The Curse of Happiness
On Succot you will hold the four species "And you will rejoice before Hashem."
Napoleon wasn't a great sleeper. He would make do on a couple of hours a day. Not that he was an insomniac, he just didnt like sleeping. Someone once asked him why it was that he slept so little. He replied "When I'm awake, I'm the king of the world. When I'm asleep, I'm no different from any other foot soldier."
One of the great tyrannies of the "me generation" is the curse of happiness. Don't get me wrong. I'm not against happiness. I like being happy as much as anyone. However, happiness, or the necessity to be happy, can be a tyranny of frightening proportions.
If we believe in an all-merciful G-d who is involved with the smallest detail of the creation, then our lack of happiness is not a world-shaking event. G-d knows why I'm feeling the way I'm feeling. He knows why I broke my leg. He knows why my stocks had to plummet. But if I'm all that there is, if the knowledge of existence ends with the knowledge of onlymy existence, then this world is a very lonely place indeed.
There's an old joke that goes something like this: "Everyone in this world is crazy except you and me. And sometimes I'm not so sure about you." If the cognition of existence, "Cogito ergo sum" ("I think therefore I am"), as Descartes put it, leads me to exclude an existence higher than mymyself, then my happiness becomes an event on which the world turns or falls. In other words, if I am not happy and fulfilled right now, this world just became a pointless wasteland.
Of all the mitzvot which one would you think the most difficult? Probably giving up your life to sanctify G-d's name. In fact, the Vilna Gaon said that the most difficult of the mitzvot is the mitzva of simchat Yom Tov, the Torah obligation be happy on the festivals of Pesach, Shavuot and Succot. With most mitzvot we fulfill our obligation by doing an action. We put on tefilin, we eat matza on the first night of Pesach, we refrain from eating of Yom Kippur. The mitzva of simchat Yom Tov, however, requires us to be constantly happy during Yom Tov. There should not be a single moment when we are not filled with the joy of the festival. Now, I ask you, was there ever a time when you were constantly happy for one whole week? How about a day? An hour? Maybe. And in that hour, wasn't there a single second that you couldn't find the correct change in your pocket, or you felt a little tired for a second or two? Or maybe for a split second you felt a little blue? Constant happiness? That's a very difficult thing to achieve.
However, the Torah wasn't given to the angels. It was given to flesh and blood. If the Torah mandates this constant happiness from us, it must be achievable.
The mitzva of simchat Yom Tov is derived from Succot. "And you will rejoice on your festival and you will be only happy." Our sages describe Succot as "the time of our happiness." Succot is "the time of our happiness." What is the particular essence of Succot that makes it the time of happiness?
Most of our lives we think were running the show. We may acknowledge theres a G-d in the world. But do we really live in accordance with that acknowledgment? Acknowledgment doesn't translate into knowledge. Once in a while something can happen to jolt our self-satisfaction. Someone is critically ill. We escape a car crash. A terrorist aims a gun at us and it doesn't fire. The word miracle leaps to our lips. We suddenly find ourselves very close to G-d. The little selfish universe that we have built for ourselves seems now somehow pathetic and childish. We know Who is running things. And how much we are beholden to Him.
This is the essence of Succa. Dwelling in the shade of faith. Realizing Who is protecting us. For seven days we emerge from our World Trade Towers of delusion and dwell in huts and booths and we realize how fragile we really are.
That feeling that only G-d is running the world is the only true and lasting happiness. When we realize that we are not the be-all and end-all of existence, that we are loved and highly-prized cogs in an infinite plan, we can relax and acknowledge Who is running things in this world. That's the true joy and happiness of the Jewish Festivals.
Have a good Yom Tov!