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Parshas - Sukkot 5778

Happiness is ... Sitting in the Sukkah

Everybody wants to be happy, right? Isn't that the standard line of every Jewish mother? ...."I vant my Harold should be heppy!" And there's that old song that everyone was singing years ago, "Don't Worry, Be Happy". Happiness .... the ultimate, but elusive, goal of billions of people across the world.

We all want to be happy, yet, unfortunately, many of us aren't happy at all, and some are even quite sad and depressed. As a matter of fact, a lot of the people out there who are not so happy are those who, in our perception, seem to have it all - lots of money, fame and popularity, good looks, great jobs, etc. If money and fame don't seem to work all that well, what, if anything, truly makes us happy?

Well, as I was pondering this question a few days ago, it occurred to me that maybe I could find the answer to this all-important question in the Torah. After all, the Torah talks about simchah, happiness, in a few places. So maybe, somewhere in the Torah, I could find a definition of true happiness. I looked through the Five Books of Moses and I found that, just like all good Jewish mothers, G-d also wants us to be happy, and even commands us to be happy .... for at least three periods during the year.

In Deuteronomy 16:14, the Torah tells us: "V'samachta b'chagecha .... You shall rejoice on your festival" Thus we are commanded to rejoice on our festivals (which include Passover, Shavuos, and Succos) by partaking of festive food and drink and by wearing special holiday clothing.

Hmmm, I thought, how strange …. a commandment to be happy .... sort of like G-d’s telling us: "Smile, or I'll kill you"! How does the Torah legislate emotions such as happiness and joy? And if we are being asked to be happy during the Three Festivals, does that mean that G-d allows us, or even wants us, to be sad and depressed the rest of the year? But wait …. it gets more confusing.

As I probed deeper into the Torah, I found that there is one festival that stands out from among all the others as being the time when we are most happy. And that is the Festival of Succos, which is referred to in the liturgy as Z'man Simchaseinu - a “Time of Happiness and Joy”. Maimonides, the great medieval Torah commentator and codifier of Jewish Law, even describes for us at length the great joy and celebration that took place in the Temple in Jerusalem during the Festival of Succos. He writes in Chapter Eight of The Laws of Lulav the following:

"Even though there is a mitzvah to rejoice on all the Festivals, on the Festival of Succos there was an even greater rejoicing in the Temple .... On each day of the holiday in the afternoon, they would start to rejoice and celebrate throughout the evening late into the night .... The flutes would be played, and they would play the harps and other instruments, and everyone would sing and dance and say special songs of praise .... and the entire nation of Israel would come to watch ...."

The Talmud in Succah 51a even tells us that "Whosoever did not see this celebration in the Temple on Succos, never saw true rejoicing in his life".

In other words, we are being told here that apart from the general feeling of joy one is supposed to feel on all the Festivals, there is a unique quality to the simchah that is expressed on the Festival of Succos that transcends all other types of happiness and joy. Whereas on Passover and Shavuos we are asked by G-d to feel happy, as expressed in the commandment of V'samachta b'chagecha, Succos is Z'man Simchaseinu - a Time of Happiness and Joy. What is the difference between the simchah that we are asked to feel on other holidays and the happiness and joy that are intrinsic to the Festival of Succos?

And what is so special and joyous about this holiday anyway? We just sit in a succah (flimsy hut with thatched roof) for a couple of days, just like they did on Gilligan's Island, and we shake the Four Species - the lulav (palm frond), esrog (citron), hadassim (myrtle branches), and aravos (willow branches) - once a day during the Holiday prayer service. Is this G-d's idea of fun?

And what made the celebration in the Temple in Jerusalem on Succos so happy and joyous that the Rabbis could say that one who missed it never saw true rejoicing in his life? I mean, that's a pretty serious statement to make! We're talking Mardi Gras, World Series Champions Ticker Tape Parades, New Year’s Eve at Times Square, etc. …. and nothing even comes close to what happened in the Temple?!

We have asked a lot of really tough questions. Let's see if we can come to some understanding of the true nature and definition of simchah and happiness, and then, hopefully, all the pieces will fall into place.

ARE WE HAVING FUN YET?

People usually associate happiness with "fun" and "having a good time". But these concepts are alien to Jewish thought. There is no word for fun in Biblical Hebrew. (Kef, the Modern Hebrew word for “fun”, was borrowed from the Arabic language.) And there is no such commandment anywhere in the Torah to "have a good time". Obviously, these concepts cannot be the definition of Jewish happiness.

The truth is that the Torah does command us regarding our happiness throughout the year. In Deuteronomy 28:47, the Jewish people are forewarned by Moses that they will be punished because they did not serve G-d with simchah. And in Psalms, King David exhorts the Jewish people: "Ivdu es Hashem b'simcha …. Serve your G-d with joy". Notice, however, that in the aforementioned verse, the Torah doesn't tell us to be happy; rather, we are commanded to serve G-d with happiness. Only on the Three Festivals - Passover, Shavuos and Succos - are we actually commanded to be happy. So what's really going here? What is the difference between being happy and serving G-d with happiness?

The answer to this question – explains Rabbi Akiva Tatz in his amazing book Worldmask, - holds the key to the proper understanding of what true joy and happiness is, and how we can attain it. But before we answer this question, we have to go back in time, way back to the beginning of creation.

A TALE OF TWO WORLDS

The Kabbalists teach that G-d's ultimate desire for us is to give us pleasure and for us to experience true happiness and constant joy. And for that, He created the next world, the World to Come. That is the sole reason why G-d created us - to give us pleasure. But in order for us to ultimately enjoy that pleasure, G-d created this world as a dimension in which we work and thus deserve our portion in the next world. By earning that world, we attain the greatest pleasure. We are not to experience pleasure as a free gift; we are to build it ourselves and enjoy it as the work of our hands. Our work and suffering here are the elements which build our happiness and pleasure there.

And here we are coming to the most important point. It is precisely because this world was meant for working hard and for building our place in the next world, that we have the following paradox: The greatest pleasure in this world never comes from focusing on the pleasure and searching for it. Only if we work hard, and even suffer, in this world, to produce something good and to build for the future, will we ultimately experience that pleasure, and the realization that we are working towards that pleasure can give us a sense of joy and happiness in the immediate present.

Let’s try to explain this a little better. Imagine the happiest moments that you have experienced in your life. I am willing to bet that the greater the pain and effort that brought about that happiness, the greater the happiness that you experienced.

Take childbirth, for example. A woman goes through incredible pain and suffering only to feel tremendous joy and happiness when the ordeal is finally over and her child is born. Or imagine the joy a person feels at the end of his life after toiling for years to raise a family and to feed them and educate them. Only after tremendous pain and sweat and tears can he truly feel the joy of looking at the children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren that are the product of all that toil and effort.

All these are examples of happiness that results from pain and suffering. Why is it that real happiness and pleasure seems to come only after tremendous pain and effort? effort? The answer – explains Rabbi Akiva Tatz - is that all these examples mirror a spiritual reality - that this world was meant to be a place where we are to work and produce and toil with great effort. It is not the world of true and lasting happiness and pleasure. The pleasure comes later, at a different time. And the pleasure we can enjoy in the present only results from the recognition that all our hard work is creating our future.

Our primary goal, therefore, is not to be happy. That will come, in due time. Rather, we are asked to serve G-d with joy and happiness. Our goal is to serve G-d, working to build, to produce, to earn our place in the next world through the good that we do here. And if we see our work here as an investment in the next world, we can serve G-d with the joy and happiness of knowing that we are producing and earning something real and eternal. To sum up, true happiness and simchah as defined by the Torah can only come from the knowledge that what we are doing here in this world is building what we will ultimately experience in a different place. And if we realize this, we can find true happiness even amidst the difficulties and trying times that we often find ourselves in.

Now let's get back to the mitzvah to be happy on the Festivals. If this world is not the place of ultimate happiness, and we are not commanded by G-d to be happy in this world, only to serve G-d with joy, what, then, is the meaning of the commandment of V’samachta b'chagecha ("You shall rejoice on your festival")?

THE DEAF MAN WITH THE LAME MAN ON PIGGYBACK

The truth is that the whole mitzvah of being happy on the Festivals is altogether difficult to understand. The Talmud teaches us that we fulfill the mitzvah by eating meat, drinking wine and wearing festive holiday clothing. Now is anyone going to tell me that eating a good brisket or drinking a good Merlot or wearing a nice Armani outfit is the Torah's idea of true happiness?! Is that what makes a Jew truly happy on Passover - a little good food and drink? Surely, there's got to be more to it than that! After all, these are holidays that represent such lofty and spiritual ideas as the receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai and the Clouds of Glory that enveloped the Jews in the Desert for forty years.

What is the real intent of the Torah's commandment to be happy on the Festivals by involving ourselves in such seemingly mundane activities as eating and drinking and wearing fancy clothing?

The Dubno Maggid explains the essence of this mitzvah with the following parable:

There was once a lame man who greatly resented being unable to leave his home. Now this man had a friend who, though strong and able otherwise, was quite deaf. One day it occurred to the lame man that if he and his friend would do certain things together, it would be of advantage to both of them, one making up for the physical shortcomings of the other. And so it was agreed that the deaf man would be at his friend's disposal all day and carry him through the town on his shoulders, while the latter would act as a guide. One day, when they were thus out together, they passed a place where there was delightful music and dancing. Now the lame man was very fond of music and he wanted to stop awhile to enjoy the lilting tunes to which he himself could not dance. But how could he make his friend, who heard not a sound, stand still for a few moments? Suddenly he knew what he had to do. In his pocket he happened to have a small bottle of gin with a tiny cup. He took out the bottle, filled the little cup and offered it to his bearer. The latter then stopped long enough to drain the cup, and before he could walk on, the lame man on his shoulders offered him a second drink, and then a third. By this time the deaf man had become somewhat tipsy and began to dance and to enjoy himself. And the lame man, too, benefited, for not only could he stop at his place and listen to the music but even dance on the shoulders of his partner, who by now had become quite nimble and lively. In this way, each of the partners was well-content.

So, too, said the Dubno Maggid, it is with the neshamah, the soul, and the guf, the body. The soul seeks spirituality and elevation on the holidays. That's what makes it happy. And our main task on the Festivals is to elevate ourselves through our reliving and re-experiencing the events that our ancestors once experienced. But the soul becomes truly joyous only if the body, too, cooperates; therefore it is necessary to gladden the body with good food, drink and clothing to achieve that true harmony of pleasure and rejoicing that is expected of us on our festivals. And that is why we are commanded to eat and drink on the Festivals, thereby inducing a state of happiness for our bodies and enabling our souls to soar.

The Festival of Succos, however, is a horse of an entirely different color. It is not merely a time in which we serve G-d with joy, as we do during the rest of the year. And it is not just a time when we are commanded to induce a state of happiness as we are commanded to do on the other two Festivals. Rather, it is a Z'man of Simchah, a Time of Happiness. And, as we mentioned earlier, the joy that was experienced in the Temple on the Festival of Succos was unmatched and unrivalled by any other joy ever experienced since creation. So to paraphrase an old question .... why is this festival different than all other festivals?

SUCCOS - THE FESTIVAL FROM THE TWILIGHT ZONE

The truth is that Succos is not a holiday of this world. When we sit in the succah this coming Wednesday evening, and for the next eight days, we will be in a sort of "spiritual time-warp" - we will be transported to a different dimension that doesn't really exist in this world.

Now before you think that I’ve completely lost it, please allow me to explain. You see, the Festival of Succos, in contrast to the other Festivals, has many aspects to it that are not from this world. For example, the holiday of Passover celebrates the concept of freedom, specifically our freedom from Egyptian bondage and our being formed into a new nation. The holiday of Shavuos celebrates the Giving of the Torah to that new nation. Both of these concepts are a part of the world as we know it. Everyone can appreciate the concept of freedom, and all religions begin with a Divine Revelation of sorts. But what do those little huts we sit in on Succos represent? They commemorate the Clouds of Glory that surrounded and protected the Jewish people for forty years in the desert, as they chomped on the miraculous manna bread which fell from the sky, and drank fresh water from a mysterious rock that followed them around.

I don't know about you, but this doesn't seem to be a normal occurrence in the world as we know it! It sounds more like the Twilight Zone! The truth is that Succos was exactly that .... it was a time when the Jewish people merited to taste a little bit of the pleasures of the Next World in This World. What our ancestors experienced during their forty years under those Divine Clouds of Glory resembles the sublime, otherworldly existence which all of us will one day merit in the World to Come.

As a matter of fact, the Vilna Gaon writes that all the holidays in the (present) Hebrew month of Tishrei mirror future events that will take place at the end of this world and at the beginning of the next. So that first there will be a great Day of Judgment for the entire world (symbolized by Rosh Hashanah which occurs on the first day of Tishrei), followed by a Day of Atonement and Purification (symbolized by Yom Kippur which occurs on the tenth day of Tishrei), and then we will be ushered in the World to Come (symbolized by Succos which occurs on the fifteenth day of Tishrei).

And when a Jew enters the succah each year, covered only by a flimsy roof which offers no physical protection, he is truly entering a different dimension - a taste of the Next World right here in This World. And just like in the World to Come we will ultimately return to our Source, to G-d Who created us and Who wants us near to Him, so, too, on Succos, after having just atoned for all our sins on Yom Kippur, we leave the confines of our very physical houses to live in G-d's house for eight days. The feeling of knowing that we are so connected with G-d, and that we are in His Presence and sheltered under His Divine roof, can give us a sublime sense of joy and pleasure that is generally only felt in the Next World.

We now understand why the Festival of Succos is called Z'man Simchaseinu - a Time of Happiness and Joy. It is not just a time to serve G-d with joy, or to induce a state of happiness and joy, but it is intrinsically a time of happiness and simchah, as it is a time when G-d gives us a little of the next world's pleasure in this world.

Now, granted, that not everyone senses this joy on a conscious level. It takes a very spiritually-sensitive soul to experience this great joy while sitting in the succah, or when dancing in the Temple each night of Succos. This is why Maimonides writes that only the most righteous and spiritual people partook in the dancing and merriment at the Temple in Jerusalem. The rest of the people just stood there and watched in utter amazement and enjoyment. But, at the same time, even we mere mortals can feel a little bit of this genuine simchah as we enter the succah this year, leaving for a few brief moments our homes and all the physical trappings contained within them, to enjoy some private time with our Father in Heaven. And for those fortunate enough to be spending the holiday of Succos in Jerusalem this year, one can still feel a little remnant of that genuine joy that was once experienced at the Temple even today, as the streets fill with thousands of Jews dancing and singing each night of the holiday, rejoicing in the knowledge of their close relationship with G-d.

May we all merit to live in G-d's home - the succah - all the days of our lives, and may we all merit to one day experience the genuine happiness of being together with G-d, enjoying the fruits of our hard work, in the place of true simchah. Amen.

[Sources: Worldmask by Rabbi Akiva Tatz, Targum Press; The Maggid of Dubno and his parables by Benno Heinemann, Feldheim Publishers]

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