NEW YORK (JTA) — But are you happy?
No, this isn’t your mother wanting another update on your life. It’s not Dr. Phil’s provocative question through your TV/computer screen as you sit (safely) on your couch. And it isn’t someone reading you the Declaration of Independence wondering if you have really pursued this inalienable right enough.
It’s the holiday of Sukkot speaking.
The Rabbis nicknamed the harvest festival “Zman Simchateinu,” the “time of our happiness.” How, exactly, does a holiday that invites us to eat all of our meals in a small hut al fresco — often in the chilly, windy days of late fall — have to do with being happy?
“Sukkot happy” is a bit different from the kind of happy that our post-modern culture espouses. A quick search on Amazon.com reveals scores of books that aim to help readers embody this elusive ideal. The Buddhist variety extols striving for inner peace. Positive psychologists understand attaining happiness as a key component to mental health. And happiness in the self-help movement embraces happiness “plans” like Seven Steps to Being Happy.
The happiness that Sukkot encourages can be found when one peruses the pages of a book buried deep within the Amazon website. It is Ecclesiastes, which we read during Sukkot. The festival falls this year on the evening of Oct. 12.
Ecclesiastes wouldn’t strike you as a get-happy-quick piece of literature. It is pessimistic and cynical — just count the number of times the word “vanity” is used. Nor is it the most popular book in the Bible. In fact, the Talmud relates that the Rabbis wanted to hide the work in part because of how some statements contradict the Torah itself.
It does, however, contain deep wisdom about what gets in the way of true happiness. Ecclesiastes offers us perspective and manages our expectations. To the question “Am I rich enough?” Ecclesiastes answers, “A lover of money never has his fill of money, nor a lover of wealth his fill of income, that too is futile. As his substance increases, so do those who consume it. This also is vanity.”
To the question “Am I smart/wise enough?” it comments, “Much study is a weariness of the flesh.” And to the issue “Am I popular enough?” Ecclesiastes responds, “A good name is better than precious oil.”
The book of Ecclesiastes is keenly aware that death will come in the end for all mortals, so it trumpets robust relationships, saying that “Enjoy happiness with a woman you love all the fleeting days of life that have been granted to you under the sun … For that alone is what you can get out of life.”
Ecclesiastes ends by offering an even greater perspective. What’s most important is to “Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.”
While all pursuits under the sun might be short-lived, the one thing that is enduring, according to Ecclesiastes, is that which exists above the sun. The book speaks about cultivating a relationship with God, but more generally it is the cultivation of relationships that lie beyond the self, which endures and leads to happiness.
According to Ecclesiastes, being in service to God — and interpreted more broadly, being of service to others — might be a key to what leads us to joy.
I think to myself, when am I really happy? While I do love kicking back on the beach and reading a good book, I find this kind of activity relaxing — but I’m not sure it leads to deep happiness. A sense of joy surfaces when I reflect on ways that my life is in service to others, whether it is by nursing my child, teaching others, or volunteering my time and skills to an organization in the community.
For this Sukkot, consider what makes you happy. Try out this plan: Seven Steps to True Happiness: Sukkot Style.
* Build a sukkah. Even if you don’t have a backyard or garden, ask about the roof of your building. Or find someone who has one and have a meal there. Does the food taste any different to you outside? How does eating in a temporary structure make you appreciate the permanence of your home? What other new perspectives do you gain?
* Invite wisdom into your sukkah. In the spirit of “ushpizin,” inviting guests into your sukkah, invite the wisdom of friends and relatives (living or dead) who cannot join you this Sukkot. Write down a saying or phrase from them that inspires you and turn it into a piece that can decorate your sukkah, or share it aloud at your next meal.
* Invite a guest to your table. In the spirit of repairing relationships — something we focus on greatly during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur — make time to share a meal together with a friend you haven’t seen in awhile or from whom you have grown distant.
* Enjoy the harvest. Wave the lulav and etrog (especially fun to do with kids!), symbols of the fall harvest. Learn about what produce is harvested in your area and even go to a farm stand or a farm. Speak to the farmers and ask them about when they are the most “happy” in the work they do.
* Read the book of Ecclesiastes. Pick one or two phrases that strike you and consider how they might relate to your own life.
* Learn about homelessness in your community. While a sukkah is a makeshift dwelling place that will last seven days for us, there are others in our community, without homes, who live outdoors in makeshift dwellings year round.
* Help others. Think about a way that you can serve one person inside your intimate circle and one person outside of it, including a stranger.
The holiday of Sukkot falls immediately after the long process of introspection we engage in during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We move from the conceptual world of fasting and prayer to the practical one of harvested fruits and sukkah building. We have time to think about how to live a life of service — to God, Torah, friends, family and our communities).
If there is a “season set for everything, a time for every experience under heaven,” then let this season be one of genuine rejoicing.