This brief but bold phrase that has become such a part of the fabric of our society seems in some way to mirror our Jewish holidays of this month. We start with Rosh Hashanah, where we pray to be written (and eventually sealed) in the book of life. We follow up with Yom Kippur, where we beg for forgiveness and liberty from the chains of our imperfect past — and for sure our kind and loving Father and King has already answered our prayers for the ultimate good. And now we move on to happiness, the festival of Sukkot, which is referred to in our liturgy as zman simchateinu, “the time of our joy.”
Let’s first take a quick look at the basic observances of Sukkot: Eat and spend time in the sukkah throughout the holiday. Shake the Four Kinds by day. Light candles, pray, avoid weekday work and activity, dress up in fine holiday clothing, and have festive meals. And rejoice.
So there you have it in order: Rosh Hashanah — life; Yom Kippur — liberty; Sukkot — pursuit of happiness.
But is the happiness of Sukkot really the same as “pursuit of happiness”?
I wouldn’t be the first nor the last to point out that the pursuit of happiness can be a dubious occupation. Somehow the perfect happiness that’s waiting just around the corner often seems to be just one step ahead. Or, when you catch it, it can slip away so easily with just one misspoken word, one ill-fated doctor visit, one unexpected bill, and whatever else disturbs your equilibrium. To add to that, the human capacity for desire seems endless. There always seems to be more to want, to have, to wish for. Put that way, happiness seems to be an elusive ideal.
But on Sukkot, rather than being a right, happiness is a mitzvah! That means that the happiness is mandated, regulated, commanded. Even if you’re not in the mood, no one is asking you: You must be happy.
Huh? How can I be happy if I don’t feel happy?
For starters, this mitzvah isn’t totally abstract. In Temple times there was dancing almost every night and this is mirrored in communities around the world today. The Code of Jewish Law, drawing from the Talmud, defines some actions one should take: Give roasted wheat and nuts to the children to play with, buy your wife clothes or ornaments, eat from the meat of the sacrifice in Temple times, or drink a glass of wine these days. While some finer details might have changed over the years the basic concept is the same: Do things that are associated with happiness.
But that covers only one part of the day — sipping your glass of wine (or grape juice) might bring temporary happiness, but what about the rest of the day? “Rejoice on your festival,” it says. The action is temporary but the feeling is supposed to be there all 24 hours of the day.
There is a lot to be said but let me share one small point, which hopefully can inspire us through the rest of the year too: Happiness is a choice, not a chase.
Yes, some struggle with deep and dark challenges, and sometimes there are chemical factors at play that require professional and medical assistance. But beyond that, there is usually room for a conscious decision to be happy, even when it’s hard.
Our thoughts affect our feelings. When you wake up in the morning try to count your blessings. Think about how much good there is in your life and don’t take it for granted. Thank G-d. When you are feeling down, choose to sing instead of brood, choose to exercise or do something that makes you happy.
And especially, as Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the 18th century founder of Chabad, writes in his magnum opus, the Tanya, contemplate the following: If you believe in G-d then you can very simply rejoice in the fact that you have been chosen to live on G-d’s Earth and bring happiness to Him by living a moral and kind and Jewish life. As long as you are alive, no matter where you are and what you are capable of doing at that moment, you are playing a part in making this world a dwelling place for Him. You are making this world a better place and hosting the most Royal of Royal Kings in your very home and existence. The smallest of the small, with even the smallest of actions — be it a kindness to another, or a prayer or ritual — bringing pleasure to the greatest of the great.
Now that’s instant happiness right there.
A happy Sukkot and a blessed joyful year!
Rabbi Mendy Schapiro is the co-director of Chabad of Monroeville. The column is provided by the Vaad Harabanim of Greater Pittsburgh.