What is true joy?

In this season of celebrations lie the basics of how to live a fulfilled life.

October 19, 2011 16:51
4 minute read.
Dancing with Torah scrolls on Simhat Torah

Simchat torah dancing 311 R. (photo credit: Reuters/Ronen Zvulun)


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Anger, depression, sadness – fascinating topics for a novel! But what about calm, happiness and fulfillment? Not much of a pageturner there. To some these would seem rather boring but, in the last few years, an entire new area of study, positive psychology, has developed that finds the latter intriguing. Rather than pathologizing and looking at what is wrong with people, it looks at what works and builds on that. Positive psychologists go out into the community and find contented people; they work out what makes them cheerful in order to then spread this to others.

Perhaps a good time for a positive psychologist to go out and look for joy is during the season of Succot and Simhat Torah. All the festivals are times of rejoicing but only Succot is called zman simhateinu (season of our happiness).

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While today we immediately think of Simhat Torah when it comes to joy, the Mishna (Succa 5:1) tells us about a ceremony held on Succot that “he who has not seen the rejoicing at the place of the water-drawing has never in his life seen true rejoicing.”

Something about this ancient Temple ritual made it the essence of happiness.

A golden flask was filled with water from the Silwan valley and brought to the water gate at the Temple, where the shofar was sounded and a priest on duty poured this water and some wine into bowls that went to the altar as libations.

This ceremony was accompanied by sounding the shofar (Succa 4:9-10).

Maimonides (Mishne Torah, Shofar 8:14) tells us that the greatest of Israel’s wise men would dance, clap their hands, sing and rejoice in the Temple while the entire people would come to see and hear. The Talmud (Succa 53a) tell us that Rabbi Simeon ben Gamliel used to take eight burning torches in one hand and throw them into the air; as he threw one, he caught another, and not one torch touched another.

What can this strange if colorful ceremony teach us about joy? Four suggestions: • Water is the simplest of beverages.

There’s no recipe for it but one finds it and uses it. Wine, on the other hand, is the most complicated of drinks, and great skill and experience are needed to make it. On Simhat Beit Hasho’eva, the water libation ceremony held during the intermediate days of Succot, both were given as offerings simultaneously and the bowls they were put into were constructed in such a way that both would reach the altar at exactly the same time. The ceremony is telling us that both are equally valuable even though we often value wine above water. In life, too, we tend to value the expensive, the unusual, the complicated. By making such a fuss of water we learn to appreciate what is simple and everyday.

• The singing and antics of the priests and rabbis are very hierarchical. Only the important personages were involved, while most people were onlookers.

However, at the same time, the hierarchy is being broken down. We see people behaving in ways that are unusual and even demeaning. So much so that Maimonides reminds us that “whoever holds himself proud, giving himself honor, and acts haughtily in such situations is a sinner and a fool… In contrast, anyone who lowers himself and thinks lightly of his person in these situations is truly a great person, worthy of honor” (Mishne Torah, Shofar 8:15).

The dual nature of the proceedings – hierarchical while breaking down the hierarchy – teach us to appreciate our place in the world but also remind us that these hierarchies are permeable. There are times when priests behave like clowns and, therefore, also times that clowns can be like priests. We are not bound to our positions in the world, but neither need we be unhappy or frustrated by them.

• The Mishna in Succa 5:2-3 tells us that lamps were set up so people could see the ceremony and “the wicks used by the novices to kindle the lamps made out of priests’ worn-out undergarments.” They did this because priestly clothing was bought with public funds and when one uses public funds one needs to be especially careful not to be wasteful. In other words, integrity.

• Finally we have Rabbi Simeon ben Gamliel literally playing with fire. He is aware of how fragile life is. He knows he can be burnt at any moment. And yet he is joyful. The Book of Ecclesiastes expresses the same idea. While life is fragile there can still be joy. We read Ecclesiastes on the Shabbat of Succot when we rejoice even though we are in a rickety hut that can collapse at any moment.

Appreciating all the world offers – simple or complicated; being happy with one’s place in the world but knowing that this place is not set in stone; integrity; joy despite fragility – I would claim that these are the four basic elements of living a happy life.

Nowadays much of the revelry and joy associated with Simhat Beit Ha’shoeva has been transferred to Simhat Torah. So as we dance, sing, and behave in different ways to usual, let’s remember that in this celebration lie the basics of how to live a fulfilled life.

The writer is a faculty member at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies.

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