Many of us are absolutely exhausted after the marathon of Tishrei holidays, but hopefully the experience was not only tiring, but spiritual and inspiring, as well. One theme that we probably considered during the holiday of Sukkot is the definition of happiness. After all, Sukkot is defined in our liturgy as “zman simchatenu,” or a time of our happiness.
Emily Esfahani Smith is a journalist and the author of “The Power of Meaning: Finding Fulfillment in a World Obsessed with Happiness.” Her basic thesis is that chasing happiness can actually make people unhappy. In fact, the suicide rate is rising even though life is getting objectively better by every conceivable objective standard. However, for some reason, more people are feeling hopeless, depressed and alone. There is a sense of emptiness among many who have so much more than previous generations. She argues that what predicts this despair is not a lack of happiness but a lack of having meaning in life. Happiness is a state of comfort and ease and of feeling good in the moment, whereas meaning is more about serving something beyond yourself and developing the best within you. Our culture is obsessed with happiness when, in fact, we should search for meaning. She provides four pillars of life as to how to achieve this.
The first pillar is belonging: being in relationships where we are valued for who we are intrinsically and where we value others, as well. The second pillar is purpose: it is less about what we want than about what we give and using our strengths to serve others. The third pillar is transcendence: feeling connected with a higher reality – perhaps through seeing art, going to a place of worship or through writing – when we lose all sense of time and place. The fourth pillar is storytelling: creating a narrative from the events of our life, as it helps us understand how we became ourselves when we interpret and constantly reinterpret our own story to define ourselves.
Maybe the “simcha” of Sukkot is more than just happiness. Maybe the “simcha” of Sukkot is the quest for meaning. After all, experiencing the sukkah develops each of these pillars. Whether we have expensive or inexpensive homes, we all lived in a temporary, rickety structure with a leaky roof for a week. Rich or poor, we were all the same, living in a small shelter while reflecting on a shared history. As such, we all felt a sense of belonging to each other. Additionally, we spent a week reflecting on the fact that God didn’t just protect us in the desert, but He did this so that we would have faith in Him and serve Him. Therefore, we also felt a sense of purpose. Certainly, we also felt a sense of transcendence as we reflected upon the “ananei hakavod,” the spiritual clouds that the sukkah represented and we felt connected to something greater, something Divine. Finally, we told a story. In fact, the Tur, a halachic code, famously explained not just the nature of the obligation to sit in the sukkah, which is typical, but also the reason why we must sit in the sukkah, which is atypical for a halachic code. Perhaps his point was that the reason for this mitzvah is an integral part of the mitzvah itself. For seven days, we didn’t just sit in the sukkah, but we told a story about it.
And maybe, just maybe, as we return to “Breishit,” back to the beginning, back to the grind of daily life, we will begin a new chapter in our life. We will seek to achieve these four pillars of belonging, purpose, transcendence and story-telling in our daily lives. We will spend less time chasing happiness, and yet we will experience a much greater feeling of true simcha in our lives.