Sukkot: Be happy!

Sukkot: Be happy!

Congregation Bnai Israel, Millburn, Conservative

Every year when I take the sukkah pieces out of storage, start untangling the lights, sort through the decorations, and plan the meals, my excitement grows and my joy increases. I love Sukkot. Erecting the sukkah with my family, carefully hanging each gourd and welcoming guests, both spiritually and literally, gives me great pleasure.

I don’t know how others feel, but I remember when I was a child, someone telling me that when she lit her Christmas tree every year, she felt like everything was right with the world. I think the same applies to Sukkot. When we turn on the lights, bring in the candlesticks and wine for Kiddush, I feel like all is right with the world. We have gotten through the contemplative and awe-inspiring days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and now it’s time to celebrate.

The Torah teaches us “v’samachta b’chagecha,” you must be happy on your holiday. Not just the males among you, but everyone, your sons and daughters, your male and female servants, the Levites, the strangers, the windows and the orphans. Everyone is required to rejoice for seven days and the reward for rejoicing is that God will bless all your crops and the deeds of your hands and you will have nothing but joy! What an incredible mitzvah we have been given, to only be happy for a whole week!

Rashi, the famous medieval French rabbi and author of a comprehensive commentary on the Torah, comments on this mitzvah to be only happy: According to its simple meaning, this is not an expression denoting a command, but rather an expression of an assurance (i.e., I promise you that you will be happy.) It’s not that you have to be happy, but rather that God assures us that we will be happy.

Happiness is no easy achievement. In his groundbreaking work on positive psychology, Dr. Martin Seligman suggests that there are six elements in life that can help us to flourish and find happiness. He suggests that we need positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishment. Seligman states, “These elements, which we choose for their own sake in our efforts to flourish, are the rock-bottom fundamentals to human well-being. What is the good life? It is pleasant, engaged, meaningful, achieving, and connected.”

I would argue that this holiday season gives us the vehicle that Dr. Seligman suggests all human beings need in order to flourish. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we confront our emotions and relationships, working hard to repair those which are broken and seeking forgiveness for the wrongs we may have done to ourselves and to others. We create positive emotions by asking for forgiveness and by granting forgiveness to others. We engage, on an intellectual, spiritual, and emotional level as we sit in the synagogue, learning and praying together. We connect to others, sitting at the table eating together, discussing the rabbi’s sermon, or a favorite melody, or an insight from the Torah, and we have a sense of accomplishment, having lived another year, counting our blessings, and feeling our meaningful place in the world.

And so, we may not be finishing the fall harvest and staring at a bounty crop as our ancestors in the Torah might have experienced. Their happiness was probably based on the fact that they knew they would survive the winter with enough food to eat. But, we have come through this year, with bruises and brushes with sadness, despair, and hopelessness and now we must be happy. We are flourishing. We have atoned, prayed, forgiven, eaten, cared for, and been cared for. As Rashi taught, God assures us that we will be happy. When we turn on our lights in the sukkah, all we be right with the world (at least for this week!). V’samachta b’chagecha — now we must rejoice! Chag Sukkot samayach — a very happy Sukkot for us all.

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