Z’man Simchateynu is upon us. Yes, it’s almost Sukkot, The Time of our Joy, and we are commanded, V’Semachta b’Chagecha V’Hayita Af Sameach! Rejoice in your festival and be especially happy.
I don’t know about you, but when “commanded” to be just about anything, my first impulse is to resist and do the opposite. How can we be expected to turn happiness on and off at command? The Torah itself has something to say about this through the rabbinic tradition to read Kohelet, Ecclesiastes, on the intermediate Shabbat of this festival, perhaps warning us, “Just not too happy”!
Traditionally, we’re supposed to be so relieved that we lived through Yom Kippur, where every living being is judged either to have yet another year to live or, chas v’shalom, to die. I’ll grant that there are some within our community of Jews who really are so holy as to deeply and intimately feel their life is on the line this time ever year, but it’s always been a stretch for me. And how does this focus on failure and destruction, just a few days ago, bring us to happiness? One would have to enter Yom Kippur, with an overwhelming sense of guilt and self-hate in order to truly feel that, sitting in the Sukkah (and this is speaking ideally in term of weather–I recently spent almost thirty years in Seattle where, ever year putting up the Sukkah was an exercise in futility because you just knew that it would start pouring rain, a storm pre-programmed to last most of the following eight days. So, in more observant circles, the men (women, while not prohibited or excluded from the Mitzvah, nevertheless aren’t commanded to eat all their meals (and possibly to sleep) in the Sukkah) would bundle up in rain gear, run through the mud in the back yard, to say a very very quick Kiddush (the inaugural blessing of the chag), down a mouthful of wine, and run back into the warm dry house for the real festival meal. Unless you have a serious appreciation for the absurd, this ritual is unlikely to inspire you to collapse in laughter or any other expression of happiness.
I remember from many years ago Rabbi B.C.Shloime Twerski, zt”l, teaching that Simchat Yom Tov, the commandment to be happy on these festival days, to be “the hardest one in the book”. When he explained it that time, he was focusing on the requirement to not allow oneself to become even the slightest bit angry, annoyed or have any other negative emotion, for a full 24 (or 48 in the diaspora) hours. When you even briefly contemplate this, you realize what a daunting task it is!
Another theme that the Rabbi emphasized is one we recite every Shabbat and Chag morning, “Sur meRah v’Oseh Tov” (from Psalm 34, part of the extended Psalms reading we add on those special days). It means “Turn Away From Evil And Do Good”, in other words, avoid the negative is important, but the real lesson Torah is teaching us through its many mitzvot is that the real goal is to create a positive and tangible Good in this world. So, merely avoiding anger and frustration (maybe a deep reason behind the prohibition from driving a car and Shabbat and Chag), while an essential first step, is far from the real goal.
Honestly, I wish I could wrap up this lesson with a brilliant insight on how to achieve happiness. I’d become famous and maybe even rich (would either of those suffice to make me, or anyone else, happy?). Perhaps good first step, one I’m working with on myself, is to contemplate one of the deepest concepts in Judaism, “Everything that God Creates, he Creates for His Glory/Honor”. And what could God’s “Honor” or “Glory” possibly be other than the fulfillment of His purpose in Creation, that there be a perfect world, perfected not by His arbitrary decree, but by our willing, loving participation in fixing the world through the Torah and Mitzvot, even, or especially, the incomprehensible ones such as seeming impossible task of being truly happy.
The best I can recommend is to spend the time among people you love.