Undoubtedly, the esteemed editors of the Wall Street Journal did not intentionally publish their thought-provoking article about “happiness” on erev erev Sukkot, Tuesday October 7th. Nonetheless, the article “Decide to be Happy” by Elizabeth Warren (WSJ, D1, 10/7/14) struck a particular spiritual chord deep inside me. For several years, I struggled with the concept of linking happiness with this season of Jewish holidays: Sukkot is explicitly called “Z’man Simchatenu” (the time of happiness) shortly followed by the holiday of Simchat Torah—how can we be expected to be happy, let alone expected to be happy at a specific time? Can my friends who just lost a parent or a husband be commanded to be happy too?
Along comes Ms. Warren to teach us that there are two styles of decisionmakers, “maximizers” and “satisficers”, and that our method of decision making directly impacts our ability to be happy. At bottom, Ms. Warren explains that “maximizers” weigh a wide range of options before choosing. For example, they are the ones who channel surf while claiming to watch one TV program. They also have the highest standards for themselves in several areas, which often affects their ability to be content. “Satisficers”, on the other hand, want what is “good enough.” They are the ones who when shopping for a white sweater, buy the acceptable white sweater and don’t feel compelled to find the sweater with the perfect fit. The maximizer vs. satisficer matrix resonated with me in terms of understanding this challenging directive to be happy. I have felt uncomfortable with what I perceived to be the uniquely American materialistic perspective of—buy the high end Loboutin stilettos for Rosh Hashanah, that will surely add to your happiness.
The issue of happiness is an emotionally and spiritually loaded one. As a first generation daughter of a German born mother who left Hamburg for Palestine, and who became a second lieutenant in the Nachal division of Tzahal in 1952 (observant women were a rarity in Tzahal at that time)—I am keenly aware of my family history and live my life with that legacy and an attendant sense of responsibility. The Bob Marleyesque notion of “Don’t Worry Be Happy” that was so well-worn by many of the children I grew up with who had “American” parents seemed foreign to me. The tanks in the street in Jerusalem during that summer I spent in my Savta’s one bedroom in the 1970s on Rechov Molcho near Beit Hanassi in Rehavia seemed the norm to me. I was surprised but not emotionally paralyzed when the World Trade Center buildings were hit—but rather instinctively ran to protect my young American born children.
The question remains–what does G-d expect from us when he commands us to be happy? On a meta level, the research is fairly clear that material wealth and success does not guarantee “happiness.” One insight I learned over Sukkot is that we read Kohelet each year on Shabbat Chol Hamoed Sukkot specifically to underscore the point that material success does not equate to happiness. King Solomon had it all, wisdom, wealth, power, influence and a large family. Yet somehow in his soul there appears to have resided a repository of emptiness, which was the catalyst for his ability to write Kohelet, which ultimately serves as an eternal reminder that the acquisition of material wealth and knowledge is no substitute for the appreciation that the source of our success stems from G-d.
Ultimately, the link between happiness and Sukkot/SimchatTorah is reflected in the notion of the Sukkah itself. As explained by Rabbanit Ruth Walfish in “Sukkot and the Joy of Existence” (compilation by Beit Hillel), the sukkah “can be perceived as a metaphor for existence itself.” That is, just as the sukkah is temporary and unstable, so is life. Nevertheless, we use our best efforts to enhance the beauty of the Sukkah, and we spend our time in the Sukkah eating and rejoicing with our family and close friends. To me, a Sukkah, no matter how lovely, has consistently felt relatively unstable. Similarly, our life can be viewed as a parallel to the Sukkah, unstable and subject to change in a matter of seconds. The message of happiness on Sukkot is essentially an extension of Ms. Warren’s theme of being a satisfier. One should strive to be content with what G-d has given you. During this holiday season, look around at your family and close friends and appreciate them. During Sukkot and Simchat Torah —dance with the Torah, own it, absorb and appreciate the presence of your family, friends and community –and understand that they, not materialistic values, are the source of happiness and yes – that is good enough.