On the holiday of Sukkot, we discover that happiness is never about having; it is about being.
Western society is entrenched with the right of the pursuit to happiness. We hunt it down with all our might. Do we find it? I’m not so sure. Sure, no one is happy when they are hungry, cold, in pain, or deprived of companionship. But the tricky part is that being satiated, warm, healthy and surrounded by our fellow mankind doesn’t necessarily guarantee happiness.
Orchot Tzadikim, one of the classic Jewish ethical works, presents us with an interesting theory: Happiness is never about having possessions, status, friends, etc; it is about being. Ultimately it is about abandoning the role of a stranger in the universe, and becoming completely and mindfully aware of God’s constant love, wisdom and existence. The result is a continual feeling of serenity and content that is independent of outside factors.
By no means does this mean escapism or denial. It means acceptance of the fact that we are here to elevate ourselves and the world around us, and that we need the inspiration and challenges that Hashem provides for this to happen.
When we look honestly and ask ourselves when our peak moments of happiness took place, the ones that leave a life-long imprint, what do we discover? Almost inevitably we find ourselves reliving moments of achievement and of real connection.
Yet the sweetness of achievement can never really be separated from the challenges we have to face when committing ourselves to doing something meaningful. Both challenge and inspiration are gifts from God. The key to happiness is learning to recognize His gifts, both in the form of what we call “content” and what we call “discontent.”
We will never find happiness when all we see is the surface of life, without examining its core. The number that symbolizes this idea is the number seven. Why seven? All physical objects have six sides – the four sides, plus top and bottom. We describe this as “surface.” Under the surface is the inner dimension of the object under study. And it’s the inside, not the surface, which gives it form.
Similarly, the surface of life is not its essence. Seven is the number that tells us that we can and must have both, the surface and the essence, to really have the wholeness that life offers, and the serenity that is its natural child. Shabbat, the holidays, and the sabbatical year Shmita, all revolve around seven. Of these, only Sukkot is called “the season of our happiness.” Why Sukkot?
Interestingly, Sukkot doesn’t celebrate the sort of major historical event that took place on a specific date like Shabbat, which is the day God rested, or Passover, which is the Exodus from Egypt. Sukkot celebrates our survival in the desert while living in shacks for 40 years. All requirements of a sukkah impermanence – a ceiling made of materials taken from the earth, a roof that is not fully closed, the stars must be visible, etc. – help it retain its shack-like status.
While we were living in shacks, we were surrounded by clouds of Divine glory that were sent to protect us from every possible harm. The Torah tells us that our path was determined not by anyone’s navigational skills, but by the direction taken by the pillar of cloud that led us by day, and the pillar of fire by night. We lived constantly with both challenges – as is symbolized by the fragility of the sukkah itself, and the inspiration given by the clouds.
A sukkah is defined as having more shade than light, yet we must still be able to see the stars. The light is dimmed, yet clearly visible. That is the reality by which we live, and through which we ultimately achieve happiness and fulfillment.
How do we bring the joy of Sukkot into our lives and keep it there? We can do it by changing the way we think. When we look at life in a way that includes Hashem in our moment-to-moment equations, we can change our willingness to embrace challenge instead of retreating in fear, and to be open to giving and receiving love.
We are all in this together! We have different challenges in our lives and different paths that can lead us to inspiration. But we are bound together.
This idea is symbolized by the arba minim that we join together on Sukkot. They grow in different climates, and have different qualities. The etrog is the heart, the lulav the spine, the hadassim the eyes, the aravot the lips. But on Sukkot, we hold them aloft, together as one, in recognition of the Power that binds us to a shared destiny.
The joy that we feel as we face life with faith has the power not only to change us as individuals and as Jews, but to change the face of the entire world. The 70 bulls sacrificed in ancient times in the Temple during the week of Sukkot symbolized the 70 original nations from which civilization stems. Each one, in their own way, will find the G-d of Israel, and discover the resources of joy within their collective souls.
May the day come soon all when humanity comes together under the banner of the One Who sustains us all, and may we discover the life’s true joy constantly brimming beneath the surface. And may we merit to come to Yerushalayim and see the Simchas Beis Hashoeiva which was a special celebration held by Jews during the Intermediate days of Sukkot. And rejoice like in the times of the holy temple.