William Hamilton

Emotion and Motion

Let’s say you come to two different lines in the Post Office. One is moving quickly but is longer. The other is shorter but moving a lot slower. They will both take the exact same time for you to get to the clerk at the counter. Which line will you pick? Studies suggest you’re much more likely to pick the one that’s moving faster. We like the feeling of progress.  

There’s a lot being written and talked about these days about happiness. Bestselling books. Podcasts. Recommendations abound. A current insight suggests that being happier is a better goal than being happy. That is, we’re more excited when we make progress. Improvement feels better than unchanging satisfaction does. 

Sukkot likes to get us going. Waving the Lulav cluster in four directions, then up and down, is a way of making movement happen. And the circle dance, which is likely where dancing the horah comes from, now thousands of years old going back to encircling the Temple’s altar, brings a lot of joy. If you want to watch joy come to life for somebody, pull them into a circle dance this Festival and watch their spirit start to soar.

The Festival of Sukkot has long specialized in happiness. It adds two insights that can prove helpful to today’s thinking about joy’s association with momentum. First, as important as progress can feel, standing still has value too. Secondly, the taste of joy is always temporary.

Yes, emotions have an affinity for motions. But sometimes stillness is called for. This is why we traditionally hold the Lulav Cluster still, interrupting the six-directional waving, when we arrive at God’s name in the prayer. And Sukkot, known as the Festival of our joy, is fleeting. It is defined by being temporary. 

Tastes of joy are always temporary. May you savor them. And, as importantly, when they get displaced by frustration or sadness, try to recall that this is ok. It shows your heart is fully working. Life also calls for standstills. Some time soon, you’ll know when to get going again. 

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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