Be joyful, says Hashem, as if that’s so easy. In a tradition that values action over belief, this is one of the few emotional mitzvot in Judaism. The Shma commands us to love Hashem in specific ways. We have actions, like putting a mezuzah on our door or teaching Torah to our children, that allow us to express our love for God. The emotion is given a concrete form.
By contrast at Sukkot we are commanded to generally be in a state of Simchah, of happiness. There are ritual observances associated with the Holiday like building a Sukkah. Yet that sense of joy is its own distinct part of the way we celebrate the Festival. But what if I’m not feeling happy this Sukkot? Surely God would not ask the impossible of me. This unusual demanding of emotion points us towards the true meaning of happiness.
Happiness and joy can be expressed in many ways. Thomas Jefferson meant something different when he said that humanity has the inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness than the child who says he is happy now that he gets to go play outside. Happiness can be the pleasure of a moment. It is the fun of riding a roller coaster or enjoying an ice cream sundae. The Hebrew word for this kind of pleasure is kef. Kef is great – but it’s thin. A moment of kef is just a moment and once it’s gone, it’s gone.
By contrast, joy is simchah – the unbounded happiness that comes from a life well lived as a result of meaningful choices. It is closely related in Hebrew to osher, as in Ashrei. The Ashrei prayers recited three times each day begins with the phrase, “Happy are they who dwell in your house… happy are the people whose God is God.” The Psalmist means something thicker, more abiding, than kef. We are happy to be in a Synagogue because it connects us to the meaning of our lives, because it gives direction, purpose and inspiration to who we are.
The entertainment industry excels at kef, at fun. Movies, amusement parks, Broadways shows will always be more fun than spiritual life and rituals. That kind of popular entertainment is even occasionally meaningful and deep. By the same token, spiritual living is also great fun. It’s just that movies are for fun, and spiritual living is for meaning. Abiding lasting happiness, the strength of osher and simchah, comes from a sense of purpose and direction to one’s life. This seems unlikely when walking out of the latest Hollywood blockbuster. Put another way, the entertainment business excels at entertainment. Spiritual living excels at meaning.
There is a special kind of happiness called simchah shel mitzvah. It is the joy that comes from the observance of commandments. It happens in community, stemming from the sense of connection engendered by a Holy Congregation reaching out before Hashem. Our Rabbis teach that God’s presence is felt when ten come together and pray. We draw strength from one another in that moment and our joy that comes from meaning is enhanced by an affirming community striving towards holiness.
The building of a Sukkah focuses us on simchah shel mitzvah. We eat more meals together with our family during Sukkot. We entertain more. Our Sukkah becomes a centerpiece of community, reminding us of who we are and why we are. This is the origin of a true happiness, of the kind of osher that stays many months after the celebration is over. Even if I feel grumpy when the celebration begins, the ritual behavior engenders a sense of lasting joy rather than ephemeral happiness.
Put another way: It’s Sukkot – Be Happy!
I wish you and your family a joyous Sukkot and a Shabbat Shalom!
Rabbi David Booth
Dont miss the chance to shake the Lulav and Etrog this year – 2nd Day Sukkot, 9:15am at Kol Emeth. With Root Beer Floats for kiddush!