Succot - the Secret Path to Happiness

This holiday article is by Rabbi Daniel Beller, Rabbi of Kehillat Shivtei Yisrael, Raanana.

Torah Mitzion Torani Tzioni Movement,

Torah Mitzion
Torah Mitzion

Dr Anthony Grant, author of "Eight Steps to Happiness" writes:

"It's hard to be happy. It's hard to be really happy. To stay happy. People let you down. The fates are unkind. Life conspires against you… Just when you think you've got it all worked out and it all seems in the balance… the feeling slips away."

Contemporary consumer culture suggests to us that happiness is just one smart phone or holiday away. And while enjoyment can be gained from shopping, eating, drinking, self gratification and the pursuit of pleasures of the senses, these are often followed by   feelings of emptiness and meaninglessness.

Today more and more people realize that happiness is dependent primarily on         ourselves, and  our willingness to work and train ourselves at it. Maimonides               understood this hundreds of years ago when he wrote: (Hilchot Lulav Chapter 8:15)

The happiness with which a person should rejoice in the fulfillment of the mitzvot and the love of God who commanded them is a great service. Whoever holds himself back from this rejoicing is worthy of retribution, as [Deuteronomy 28:47] states: "...because you did not serve God, your Lord, with happiness and a glad heart." Whoever holds himself proud, giving himself honor, and acts haughtily in such situations is a sinner and a fool.

Concerning this, Solomon warned [Proverbs 28:10]: "Do not seek glory before the King." [In contrast,] anyone who lowers himself and thinks lightly of his person in these situations is [truly] a great person, worthy of honor, who serves God out of love. Thus, David, King of Israel, declared [II Samuel 6:22]: "I will hold myself even more lightly esteemed than this and be humble in my eyes," because there is no greatness or honor other than celebrating before God, as [II Samuel 6:16] states: "King David was dancing wildly and whistling before God."

Having described the great simcha (joy) at the time of the Simchat Bet HaShoeva (water drawing ceremony) during Succot, Maimonides is keen to remind us that this joy is not just a spontaneous outburst. Rather, it is a "great service". Quite literally something that needs to be worked at.

What is more remarkable is that a number of the modern discoveries of happiness have strong parallels in our ancient tradition.

Firstly is the willingness to make changes in our lives. No matter how small and insignificant these changes might be, they always result in an improved sense of well being. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that Succot comes after the period of the month of Elul and the High Holydays, Yamim Noraim, which are dedicated to making changes in our lives. If we have succeeded in doing so, even on the most  minimal level (and continue to be committed) then a natural feeling of happiness is already in place before Succot arrives.

Secondly a connection was made between altruism and happiness. A study that started in California in the 1930s and interviewed a group of adolescents every ten years until the late 1990s found that those who engaged in altruistic pro- social behaviors such as helping others when they were young had better mental and physical health in adulthood. It goes without  saying that the Torah sees Tzedaka and Hesed, charity and kindness, as pivotal, and this is particularly so on a holiday: (Hilchot Shevitat Yom Tov 6:18)

When a person eats and drinks [in celebration of a holiday], he is obligated to feed converts, orphans, widows, and others who are destitute and poor. In contrast, a person who locks the gates of his courtyard and eats and drinks with his children and his wife, without feeding the poor and the embittered, is [not indulging in] rejoicing associated with a mitzvah, but rather the rejoicing of his gut.

It is counterintuitive, but true joy on a holiday (and in life in general)  is generated more by what we give to others than what we receive from them.

Finally there is the notion that people who live their lives with gratitude are far happier. In a comprehensive study conducted by Robert A Emmons it was shown how even people with chronic diseases were able to feel better as a result of keeping a daily record of their blessings for three weeks. They reported higher levels of positive mood, greater optimism and a greater sense of feeling connected to others.

Succot is the ultimate festival of gratitude, coming at the end of the harvest season;

Devarim 16: Thou shalt keep the feast of tabernacles seven days, after that thou hast gathered in from thy threshing-floor and from thy winepress. And thou shalt rejoice in thy feast, thou, and thy son, and thy       daughter, and thy man-servant, and thy maid-servant, and the Levite, and the stranger, and the fatherless, and the   widow, that are within thy gates.  Seven days shalt thou keep a feast unto the LORD thy God in the place which the LORD shall choose; because the LORD thy God shall bless thee in all thine increase, and in all the work of thy hands, and thou shalt be altogether joyful.

It is not by chance that the mitzvah to rejoice is mentioned the most in connection with this holiday, since it so naturally taps into the feelings of gratitude that a person would feel at this time of the year.

Yet it is not just once a year that we are able to express gratitude. Upon waking the first words we utter are "Modeh Ani" (I thank), and thereafter we recite the morning blessings which are an expression of gratitude for those aspects of life that we tend to take for granted.

Modern man is still searching for the ways to be genuinely happy; the Torah, and Succot in particular have shown us the path since we stood at Mount Sinai.