Editor's Note: This article was originally published in September 2012.
When my grandparents and cousins joined us for lunch on yom tov during Sukkot, a wonderful sense of camaraderie combined with the redolent aromas of the meal before us pervaded the sukkah. I felt grateful to belong to a family that I know will always care for and will be there for me. Sukkot gatherings are the moments that carry me through lonely times, when I feel compelled to smile, because of how appreciative I am to be part of a loving family.
Sukkot is the only Jewish holiday singled out as the “season of our rejoicing.” In Deuteronomy 16:14 it is written, “You are to rejoice during your festival…” This holiday commemorates the Jews’ wanderings in the desert following their exodus from Egypt. During this time they lived in portable shelters or booths; it is tradition to build, eat and sometimes even sleep in these temporary structures that are typically constructed of four walls and a roof of branches through which the sky can be seen. The Jews have a divine mandate to be completely happy during this weeklong holiday that ends with Simchat Torah.
That’s quite an onerous order, don’t you think? Sure, we’d all love to be joyous and have that euphoric feeling surrounding us for seven days straight — but how can that be possible? What is this key to happiness and where can it be found?
First we must define “happiness.” Most will equate happiness with wealth. How can you be sad if you can have anything you want? You might be surprised to know that sometimes the wealthiest people are the ones who are the most depressed.
David Myers, author of “The Pursuit of Happiness: Who Is Happy — and Why?”, quotes a student from an extremely wealthy home. “My parents bought me a Mazda 626. Then one year, my stepfather gave me a sailboat. Later he bought me my own Windsurfer. Our house has two VCRs and three Hitachi televisions. Do these things make me happy? Absolutely not. I would trade all my family’s wealth for a peaceful and loving home.” If we really want to be happy, we must define what exactly it is that will bring us to this state.
We all desire happiness, but often make the mistake of confusing it with success. Success is getting what you want; happiness is wanting what you get.
“Happiness can be achieved through simplicity,” said Rebecca Charytan, a sophomore at Stella K. Abraham High School for Girls in Hewlett, L.I. “When you start complicating things, wanting this and that and adding unnecessary stress, it becomes impossible to be happy. To me, happiness means being comfortable in my situation and with myself. I feel most happy when I’m in the presence of friends and I can be myself.”
One of the first steps to finding happiness is understanding the following concept: once you die, everything is gone. Your soul exits your body and your wealth and material possessions exit thereafter. Only your name and the lasting impressions you’ve made on people stay forever. The good deeds you’ve performed and the influence you’ve made on those people is what will immortalize you.
It’s strange then, that we spend the majority of our lives chasing money and success, rather than focusing on the people that matter most. We allow material possessions to become our main objective, falsely thinking that those things will bring us happiness, instead of pausing, looking around and realizing that we can feel joy by spending time with the ones we love.
“As corny as it may sound, true happiness is basically love,” said Jacob Berman, a sophomore at Hebrew Academy of Nassau County in L.I. “Like Paul and John said, all you need is love. If you’re with the people you love and you love Hashem, that’s really all you need. Then you are both surrounded by the people that matter most to you and you’re happy with whatever you get because of your love for Hashem.”
So what commandment did the Torah make to ensure that we do not confuse material wealth with true happiness? We were told to leave the luxury and comfort of our homes, to sit outside in frail little structures with our family and loved ones. We were commanded to spend seven days with the most important people in our lives whom we most often take for granted. When you find yourself in a difficult situation, knowing you’ve got family and friends who will never leave your side is comforting. The best solace comes from the people sitting across the table.
There is a famous quote from Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), “Who is rich? He who is happy with his lot.” We create the world we live in. We have the ability to control our attitude towards any given situation, despite the fact that we cannot control the situation itself. Although seemingly difficult, we can choose to think thoughts that will either promote our happiness or make us miserable. Once you can look at everything you have and realize you were given exactly what you were supposed to have in life, you can come to be content with your lot and happiness will automatically accompany it.
The holiday of Sukkot teaches us that even a small, insubstantial hut filled with people we love and people that love us is a far greater source of happiness than a luxurious mansion. The holiday tells us to be more focused on our loved ones and less so on our acquisitive natures. It tells us to reflect more on what we have, rather than what we want. As we gaze up at the sky from within our sukkahs, we will find the reassurance of God’s guidance and protection, and we will know that we are on the correct path to finding true happiness, the most coveted feeling of all.