By Morgan Weiss
וּלְקַחְתֶּ֨ם לָכֶ֜ם בַּיּ֣וֹם הָרִאשׁ֗וֹן פְּרִ֨י עֵ֤ץ הָדָר֙ כַּפֹּ֣ת תְּמָרִ֔ים וַעֲנַ֥ף עֵץ־עָבֹ֖ת וְעַרְבֵי־נָ֑חַל וּשְׂמַחְתֶּ֗ם לִפְנֵ֛י יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶ֖ם שִׁבְעַ֥ת יָמִֽים׃
“On the first day you shall take the product of hadar trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the LORD your God seven days.” (Leviticus 23:40)
“The joy which a person derives from doing good deeds and from loving God, who has commanded us to practice them, is a supreme form of divine worship.” (Mishneh Torah, Shofar, Sukkah and Lulav 8:15)
If someone asks you about the Jewish holiday of Sukkot and you’re familiar with it, you might describe it as a harvest festival and explain the two most well-known mitzvahs (commandments) associated with it: eating in a sukkah and shaking the lulav and etrog. But there is a third less widely known mitzvah that applies to all three Jewish pilgrimage festivals and particularly applies to Sukkot, the holiday referred to as the “time of our happiness.” This third mitzvah is “vesamachta bechagecha”—to be joyful.
We know we can build a sukkah and dwell in it, and we know we can wave the lulav and etrog. But if we knew how to force ourselves to feel happiness, the self-help section in bookstores would have a lot fewer books, wouldn’t it? How then can we reasonably be commanded to feel joy nonstop for seven days?
At first glance, it seems we’ve been set up to fail accomplishing this mitzvah. Even the Vilna Gaon, a renowned Jewish scholar who was once asked which mitzvah is the hardest to fulfill, didn’t say “don’t covet,” “don’t steal,” or “honor thy mother and father.” He said the hardest mitzvah is the obligation to be happy on yom tov (holidays).
The answer to fulfilling this mitzvah lies first in reexamining, or at least reminding ourselves, what it means to be joyful. Joy is not a spontaneous feeling—it isn’t the fleeting happiness you feel when you get to sleep in or you’re running late and you don’t hit any red lights. And most of us know on an intellectual level that joy doesn’t come from obtaining the things we think will bring us happiness (millions of dollars, a big house, the perfect spouse, etc.). Joy is a deep feeling of contentment that consists of gratitude, belonging, purpose, and faith.
Sounds great, right? But how we do get that?
Jewish thought teaches that our mind is connected to our feelings—what we think affects how we feel. The Zohar even notes that the Hebrew word for being “happy”—b’simchah – is made up of the same exact letters as the word machshavah—“thought.” It’s also a common belief in Judaism that doing leads to feeling—by performing the mitzvot, we will feel connected to God. We don’t wait until we feel connected to God and then decide to fulfill the mitzvot. The command to be joyful on our festivals, therefore, can be seen not as a command to feel something, but rather to do something.
If joy comes from gratitude, purpose, and faith, and what we think affects how we feel, how then do we cultivate joy? The answer is up to you, but it requires action. It might mean you put on some music and start dancing (which is one way joy was expressed during the Sukkot ritual of Simchat Beit Hashoavah). Maybe you reach out over FaceTime or Zoom to connect with people you love, or maybe you start a gratitude or happiness journal and the ritual will help you focus your conscious thoughts on the good rather than the bad.
This year in particular, with all the upheaval and uncertainty in our lives, if we find ourselves struggling, letting loneliness, anxiety, or fear be stumbling blocks to joy in the season, maybe what we need most is to pause and remind ourselves to have faith—faith that we will make it through these tough times and faith that joy will always be within our grasp.
Wishing you a joyous Sukkot.
Morgan Weiss is the digital media marketing manager at JCC Association of North America.