments as well. While our operating status quo to strive for is to serve G-d through happiness, we must also make time and psychological space for negative emotions. There is an important place for the “bowed down broken feeling” symbolized by Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and that must be experienced, if we want to build toward the happiness of Sukkot. Our pursuit of serving G-d with joy needs to incorporate a healthy expression of negative emotions, as well.
This may also be reflected in another aspect of the Jewish calendar mentioned in Parshat Emor, one that we are in the midst of currently, namely, the counting of the Omer. The counting is supposed to be “temimiot,” meaning whole or complete. While wholeness has a serial component to it in the sense that we shouldn’t miss a day, wholeness can also hint at the concept of wholeness of personality. On the one hand, the counting of the Omer represents an exciting build up and progression, whether agriculturally or as a preparation for the giving of the Torah. On the other hand, on a rabbinic level, it is a time of mourning and solemnness. Perhaps the “wholeness” of this time requires us to validate and experience both the positive and negative emotions simultaneously. With this, we serve G-d with our whole selves and it is within this wholeness we can truly experience psychological and spiritual flourishing.