D'var Torah, Sukkot 5780/Sat 19th OCT 2019

by Cantor Tamara Wolfson

The writing is the opinion of the author and does not necessarly reflect that of Kehillah North London.

By a show of hands, how many people in the room can identify the happiest day of your life? Take a moment to think back to that day. The events of the day, the people surrounding you. Envision the place you were in. Remember the joy you felt.

Now what if I asked you to identify the happiest week of your life? Could you do it?

On this Shabbat we find ourselves in the midst of Sukkot, a time we refer to as zman simchateinu: the season of our happiness.

Deuteronomy chapter 16 verses 13-15 reads:

“You shall make yourself the Festival of Sukkot… And you shall rejoice in your Festival – you, and your son, and your daughter, and your manservant, and your maidservant, and the Levite, and the stranger, and the orphan, and the widow, who are within your cities… and you will only be happy.”

We’ve been commanded by the Torah to feel things before. The Torah tells us to love God, love our neighbors, and love strangers. Now we are commanded to observe a full week of Sukkot happiness. But what is this feeling meant to be about? Is it about being happy, having things that make you happy, or striving to become happy? Is it enough to have a few moments of happiness in our week, or do we need to be happy for all seven days in a row? How can we better understand and cultivate Sukkot joy?

From an agricultural perspective, this fall festival celebrates the bounty of the harvest and our gratitude for the nourishment we receive from the earth. Midrash Yalkut Shimoni 64b explains that “the expression of rejoicing occurs three times in connection with Sukkot… but no such expression occurs even once with regard to Pesach. Why? Because the fate of one’s crops is still in balance on Pesach, and one does not know whether there will be a yield or not”. While society has evolved remarkably since the times of Biblical agriculture, we still depend upon on the earth and its resources for our daily survival. Especially in this time of climate crisis, we find that the fate of the earth and its bounty hangs in the balance now more than ever. 

So we turn our focus to the outdoors, we eat and sleep in temporary booths, we are exposed to the elements and we feel more vulnerable as a result. Our sukkah is vulnerable, too. The fresh fruits and vegetables we hang are at risk of being eaten, the walls of the sukkah may get windswept, and the fragile sheathes over our heads may sink under the weight of a downpour. But even in this vulnerable state we are challenged to find joy through gratitude, just like our ancestors did as they wandered the desert. The walls of the sukkah may be fragile, but we are grateful for their shelter. The air may be chilly, but we are grateful for the warmth and company of family and friends that sit with us in our temporary dwellings. Our ancestor’s agriculture may feel obsolete, but their sentiments of gratitude continue to ring true for us today.

A few years ago I was having trouble sleeping and thought I had insomnia. What I actually had, however, was anxiety. Every night before bed, my mind would shift into overdrive and I’d find myself obsessing anxiously over everything I had done or said that day. I couldn’t shut my brain off, and I was losing sleep over it. A friend suggested that the very last thing I do before shutting off my bedside light was to make a list of everything I was grateful for — either in writing or in my head. I brushed off the suggestion, thinking it was just a glorified way to count sleep. But then I tried it, and it worked like a dream.

Jack Kornfield writes that “Buddhist monks begin each day with a chant of gratitude for the blessings of their life. Native American elders begin each ceremony with grateful prayers to mother earth and father sky, to the four directions, to the animal, plant, and mineral brothers and sisters who share our earth and support our life. In Tibet, the monks and nuns even offer prayers of gratitude for the suffering they have been given”. We know that in Judaism, the very first prayer we’re meant to recite in the morning is “modeh ani”, expressing gratitude for our souls and for waking up to a new day. The spiritual value of gratitude is not new to us, but what about the impact of gratitude on our physical and mental health?

A number of recent psychological studies have shown that adopting a regular gratitude practice has led to decreased levels of depression, higher levels of general well-being, increased trust in strangers, increased quality of sleep, and improved recovery after experiencing trauma. And remarkably, these improvements were observed in a relatively short period of time — meaning that it only takes a few days of gratitude practice to reap some of its benefits.

During the remaining few days of Sukkot, I’d like to challenge us that if we can’t always find the joy or happiness we seek, we can still find gratitude. And when we think back to the happiest moments in our lives, even if it may feel hard to recreate the exact joy we felt, we can always access a deep sense of gratitude for what we’ve experienced. In this way, we can truly feel like we’ve celebrated zman simchateinu.

Moadim l’simcha and Shabbat Shalom.