What does it mean to be commanded to be joyful?
The festival of Sukkot is called zman simchateinu, the season of our rejoicing. It's a mitzvah -- a connective-commandment, a religious obligation -- to rejoice in our sukkot. This mitzvah is d'oraita (comes from the Torah itself, rather than from later rabbinic tradition): Deuteronomy 16:15 says, "you shall be altogether joyful." But what can this mean? Surely it isn't possible to legislate an inner state of being. For me, the critical distinction is between the English words "joy" and "happiness."
Happiness comes and goes. We may have a sense for what conditions are likeliest to bring it about, but I'm not sure we can entirely trust that sense. (Haven't you known people who pursued things they thought would make them happy, but discovered that what they were seeking wasn't actually enough?) And besides, the conditions aren't usually within our control. I may perceive that I'm happiest when I'm surrounded by people I love, eating great food, experiencing wonderful live music, traveling to exciting new places, immersing in an amazing experience of prayer -- but even though I'm fortunate to have a lot of those moments in my life, life isn't like that all the time. I can't count on that experience to sustain me. (For a different -- but not unrelated -- perspective on happiness, you might enjoy Daniel Gilbert on why it’s so hard to know what makes us happy, over at Ethan's blog.)
It seems to me that joy is something different. Joy can be cultivated. And joy can coexist with sorrow.
The Hasidic rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav wrote often about the need to be joyful. Contemporary scholarship holds that he was probably what we would call depressive; we know that he struggled profoundly with sadness. And yet the obligation to be joyful was paramount in his spiritual life.
Reb Nachman distinguished between brokenheartedness and depression. Depression, in his understanding, comes from the sitra achra -- the "other side," the brokenness left over from the cataclysm of creation. (His worldview was a Lurianic one; if the idea of the shattering of the vessels is unfamiliar to you, here's an explanation.) But a broken heart can be a way of reaching God. Indeed: the gate of the broken heart is a way of reaching God which is always open to us. Therefore, he said, we should set aside some time each day for heartbreak. "Isolate yourself with a broken heart before God for a given time; the rest of the day, you should be joyful."
Joy is deeper than happiness. When I anticipate the early months of parenthood, it's hard to know how happy we will be. Sleep deprivation, diaper changes, late-night feedings, the complete disruption of the life to which we're accustomed, the near complete cessation of the intellectual work which has been one of my greatest pleasures -- that might not be a recipe for happiness. But I'm betting there will be a lot of joy: deep upwellings of connection, satisfaction, awareness that we're embarking on the holy task of shaping a new person's life in the world. And, sure, frustration and sadness too. But those can coexist with joy.
When our sages confirmed the importance of rejoicing in the sukkah, they were talking not about ephemeral (and uncontrollable) happiness, but about joy. Cultivating an attitude of joy is within our control. Regular prayer is one of the primary ways that I cultivate joy. So are the mindfulness and gratitude practices I've taken on. I recite the modah ani blessing for gratitude each morning in the shower, and the asher yatzar blessing for having a body which (mostly) works each morning while I give myself my blood thinner injection. Practices like these don't inoculate me against bumping into painful realities -- but they cushion me, and I think they change how I relate to those realities.
Sitting in the sukkah is a chance to make the conscious choice of inhabiting joy. Joy at having reached another Sukkot. Joy at the many kinds of harvest which have been brought in over recent weeks, from the chard and squash of our CSA to the emotional and spiritual work of teshuvah I spent the Days of Awe trying to do. Joy at feeling occasional squirms and kicks within my belly. And even if that joy is tempered with anxieties -- the days are darkening, parenthood is on the horizon, my to-do list is ridiculous -- joy is still the existential state I'm making the choice to try to inhabit, during Sukkot and the days that follow.