Into the Sukkah We Go: Inside Out and Controlling Our Feelings by Gevura Davis
My first Jewish memory is the JCC Sukkah in Los Angeles when I was in preschool. The night seemed magical. A hut beautifully decorated with lights and brightly colored pictures. The smell of freshly baked food wafted around. Parents and children gathered around enjoying each other and the fading days of summer. I remember thinking how wonderful it was to celebrate being Jewish with all of the joy and fun in brought.
As I grew, I decided I wasn’t really sure what Judaism really was all about. I started learning that behind the rituals and seemingly random Jewish traditions, there was deep meaning and guidance on how to live life to the fullest and with intention and meditation.
Revisiting Sukkot as an adult, I realized that, although it might seem strange to build little wooden huts and sit outside for seven days waving random lemon-like fruits and branches, there is actually an incredible depth and awareness these acts symbolize that can help us realize our potential as people.
The Torah refers to Sukkot as z’man simchateinu (the time of our joy). How odd that the Torah tells us how to feel! In other places the Torah tells us to “Serve G-d with happiness.” We are also instructed at times to feel sad and to mourn. How can I be told how to feel? Surely, I can’t really appoint a time specifically for happiness or sadness. I am who I am and will vacillate how I feel naturally based on my mood or circumstances (sometimes hourly in my case).
It’s also interesting that Sukkot, the holiday that directly follows the intense introspection of Yom Kippur, should be a time of happiness. After all, only a few days earlier we were tapping our chests recounting the many mistakes we made throughout the year. It’s easy to feel down about ourselves when we realize how human we are, in our challenges and in our frailties, how dependent we are for everything. It’s also easy to feel depressed thinking about all the areas where we fall short, all the ways we wish we were somehow better at so many things than we are.
So suddenly, a few days later, we are supposed to rejoice and feel happy? What exactly are we rejoicing about and how can we control our emotions at all?
To answer the first question, we have to really understand the meaning and purpose of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Our Sages teach us that human beings have the power and potential to rise above our nature and nurture to become the people we were destined to be: successful people with meaningful relationships, spiritual people who live a life of pleasure and happiness, contributing people who are kind and cultivated, disciplined people who use their gifts and talents to make the world a better place.
This is the ideal state of mankind. However, for most of us, the facts of life separate us from these ideals. Jobs, bills, relationships take their toll and we return to the same patterns and behaviors to which we revert under stress. We often find ourselves year after year being trapped in the same negative patterns of behavior. We feel stuck in who we are. Our challenges overwhelm our desire to grow and change.
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are the times when we plug back into the vision of ourselves that we are proud of, when we build a plan of how to get back there. We remind ourselves that we can be better, as challenging as it may be. The freshness we feel of renewing our purpose and creating that vision brings about feelings of joy and peace . This process of believing we can reinvent ourselves is what brings out the happiness of Sukkot. We are happy because we have had the opportunity to look into ourselves and believe we can live the lives we truly want to live.
To answer the second question, how the Torah can command us regarding a feeling, is illustrated in the recent Pixar film “Inside Out.” The film depicts the intricate and often conflicting emotions of joy, sadness, worry, anger and disgust as they battle inside a people’s heads to determine their behavior. While I was over the moon that my kids finally had a children’s movie to watch that didn’t feature princesses or scary villains, I felt the film misrepresented a key element of psychology. While it’s true we often favor by nature or by nurture a certain combination of thoughts and feelings, they don’t have to control us. We have the power to take control of the thoughts in our mind and speak and behave based on our own sense of right and wrong. We don’t have to be slaves to our feelings and thoughts. We have the free will to determine our actions. With this knowledge, we can understand how the Torah is bold enough to command us to be happy. In fact, the Torah is instructing us to appoint a time for joy and happiness. That time is Sukkot. The Sages instruct us to eat good food, invite guests, dress in our best, sing, dance and drink wine for seven days all as tools towards achieving our goal of experiencing true joy.
I think the title of the film “Inside Out” highlights the reality we need to create. We might have negative voices in our heads, we might have voices of fear or anger, but it's our job to learn a healthy way to respond internally and not let those become outward manifestations. We need to control our thoughts and impulses from the inside out to ensure our behavior reflects the G-dliness we each possess.
G-d’s commandment for us to be joyous is not a confrontation but rather an invitation to truly relish the unique spiritual energy of this time, knowing that our emotions are not inevitable but something we can guide with intention. With this powerful thought, I wish you a joyous Sukkot and bless you all that we should each have the strength to recognize the power of our own behavior and believe in our G-d-given ability to choose joy, a joy that comes from our efforts to return to our best selves despite the often competing voices of negativity.
Gevura Davis is an educator who currently works as the Director of Women, Youth, and Family Division of The Etz Chaim Center in Elkins Park outside of Philadelhia. She recently moved from Kansas City with her husband and five children.