A different kind of happiness: Seven steps inspired by Sukkot

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

But are you happy?

No, this isn’t your mother wanting another update on your life. And it’s not Dr. Phil’s provocative question through your TV or computer screen as you sit (safely) on your couch.

It’s the holiday of Sukkot speaking.

The rabbis nicknamed the harvest festival “zman simchateinu,” the “time of our happiness.” What exactly does a holiday that invites us to eat our meals al fresco in a small hut — often in the chilly, windy days of late fall — have to do with being happy?

“Sukkot happy” is a bit different from the kind of happy that our postmodern culture espouses. The happiness that Sukkot encourages is described in Ecclesiastes, which we read during Sukkot. The holiday begins this year on the evening of Wednesday, Oct. 12.

Waving the lulav and etrog is especially fun to do with kids. photo/jta/dasee berkowitz

Ecclesiastes wouldn’t strike you as a get-happy-quick piece of literature. It is pessimistic and cynical — just count the number of times the word “vanity” is used. Ecclesiastes does, however, contain deep wisdom about what gets in the way of true happiness. The book offers us perspective and manages our expectations.

To the question “Am I rich enough?” Ecclesiastes answers, “A lover of money never has his fill of money, nor a lover of wealth his fill of income, that too is futile. As his substance increases, so do those who consume it. This also is vanity.”

The Book of Ecclesiastes is keenly aware that death will come in the end for all mortals, so it trumpets robust relationships. It speaks about cultivating a relationship with God and, more generally, cultivating relationships that lie beyond the self as a means to happiness. According to Ecclesiastes, being in service to God — and more broadly, being of service to others — might be a key to joy.

I think to myself, when am I really happy?  While I do love kicking back on the beach and reading a good book, I find this kind of activity relaxing — but I’m not sure it leads to deep happiness. A sense of joy surfaces when I reflect on ways that my life is in service to others, whether it is by nursing my child, teaching others or volunteering my time and skills to an organization in the community.

For this Sukkot, consider what makes you happy. Try this plan — Seven steps to true happiness: Sukkot style.

1) Build a sukkah. Or find someone who has one and have a meal there. Does the food taste different to you outside? How does eating in a temporary structure make you appreciate the permanence of your home?  What other new perspectives do you gain?

2) Invite wisdom into your sukkah. In the spirit of “ushpizin,” the custom of inviting guests into your sukkah, invite the wisdom of friends and relatives (living or dead) who cannot join you this Sukkot. Write down a saying or phrase from them that inspires you and share it aloud at your next meal.

3) Invite a guest to your table. In the spirit of repairing relationships — something we focus on during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur — make time to share a meal with a friend you haven’t seen in a while or from whom you have grown distant.

4) Enjoy the harvest. Wave the lulav and etrog, symbols of the fall harvest. This is especially fun to do with kids. Learn about produce that is grown in your area and even go to a farm stand or a farm.

5) Read the Book of Ecclesiastes. Pick one or two phrases that strike you and consider how they might relate to your own life.

6) Learn about homelessness in your community. While a sukkah is a makeshift dwelling place that will last seven days for us, there are others in our communities without homes, who live outdoors in makeshift dwellings year round.

7) Help others. Think about a way that you can serve one person inside your intimate circle and one person outside of it.

The holiday of Sukkot falls immediately after the long process of introspection during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We move from the conceptual world of fasting and prayer to the practical one of harvesting fruits and sukkah-building. We have time to think about how to live a life of service — to God, Torah, friends, family and our communities.

If there is a “season set for everything, a time for every experience under heaven,” then let this season be one of genuine rejoicing.