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What is the key to “happiness?”

Friday, 29 September, 2023 - 7:04 am

A young man, fresh out of business school, answered a want-ad for an accountant. He was interviewed by a very nervous man who ran a three-man business:

"I need someone with an accounting degree," the man said. "But mainly, I'm looking for someone to do my worrying for me."

"Excuse me?" the young accountant said.

"I worry about a lot of things," the man said. "But I don't want to have to worry about money. Your job will be to take all the money worries off my back."

"I see," the young accountant said. "And how much does the job pay?"

"I will start you at eighty-five thousand dollars a year. We will give you a 50,000 raise each year.”

"Eighty-five thousand dollars!" the young accountant exclaimed. "How can such a small business afford to pay me a sum like that?"

"That," the owner said, "is your first worry.”

When the Holy Temple stood in Jerusalem, the “Pouring of the Water” was an important feature of the festival of Sukkot. Throughout the year, the daily offerings were accompanied by the pouring of wine on the altar; on Sukkot, water was poured in addition to the wine.

The drawing of water for this purpose was preceded by all-night celebrations in the Temple courtyard, with instrument-playing Levites, torch-juggling sages, and huge oil-burning lamps that illuminated the entire city. The singing and dancing went on until daybreak when a procession would make its way to the valley below the Temple to “draw water with joy” from the Jerusalem Shiloach Spring.

“For all the days of the water drawing,” recalled Rabbi Joshua ben Chanania, “our eyes saw no sleep.” And the Talmud declares: “One who did not see the joy of the water-drawing celebrations (Simchat Beit Hashoavah), has not seen joy in his life.”

What was the significance of this strange ritual of pouring water on the Altar? And why did it generate so much joy?

It is one of the great questions in human history: What is the key, the secret, to “happiness?”

In a New York Times article entitled The Futile Pursuit of Happiness Harvard professor Daniel Gilbert claims that most people don’t even know what will make them happy in the present and are unable to forecast what will make them happy in the future.

On the Jewish calendar, this question is now extremely relevant because Sukkot is called the “Festival of Joy,” and the Torah tells us to “rejoice in your holiday and be happy.” But what is the secret to happiness? And how can the Torah command me to be happy? Either I am happy, or I am not, but I cannot become happy just because someone else—even if that someone else is G-d Himself—told me so. 

A strange episode recorded in the Talmud in connection to Sukkot sheds light on this issue, and relates to the following enigmatic episode:

There were once two heretics, one was named Sasson [which means joy or excitement], and the other, Simcha [which means happiness]. Said Sasson to Simcha, “I am better than you since it is written, ‘They shall obtain Sasson and Simcha,’ [the verse places my name ahead of yours].’” Said Simcha to Sasson, ‘I am better than you since it is written, ‘The Jews had Simcha and Sasson’ Simcha preceding Sasson…

This episode is extremely bizarre: First, why is the Talmud recording for all future generations the childish bickering of two ‘heretics’ about whose greater based on which word comes first in the Bible? The argument is ridiculous, so why do we care?

Let us first explore the difference between "sasson" and "simcha." Both words denote happiness and joy, but there is a difference between the terms.

Sasson is excitement, thrill, and euphoria. Sasson is also what we like to call ‘fun.’ It is usually intense and short-lived. Music, sports, and vacation are all expressions of sasson.

Simcha is a less intense, but more internal sense of well-being coming from living a balanced and well-adjusted life. It comes from achieving goals and living up to expectations. Whereas sasson is more spontaneous, simcha is more mature, consistent, and internal. It comes from years of labor and discipline.

This then, was the great debate between the two heretics Mr. Sasson and Mr. Simcha: Which is preferable? What will make me happy?

Sasson insists that life is about short-term pleasures. Happiness is about self-gratification.

Mr. Simcha argues that this is superficial and short-term. The moment you thrill or float in the water of over, you’re back to your regular boring and unexciting self and you always need more stimulation to get you excited again. To really achieve happiness is much more difficult. Simcha comes with achievement and success. It takes years of hard work and is the feeling of satisfaction from a well-balanced and well-lived life.

This then, was the great Talmudic debate, recorded for the ages. Which is greater, Sasson or Simcha? Who got it right?

And the Talmud says that there are verses supporting BOTH claims. Because indeed, each has an advantage over the other.

Mr. Sasson and Mr. Simcha – usually associated with the young and the old – each have a point.

Yet Rabbi Abbahu argued that both Sasson and Simcha, albeit capturing part of the equation, did not get to the bottom of the happiness barrel.

Not because they were foolish, but because they misunderstood the most important truth about happiness: by its very nature it is elusive; you can’t hold on to it nor can you even search for it.

What psychologists are beginning to explain today, is the Talmud written 1700 years ago: It is the very pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness.

You see, happiness comes when you are one with yourself and when your life is completely united with your innermost identity.

Indeed, when you're truly busy living, the "you" does not occupy independent space. When the "I" is totally in touch with life, it does not inform you that it exists for it is completely unified with its purpose and mission.

How do you know when your body is healthy? When you don't feel it. When you begin to feel any part of your body — even if you don't feel pain but only a sense of heaviness — it is a sign that something in the body is dysfunctional. The healthier the body is, the less you sense it.

Rabbi Abahu told Mr. Sasson that he did not get it. If you want to discover real happiness, says Rabbi Abahu to Mr. Sasson, you need to become a pitcher, through which water will be drawn from the wellsprings or the rivers. You need to turn yourself into a vessel and channel for something greater than yourself. 

Instead of searching your whole life for what you need, search for what you are needed for. Find a mission and a purpose that transcends you and devote yourself to it. Instead of telling G-d how great your problems are, tell your problems how great G-d is.

Because you can’t own your happiness; happiness must own you. You can’t define your happiness; it must define you. This is the great paradox: As long as you are pursuing happiness as an end in itself, happiness is unattainable. Artificial gratification -- yes; a good feeling about your achievements – yes. But authentic inner, genuine happiness at the core of your existence -- no. There will still be a void yearning to be filled.

As the train robber declares before he jumps off the train with all the passenger’s belongings in his bag: “Ladies and Gentlemen, please remember, it’s always better to give than to take…” Napoleon Bonaparte in 1815 put it this way “The hand that gives is above the hand that takes.”

Once upon a time, a king had a great highway built for the people who lived in his kingdom. After it was completed, but before it was opened to the public, the king decided to have a contest. He invited as many of his subjects as desired to participate. The challenge was to see who could travel the highway the best, and the winner was to receive a box of gold.

On the day of the contest, all the people came. Some of them had fine chariots, some had fine clothing and fancy food to make the trip a luxurious journey. Some wore their sturdiest shoes and ran along the highway on their feet to show their skill. All day they traveled the highway, and each one, when he arrived at the end, complained to the king about a large pile of rocks and debris that had been left almost blocking the road at one point, and that got in their way and hindered their travel.

At the end of the day, a lone traveler crossed the finish line warily and walked over to the king. He was tired and dirty, but he addressed the king with great respect and handed him a small chest of gold. He said, "I stopped along the way to clear a pile of rocks and debris that was blocking the road. This chest of gold was under it all. Please have it returned to its rightful owner."

The king replied, "You are the rightful owner."

"Oh no," said the traveler, "This is not mine. I've never known such money."

"Oh yes," said the king, "you've earned this gold, for you won my contest... He who travels the road best is he who makes the road better for those who will follow."

These words of wisdom guide also our voyage through the road of life.

We can now appreciate the inimitable style of the Talmud:

Sasson and Simcha are debating who is greater, who is happier and more superior, and it is exactly because of that that they fail in their quest for happiness. They are called heretics in the sense that they don't appreciate that there is something beyond themselves. Rabbi Abahu was explaining, that for "Sasson" to be real you must allow your body to become a vessel for the inner waters of your soul.

This is the secret of Sukkot.

All year they would pour wine on the Altar, but on Sukkot, they poured water on the Altar and they would dance all night non-stop with the greatest joy in the world. Wine is delicious, it has a taste and glamour all its own, it is intoxicating. Water is tasteless and simple. In Jewish law, if you are not thirsty, you don’t make a blessing before drinking water because there is no enjoyment to drinking water unless you are thirsty.

Our lives, too, possess two aspects. We would love our life to always be like wine -- fun, intoxicating, and rich. But often life is like water. Boring, simple, uneventful.

So we go to clubs, bars, shows, and vacations, to distract us from our boredom and add some flavor to our lives. We feel that by mixing some wine into our water we will become happy.

Great, enjoy. But it’s not the ultimate answer. When you take your water and pour it on the Altar, when you dedicate your life to something that transcends you, when your life is driven by real purpose and meaning, then you can begin dancing. And that is what happened on Sukkot.

Ask yourself this question: Do I have a real purpose in my life, a purpose created by something that transcends me and my ego?

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Sukkot,

Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky

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