The Happy Trap
Based on Parasha V’Likcha by Rabbi Moshe Grylak
by Braha Bender
Can you command emotion? For example, in Parashas Re’eh the Torah seems to command us to feel joy:
You shall make yourself the festival of Sukkos for seven days, when you gather in [the produce] from your threshing floor and your vat. And you shall rejoice in your festival... Seven days you shall celebrate the festival to Hashem, your God…and you will only be happy. (Devarim-Deuteronomy 16:13-15)
Yes, these verses command the experience of joy, but they also provide emotional context: “when you gather in [the produce] from your threshing floor and your vat”. The festival of Sukkos takes place in the autumn during harvest time.
Harvest? Here in the twenty-first century this detail comes across as quaint. However, for almost two thousand years the agricultural timing of Sukkos was extremely relevant. During the time of the Mishkan, the first and second Beis HaMikdash, and the periods of the Mishna and Talmud, the majority of the Jewish nation lived in Israel as farmers.
Sukkos time was when the hard work of winter, spring and summer finally paid off in ripe fruits, lush fields and plenty of food to fill the larder. It was hard not to feel happy.
But if the festival was all about harvest happiness, how is the mitzvah (commandment) of joy on Sukkos relevant to the modern world? I’m not a farmer! How do we fulfil the mitzvah of happiness on Sukkos today? And what does this mitzvah teach us about how to be happy anytime?
The Pursuit of Happiness
The joy of the harvest is not a mitzvah. It’s a predictable emotional reaction. It doesn’t need to be commanded.
However, there are several activities that are commanded during Sukkos. These mitzvos can give us a clue about how to achieve real happiness, harvest or no.
The main go-to mitzvah of Sukkos is – surprise! – to build a sukkah:
For a seven day period you shall live in booths. Every resident among the Israelites shall live in booths, in order that your [ensuing] generations should know that I had the children of Israel live in booths when I took them out of the land of Egypt. I am Hashem, your God. (VaYikra-Leviticus 23:42-43)
The purpose of the sukkah is to remind the Jews of life in the Sinai desert. Why? Precisely because harvest time feels great. Harvest means you worked hard, pursued the American dream, and made it. You pulled yourself up by your bootstraps, put in the long hours, and became a success story. You went from rags to riches. Harvest means you arrived.
But guess who arrived with you? A few shady guys lurking in the corner: arrogance, haughtiness, and that sneaky sense of superiority.
People feel happy when they have worked hard and obtained their objective. Torah reveals that the secret of rich, authentic happiness is all about meaningful achievement. However, Torah also warns that happiness can have dangerous side-effects.
The same emotion that motivates incredible spiritual and material achievements can also lead to divisiveness between people. Legitimate pride and joy can devolve into ugly self-centeredness. Put yourself on a pedestal and you’re bound to feel crowded if anybody joins you. Happiness can become dirty politics.
Worst of all, though, the unchecked pursuit of happiness can ultimately poison all the happiness we already have. Why be friends when my “friend” possesses more than I do? Envy dashes in wiping dirty green hands all over dapper black trousers, another unwanted party guest. He’ll throttle anybody, any friendship, any newborn buds of affection, just to release his gut-wrenching drive to get more than whatever the other person has. Believe it or not, unchecked happiness can lead to a cycle of hatred. And then where has the happiness gone?
Sukkos is the secret ingredient that allows happiness to last. It’s precisely at that vulnerable point, the moment when the pursuit of happiness finally pays off – harvest time, payday – that Jews remind themselves to be humble.
Leave the Baggage Behind
Who is commanded to build a sukkah? “Every resident among the Israelites.” There is no distinction made between the haves and have-nots on this one. There is no 99% on Sukkos.
Various sukkahs may be elaborate or simple, but they all have certain things in common. You must be able to see the stars through the leaf ceiling. You must be unprotected from rain. A sukkah must, by definition, be temporary.
Living in a sukkah for a week levels the playing field. We remember that our wealth and wellbeing do not come from our own efforts, but from the Almighty. We remember our fundamental human equality before the Creator of heaven and earth.
The upshot of this is that during the short but sweet festive week in the sukkah, a lot of baggage gets left behind. Baggage like financial differences and status issues. Baggage like arrogance, envy, and all their other malevolent cronies. You’d think that leaving the comforts of home – air conditioning, heating, easier access to the refrigerator – would be a drag, but it’s not. Jerusalem streets become lined with little wooden huts similar to tree houses. Festive songs wafting through the thin walls are picked up by neighbor after neighbor until entire blocks are singing in chorus.
In the sukkah, it’s just us. Our money no longer masks who we really are. We are humbled by the sukkah’s simplicity. Humility leads to unity between people; also between the Jewish People and the Almighty.
Is it reasonable to command emotion? Well, let’s put it this way.
Mitzvos related to normal activities provide a framework of meaning and holiness to those activities. For example, Jews are encouraged to enjoy fine cuisine – on Shabbos. Jews love singing and dancing – at weddings. Romance is celebrated and cherished – between husband and wife.
So, too, the full range of human emotions are called upon to play their role in a healthy, actualized Jewish life. Joy is one of the powerful tools inherent in our human nature. The emotion of happiness can be used to accomplish beautiful things – or to be destructive.
What happens when you sit in your sukkah and realize that you have everything, absolutely everything, that you will ever really need? That your worth goes way, way beyond a bank account? That the same love that surrounded the Jewish People with the Clouds of Glory in the Sinai desert still surrounds us to this very day?
What happens is a joy that money just can’t buy, no matter how great of a harvest. There’s a quiet, deep happiness that wells up when the bluster and fanfare of payday is tamed. It’s the happiness of Sukkos, and it can be accessed anytime.