Well-Being in our Sukkah

October 3, 2020
By Beth Mordecai
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Well-Being in our Sukkah

Commencing just four days after Yom Kippur is the holiday of Sukkot. One of the names of the holiday is zman simchateinu, the time of our communal joy. But what exactly is the joy of sukkot?

One of the leading experts in joy or 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 idea was that happiness is the highest goal of human living. 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. 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.

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. This element will certainly suffer this year because of the ongoing Covid pandemic.

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 in a time when 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. Maybe shalom can be translated as well-being.

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


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