About fifty to sixty years after the Second Temple was built, Nehemiah was relaxing in his hometown of Shushan when he received word that his brethren in Jerusalem were in trouble. Unfortunately, there was a problem with security. The wall surrounding Jerusalem wasn’t built. Nehemiah, who was an officer of the king, received permission from the king to travel to Jerusalem to supervise the building of the walls and he brought much needed security to the city. Nehemiah also enacted social reforms and encouraged settlement in Jerusalem. To celebrate the building of the walls, the Jews living in Israel gathered on Rosh Hashana. Ezra, the spiritual leader at the time, read the Torah and the Jews then went home and celebrated. On the next day, the Jews returned for more inspiration and the Book of Nehemiah (8:14) states that “[T]hey found written in the Torah that God had commanded Moshe that the Israelites must dwell in booths during the festival of the seventh month.” Upon reading this, they decide to build huts and “[T]he whole community that returned from the captivity made booths and dwelt in the booths—the Israelites had not done so from the days of Joshua son of Nun to that day—and there was very great rejoicing.” (Ibid., 8:17) What does this mean? Did they not observe the holiday of Sukkot at all from the days of Joshua until the days of Nehemiah? Whether we are to understand this verse literally or figuratively, there must have been something special about the Sukkot celebration of Nehemiah’s generation that hadn’t existed since Joshua’s generation.
The holiday of Sukkot is known as “zman simchatenu,” or the holiday of happiness. Dan Gilbert, Harvard psychologist and happiness expert, has researched the surprising science of happiness. He believes that in our lifelong pursuit of happiness, our brains systematically misjudge what will make us happy. In reality, there are two different types of happiness. There is natural happiness when we get what we want and there is synthetic happiness when we adapt to not getting what we want. Professor Gilbert argues that synthetic happiness can be just as “real” as natural happiness because we have a psychological immune system that helps us change our views of the world so that we can feel better about the world in which we find ourselves. His research essentially proves what Hamlet said, “For there is nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
There are two primary mitzvoth in our holiday of happiness, the mitzvah of the arba minim (the four agricultural species) and the mitzvah of dwelling in the sukkah. The mitzvah of the arba minim is a celebration of natural happiness. After all, in ancient Israel we grew crops, harvested them and gathered them. At this time, we are naturally happy and grateful with our newfound wealth so we take four agricultural species as an expression of gratitude. However, the celebration of dwelling in the sukkah, outside our home, exposed to the elements, with a leaky roof, is a much more challenging celebration. It is a celebration of synthetic happiness. It is not natural to be happy in such an environment, but we are commanded to “think” or “synthesize” happiness despite our environment.
The Book of Nehemiah doesn’t state that the Israelites had not celebrated the holiday of Sukkot from the time of Joshua to the time of Nehemiah. Rather, it states that they hadn’t dwelled in sukkot since the days of Joshua. As such, the generations in between Joshua and Nehemiah did celebrate the holiday of Sukkot with the mitzvah of the arba minim; only their mitzvah of sukkah was lacking. Perhaps the point of this verse is that only the generations of Joshua and Nehemiah were able to fully observe the mitzvoth of happiness of Sukkot, both the natural happiness found in the mitzvah of arba minim and the synthetic happiness found in the mitzvah of sukkah. After all, these two generations specifically experienced both the natural happiness of growing crops while living in Israel and the challenge of synthesizing happiness, of celebrating God, in exile, whether in the desert or in Babylonia.
The holiday of Sukkot, therefore, challenges us to do two things. First, when we are happy, let us be grateful and express gratitude to God. Secondly, sometimes we need to realize that we don’t have to search for happiness, but that it is all around us. The generation of Joshua and the generation of Nehemiah demonstrate that God, the source of all happiness, can even be found in a sukkah.