Our liturgy refers to the holiday of Sukkot as “zman simchatenu” – “the season of our happiness.” In the land of Israel, it marks the completion of the final harvest of the agricultural year.
A Spiritual Fresh Start
Rabbi Jacob Kret, of blessed memory, explained that the joyous festival of Sukkot immediately follows the solemn introspective holiday of Yom Kippur because for some people, part of repentance is learning how to be happy. Having unburdened ourselves of the worries and mistakes of 5773, we are able to think about where our happiness lies.
Happiness in the Community
Many of us find happiness through some kind of Jewish affiliation – religion, culture, charitable endeavors, activism on behalf of Israel, etc. This may not be the case for all Jews. However, the choice to affiliate should be available to all Jews, including those of us with disabilities. That’s one reason to eliminate the barriers that keep us from full participation in community activities.
No One Can Find Happiness for You
There are those who automatically associate disability with sadness. Through my adolescence, people pushed me to find happiness in physical fitness, excellence in piano, or pursuit of a particular hobby, not realizing that I was, on most days, a happy person. Eventually, I learned that only I could determine what made me feel happy, in areas large, like increasing my commitment to Judaism, and small, such as following East Coast weather with the devotion of a sports fan: “The heart knows its own bitterness, and no outsider can truly mingle in its joy.” (Proverbs 14, 10.)
Happiness among the disabled is as diverse as happiness among the non-disabled. Some of us like to travel; others prefer staying home. We differ in how much time we spend with friends and with books.
Not every disabled person prefers to associate with other disabled people. Too many matchmakers consider a man and woman suitable for each other merely because they both are disabled. Marriage works when partners share values, interests and commitment, not merely a disability.
Sometimes our pleasures defy expectations. There are stand-up comics who use wheelchairs, blind photographers, and nonverbal individuals who compose music.
A Happiness Curriculum
The Torah, the Psalms, the Book of Proverbs and the Megilah (scroll) of Ecclesiastes abound with advice regarding pathways to “the good life.” A librarian, educator or rabbi can guide you through the vast body of rabbinic, medieval and modern sources to items that match your Jewish knowledge and interests.
In her book “Wishcraft,” Barbara Sher suggests writing down (without thinking too much about it) thirty experiences or activities which you have enjoyed. Don’t ponder what should make you happy, or what makes other people happy. Trust the first thoughts that come to your mind. You may see a pattern which points to a particular trait or interest.
Sukkot reminds us that happiness won’t automatically come to us. We must devote time and resources to nurture it. With God’s help, may we all find happiness during 5774.
A native of Bradley Beach, New Jersey, Rabbi Michael Levy attributes his achievements to God’s beneficence and to his courageous parents. His parents supported him as he explored his small home town, visited Israel and later studied at Hebrew University, journeyed towards more observant Judaism, received rabbinic ordination, obtained a master’s degree in social work from Columbia University and lectured on Torah- and disability-related topics.
As a founding member of Yad Hachazakah — the Jewish Disability Empowerment Center (www.yadempowers.org), Rabbi Levy strives to make the Jewish experience and Jewish texts accessible to Jews with disabilities. In lectures at Jewish camps, synagogues and educational institutions, he cites Nachshon, who according to tradition boldly took the plunge into the Red Sea even before it miraculously parted. Rabbi Levy elaborates, “We who have disabilities should be Nachshons –boldly taking the plunge into the Jewish experience, supported by laws and lore that mandate our participation.” Rabbi Levy is currently director of Travel Training at MTA New York City Transit. He is an active member of Congregation Aish Kodesh in Woodmere, NY. He invites anyone who has disability-related questions to e-mail him at email@example.com