The Jewish holiday of Sukkos is referred to as the “time of our happiness.” One explanation which is given for this is that, historically, farmers would be ushering in their crops at this time of year, and the experience of realizing the finished product of their labor would bring them much happiness. Similarly, Jewish people continue to commemorate the festival to this very day, rejoicing and thanking God for all that He has given them.
Another explanation for why Sukkos is called the “time of our happiness”, relates to the atonement for our sins which has begun a few days earlier on the Jewish High-holiday of Yom Kippur. Through prayer, fasting, and making a firm commitment to a better course of action, Yom Kippur enables Jewish people to obtain a “clean slate” and start anew. While many find the High-holidays to be a time of heaviness and stress, they are, in fact, wonderful opportunities for self-inventory and the recalculation of one’s life trajectory. The ability to repent and become forgiven for one’s misdeeds is, in fact, a miraculous concept, well worth celebrating.
Whereas Yom Kippur represents God’s willingness to forgive, Sukkos goes a step further. As Jewish people construct their makeshift huts (known as Sukkas), reminiscent of the huts that provided shelter for the Jewish people throughout their sojourn in the desert, they demonstrate God’s desire to not only forgive them, but to shelter, protect and dwell amongst them.
There is much psychological overlap with such concepts. Some people who come to therapy are weighed down by the burden of their past and are desperately searching for a way forward. They wonder how they could ever experience happiness or serenity after the trauma, self-harm, and self-loathing which they have become accustomed to.
The High-holidays as well as Sukkos provide a metaphor of sorts for such individuals. It is, in fact, possible to work through one’s trauma and adopt a new self-image regardless of one’s past. Not only can people obtain forgiveness for their wrongdoings, but they can build happy and healthy relationships; sources of shelter and protection.
In ancient times, there were elaborate celebrations in Jerusalem on Sukkos, celebrating the above ideas. Throngs of people would converge on the holy Temple to watch the festivities. It would be a time of reconnecting to one’s ideals and a source of tremendous joy.
With this in mind, it is interesting to note the custom in many communities to read the book of Ecclesiastes, known as Koheles, throughout the holiday of Sukkos. In Ecclesiastes, King Solomon derides the frivolous pursuit of Joy and repeatedly takes note of its fleeting nature, detailing Death and all that accompanies it.
At first glance, the reading of Ecclesiastes seems counterintuitive to the “happiness” theme of Sukkos, putting a potential damper on the festive mood. If Sukkos is meant to be a time of rejoicing, why would we engage with Ecclesiastes, a book which is not of such a nature?
Rabbi Azaryah Figo (1579-1647) in his Bina L’itim, explains that the intended purpose of reading Ecclesiastes on Sukkos is, in fact, to temper our celebrations and not allow them to get out of hand.
I would like to suggest another approach. The Torah (the Jewish bible) demands that we serve God with Joy, clearly designating it as an integral aspect of religious observance. It is, therefore, incumbent upon us to understand King Solomon’s harsh words for Joy in the proper context.
If one examines King Solomon’s words closely, it is clear that he is referring to the pursuit of Joy as a goal in and of itself. King Solomon, in his legendary wisdom, notes, that such a practice is a fruitless endeavor, bound to result in eventual heartache. Like one who attempts to quench his thirst with salt water, nothing will ever be enough.
Numerous psychological studies have likewise shown that the constant pursuit of happiness invariably leads to more unhappiness (see “The Problem with Happiness” Huffington Post, Sept. 30, 2010). Human beings have a propensity to adapt to whatever they achieve and learn to treat it as their baseline expectation. They quickly become accustomed to whatever positive event or achievement that they experience and begin to feel empty again. This phenomenon is commonly known as ‘Hedonic Adaptation’.
On the other hand, the joys that one experiences from committing to one’s purpose provide lasting effects. Research has shown that having purpose and meaning in life increases overall well-being and life satisfaction, improves mental and physical health, enhances resiliency, enhances self-esteem, and decreases the chances of depression (see “There’s More to Life than Being Happy” The Atlantic, January 9, 2013). As the legendary Viennese psychiatrist Viktor Frankl aptly wrote in his magnum opus Man’s Search for Meaning, “happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue.”
It is therefore possible to suggest that the reading of Ecclesiastes on Sukkos is not meant to dampen our joy but rather to channel it in the right direction. It reminds us to aim the focus of our pursuits at the purposes that we have committed to and to avoid meaningless and hedonistic pleasures. As we maintain our chartered courses of action, we are assured that happiness will follow.