Sukkot: A Living Expression of P.E.R.M.A

Sukkot: A Living Expression of PERMA
by Rabbi Uri Allen
Temple Beth Sholom, Long Island, NY

I love sukkot! I think it is by far my favorite holiday. There is just something about it. My mind is filled with memories of building the sukkah with my parents and siblings. Now we are creating new ones with our own kids and our own sukkah. Each year, when we take out or sukkah, I wonder about the new decorations the kids might create. What new addition will we have? A new string of lights? A new poster? New Ushpizin perhaps? Actually this year, we are going to start a new tradition of the kids handprints on the sukkah walls with the date so we can track not only their growth, but mark each holiday we spent together.

And what’s better than a sweet smelling set of arbah minim? Our lulav and etrog help reconnect us to the earth from which many of us have been estranged in our urban and suburban lives. I certainly don’t connect with nature as often as I would like. Sukkot gives us some opportunity to do that. I love seeing the sanctuary filled with the greenery and the sounds of the shaking palm branches. And the marching! Oh the marching! Who doesn’t love a good march now and again?

Did I forget to mention the food? Oh yes the food! For just about my whole life, the flavors of sukkot were a main focus. There were certain foods that must be eaten or else it’s not really sukkot. First day of the holiday was when my mom would make mini-knishes, and my dad made and prakas – or halpishkes – stuffed cabbage. We’re having those for lunch today as it turns out!

And then of course there are the synagogue programs with their sukkah related alliteration and puns. Sushi in the sukkah, scotch in the sukkah, steak in the sukkah, scotch and steak in the sukkah, Bourbon in the Booth, Pizza in the Hut – we could go on.

When we lived in Israel, most nights of Hol HaMoed I could be found in the sukkah with friends playing instruments and singing, or playing board games, basking in each other’s company with good snacks, good drink and good times.

It really is a time of great joy, as we say in Kiddush for the festival– it is truly zman simhateinu.

What is the simcha of sukkot? What are its qualities? And how might the tools and symbols of the weeklong festival hint at the type of joy we might experience throughout the holiday?

The Mishnah in the final chapter of tractate sukkah describes some of the joy of the day. It states that anyone who did not see the Simchat Beit Hashoevea, the water libation festival in the Temple in Jerusalem, never saw true happiness in their life. There was music. There was fire juggling. There was singing. There was shofar blowing and heralding of all kinds. All of Israel was there in the Temple courtyard – men, women, children, and the elderly, the widow and the stranger and the orphan too – dancing, and singing, waving lulaving, and willow, and myrtle together with etrogim.

They were celebrating the harvest and raising a holy ruckus in prayer for a rainy winter and a good year of sustenance. Not only that, but the Temple worship for sukkot had a universal quality. It was not only about Jewish prosperity and blessings for a good year, but there were sacrifices made for each nation on the planet. Sounds like a great party and a perfect way to ensure that the biblical command vesamachta bechagecha – to be happy on the holiday – was fulfilled. Can this be what our joy is supposed to be about?

One of the leading experts in happiness is a professor at Penn named Arthur Seligman. Seligman is noted as amongst the founders of the field of positive psychology, if not the actual progenitor of the field itself. His first book, titled “Authentic Happiness” laid out his theory in which he breaks down happiness into three elements: 1) Positive emotion 2) engagement and 3) meaning. The argument in 2002 when the theory emerged was that we could choose to activate these three elements for their own sakes, and thereby achieve a happy life. I can choose to do things that make me feel pleasure, or ecstasy, or warmth or comfort. I can choose engagement – which is about being in the flow of life. We might experience this aspect when listening to music, or exercising – we just get totally lost in it. This takes a high level of strength and effort to do this well. It is quite different from positive emotion in that regard, which could be accomplished by much simpler, even mindless tasks, like shopping, or watching TV. The third element is meaning, which has a lot to do with our own sense of belonging to something bigger than ourselves. The religious philosopher Mercea Eliade described meaning making as one of the most essential of all human activities. And we all do it whether through religion, politics, boys and girl scouts, sports, and of course our families.

He argues that by maximizing our choices in these three areas we might be able to become authentically happy. And from there the study of positive psychology was born.

Later though, Seligman’s thinking changed. In his original theory the topic of positive psychology was happiness and it was measured by how much life satisfaction a person could identify in their lives. The goal was life satisfaction. Now he thinks that the topic is not happiness but well-being. Well-being is measured by the amount of flourishing we experience. The new goal of positive psychology then is to increase flourishing in the world. Hence the title of his most recent book. Flourish.

Well-being has five elements, expanded from his original three. They are laid out in the acronym PERMA.

P – Positive emotion

E- Engagement

R- relationships

M – Meaning

A – Accomplishments

Each of these elements can be measured, some subjectively and some more concretely, and they each contribute to our own sense of well-being.

I wonder if this what the Torah and our sages of blessed memory mean when they describe this holiday as zman simchateinu. Maybe it’s not simply about life satisfaction but in fact about well-being and flourishing.

Following closely on the heels of Rosh HaShannah and Yom Kippur, the well-being theory feels like it might be more in line with the relationship that exists between the High Holy Days and the pilgrimage festival of Sukkot. I want to suggest that the joy we are meant to have is not the relief and release we might be feel at the final shofar blast of neilah, but is something deeper – a sense that we are going to be ok moving forward and that despite not experiencing happiness all of the time, we can move through the world in pursuit of ever higher levels of well being.

Let’s look at the biblical relationship between the High Holy Days and Sukkot. Sukkot comes at the end of the harvest cycle. The land has been harvested clean and it is a time of great celebration. But it is also a time of great anxiety. Will the winter bring enough rain so that next year’s harvest will be a success? Will my crops grow so I can sell enough to support my family? Will the coming year be prosperous or the opposite?

In response to this anxiety, during Sukkot many sacrifices are brought on the altar as petitions for a rainy winter and a fertile farming year ahead. If these offerings do not get God’s attention, the people’s future is in serious peril. This is one of the connections between Yom Kippur and Sukkot in the Torah. Yom Kippur is partially about purifying the people and the Temple so that their prayers and offerings on Sukkot can be given sin-free. If Yom Kippur does not atone for the people and for the Temple, then there will be great uncertainly about the coming year.

Perhaps we can draw a similar connection for ourselves.   Our deep spiritual and personal work on Yom Kippur is to prepare us for the living that is to be done during Sukkot and beyond. In other words, Sukkot is the holiday that is about our real lives. We know that our actual lives are not always described in terms of happiness. But perhaps a more positive approach could be to look at the five elements of PERMA – Positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning and achievement as a more productive lens through which to view our experience? In other words to look at our real lives.

Indeed, our sukkot, in which we will dwell for the next week, might be exemplars of this whole approach.

Let’s see if by using our sukkot we might make some gains in the five elements of PERMA.

P – Positive Emotion – Just walking into a sukkah changes my mood. Even getting my sweaters out of storage for nighttime sukkah sitting makes me feel good. It’s hard to describe but somewhere between being outside but not really, the decorations and the lights, the new years cards hung on the walls, the mention of historic and contemporary ushpizin – holy invited guests – just makes me feel great.

E -Engagement – When I am in a sukkah, I find it easier to be in the flow. As if by some magic, crossing the threshold of the entryway elevates my ability to forget all of the craziness of whatever is outside and to just be.

R -Relationships – If the sukkah isn’t a tool for building and cultivating relationships, I don’t know what is. Our calendars fill up fast with invitations out, invitations in, programs at the synagogue or JCC or other local Jewish organizations all designed to have the community come together to be in relationship with each other.

M – Meaning – our temporary dwellings have much meaning. There is the meaning that our tradition gives to the sukkah and it’s power to transmit messages of living under God’s protection. And they have great individual family meaning as well. Who remembers their first sukkah and the people with whom you built it?

A – Achievement – For many of us just getting the sukkah built is an achievement. But here perhaps a different angle can be employed. The sukkah, with its impermanence and flimsy structure can remind us of those things we have achieved in life that are likely to last longer than a week. It can trigger us to consider how much we have achieved since last year, and to meditate on what is truly important, on what is essential and what might be superfluous.

A final image that I’d like to make mention of, is that of the ultimate sukkah in which we will all dwell at the end of days. In the messianic era, we will come to dwell in a celestial sukkah – we will eat from shor HaBor and Leviathan, we will all be on equal footing before God and each other. That sukkah is not called sukkat simcha, the sukkah of happiness. But rather a sukkat shalom, the sukkah of peace or of wholeness.

This is the goal of positive psychology and this can be a meaning we ascribe to our joy on sukkot. Not some Pollyannaish, naïve notion of fleeting happiness that ignores the real hardships and challenges of our lives. Instead the focus can be on creating a dwelling place of wholeness and holiness, of completion and serenity, it is a place of well-being that can enable greater human flourishing in the world.

As the days grow shorter, and the weather changes, while still feeling the soreness in our spiritual muscles following the High Holy Days, let us feel the embrace of our sukkot. Let us feel the love of our friends and family and deepen those relationships. Let us appreciate our accomplishments and look forward with hopeful eyes to what we may yet achieve. Let us be mindful of the moments in which we find ourselves and connect to the flow of all that is. Let us create meaning out of our actual lives and pause for even a few days to see the deep significance of that which lies right before us. Let’s make sukkot this year truly zman simchateinu – the time of our fullest well-being and flourishing.

Chag Sameach, Happy Holidays