Barry Newman

The Sukkot Commandment to Be Happy

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What exactly Thomas Jefferson’s intent was when he included in the Declaration of Independence the pursuit of happiness as an unalienable right to be enjoyed by all men (and, presumably, women as well) has been pondered by historians, philosophers and barbers for nearly two-and-a-half centuries. Not surprisingly, opinions on what constitutes happiness vary widely, and are not infrequently difficult to understand. For some, happiness is associated with health while others view finding the right partner for life to be the epitome of happiness. Max, the guy who cut my hair way back when, had his own unique idea of what happiness was; for him, it meant hitting a long shot at the track and coming home with a windfall in his pocket. To each his own, I guess.

Interesting, though, is that America’s third president did not describe the other two mentioned unalienable rights – life and liberty – in the same style as he did happiness. Life and liberty were defined as absolutes – you had them or you didn’t. Insofar as happiness is not a “one size fits all” commodity, Jefferson, rightly, expressed the idea that the citizens of the newly formed country would be guaranteed the opportunity to seek what to them was happiness; whether they achieved it or not was, of course, a different matter, one that no document or edict can promise.

Happiness from the Jewish perspective is not quite as open ended. The Torah, for example, does indeed expect us to be happy at specified times and during the performance of specific activities, but a prevailing argument among the commentators suggests that happiness is, for the most part, confined to spiritual matters; physical achievements or material gains, this premise goes, cannot be associated with what the Torah means by happiness.

Moreover, whereas the evening kiddush that is recited for most of the holidays throughout the year includes a reference to the specific holiday being observed – Rosh Hashana is the commemoration of the sounding of the shofar, Passover is the commemoration of our freedom from Egyptian bondage, Shavuoth is the commemoration of the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai – Sukkot, somewhat ambiguously, is the commemoration of our happiness. What’s even more bewildering is that along with the principal commandments associated with Sukkot – dwelling in a sukkah, gathering of the four species – we are also commanded, as odd as it sounds, to be happy. Jefferson’s document guarantees the right of Americans to pursue a state of personal happiness. The Torah, at least during Sukkot, positively demands it.

I’ll leave for others to clarify why G-d chose Sukkot as the holiday during which being happy is an absolute requirement. The reasons – and there are some very compelling and persuasive ones- range from the pragmatic to the mystical, and deserve to be explained from someone more erudite and familiar with the source documentation. These explanations, however, are for the most part incomplete. They focus on the association between Sukkot and happiness, but omit the most critical aspect of what is demanded of us – how does one fulfill the commandment to be happy? Passions, unlike utilities, cannot be turned on and off with switches and valves. Anger, jealousy, sadness and, of course, happiness cannot be genuinely felt or expressed at will. They are the result of a combination of conditions and events that trigger the reactions which are referred to as human emotions. Being happy, in other words, is unlike being satisfied after a large meal or feeling cleansed after a shower. We know that G-d’s commandments are not always straightforward but there are usually ways to ensure that what is asked of us gets done. Determining how to fulfill the mitzvah to be happy has, I suspect, crossed the eyes of a rabbi or two.

It can be argued, I suppose, that the Torah might be speaking metaphorically and not literally. Which, when you think about it, makes sense. After all, we are leaving the comfort, warmth and security of our homes to dwell for a week in a flimsy, uninsulated and open-roofed structure. It would not be beyond the limit of human nature to feel edgy and impatient throughout the seven days of the holiday. G-d understands this, though, and forces us, through the commandment to be happy, to overlook the invariable discomfort that results from being vulnerable to environmental hostility. By being confident that we are at all times under G-d’s protection and that all will be well, we can indeed achieve a level of happiness.

Or, perhaps, the commandment is to be taken figuratively – you know, cry on the inside but laugh on the outside. This, too, is not at all unreasonable. It makes perfectly good sense to forbid demons, despondency and depression from entrance into the sukkah or to prevent them from contaminating the joy associated with being surrounded by nature’s bounty for seven wonderful days. The pressures and burdens we face on a day-to-day basis will not disappear during the holiday, but perhaps they can be camouflaged or pushed temporarily into the periphery. The Talmud speaks in a number of places about the power that a smile has and the good feeling that it conveys. It just might be that appearing to be happy is an acceptable way to fulfill the commandment.

And maybe, just maybe, G-d, by commanding us to be happy on Sukkot, was cleverly deceiving us. It was Rabbi Hirsch who suggested that the happiness we experience during Sukkot lasts long beyond the nightfall of the final day of the holiday. It remains a vivid memory and enhances us personally throughout the rest of the year. G-d knew that commanding us to be happy on an ongoing basis was unfairly difficult; it was not something that the human being He created was capable of. But He also knew that the residual feeling of happiness lingers on long after the motivation for that feeling. Demanding of us to be during the holiday of Sukkot, one way or another, provides a way to keep that feeling with us as we enter the “after the chagim” period of the year and ready ourselves for the cold winter that awaits.

Truth to be told, being on happy Sukkot is not a very difficult mitzvah to fulfill. We have, after all, just completed ten arduous days of personal introspection and repentance, and have been inscribed, presumably, into the credit side of G-d’s private ledger. Indeed, what could be a better source of happiness and joy than a sense of relief while sitting in a festively decorated sukkah in the company of friends and family.

Commemorating the holiday in which the shofar is blown, or the one in which we recount our freedom from Egyptian bondage, or the anniversary of when we received the immeasurable gift of the Torah are days that we look forward to and arduously prepare for. But commemorating the holiday is which we are commanded to happy is something we cherish.

Chag Sukkot Sameach to all of Am Yisroal!

About the Author
Born and raised on New York’s Lower East Side, Barry's family made aliya in 1985. He worked as a Technical Writer for most of his professional life (with a brief respite for a venture in catering) and currently provides ad hoc assistance to amutot in the preparation of requests for grants. And not inconsequently, he is a survivor of stage 4 bladder cancer, and though he doesn't wake up each day smelling the roses, he has an appreciation of what it means to be alive.
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