I had no idea what I wanted to blog about this week, but when I saw Norah’s post on happiness, I immediately had to respond. I’ve definitely experienced that sense that my happiness is contingent on something else – good grades, relationships, personal success – and somehow once I achieve any or all of those, things will just be perfect. But of course, that’s never the case.
This week is the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, a fall harvest holiday where we build temporary “booths” outside and dwell in them as much as possible for the length of the holiday- eating meals, learning Torah, and even sleeping in the sukkah if the weather permits. But most of all, on Sukkot, we’re commanded to be happy. The verse in the Torah (Deuteronomy 16:15) says:
שבעת ימים תחג ליהוה אלהיך במקום אשר-יבחר יהוה כי יברכך יהוה אלהיך בכל-תבואתך ובכל מעשה ידיך והיית אך שמח:
Seven days shall you keep a solemn feast to the Lord your God in the place which the Lord shall choose; because the Lord your God shall bless you in all your produce, and in all the works of your hands, therefore you shall surely rejoice.
Sukkot is the only holiday where we’re actually commanded to feel a particular emotion. But it raises the question – is it possible to cultivate joy, or any other emotion that we might want to feel? Or are emotions just things that are contingent on our current circumstances, and completely outside of our control? I spent a lot of time last year exploring that question in the context of meditation retreats and prayer, and in a class I was taking at Pardes with Rabbi James Jacobson-Maisels, we looked at Jewish prayer to see what kinds of emotions each of the prayers are trying to cultivate or recognize within us. It was a completely different way of seeing liturgical prayer than I had ever been taught before.
Yesterday in tefillot (prayers) at JTS, I shared a meditation from that class on cultivating joy, especially for Sukkot. We took four different words for happiness/joy/pleasure in Hebrew and each came up with our own personal memory for that particular kind of happiness. I had the group try to think very specifically about their memories, bringing forth a clear, detailed picture in their mind that could bring up the feeling of happiness when they focused on it. The four kinds of happiness were:
simcha – celebration
osher – quiet bliss
oneg – sensory joy
hana’ah – happiness received from another person in relationship (lit. “benefit”)
We then cycled through the memories a few times, recalling that kind of happiness in all of its various forms.
As Ecclesiastes/Kohelet says, there’s a time for everything- weeping and laughter, sorrow and joy. I certainly don’t think we can or should strive to be happy at all times. But I do think it’s possible to bring more joy into our lives, slowly slowly.
Chag sameach – happy holiday!