by Rabbi Sydni
Saturday, October 3rd, 2020
Zman Simhateinu - The Time of Our Joy
I need to apologize to anyone who had to deal with me this week - between the stress of the holidays and witnessing the mess that was Tuesday’s presidential debate, I have certainly not been my cheeriest self. But from conversations I’ve had with friends, colleagues, and community members, I don’t think I’m alone. In fact, when I was reading what I wrote on Sukkot last year and the year before, I realized that I and my community were in a similar state of mind then, too. Both last year and the year before, I taught about the same topic that I’d like to touch on tonight - embracing z’man simhateinu, this holiday nicknamed the “time of our joy,” at a time in which that joy might not seem so readily attainable. It seems like something about the seasonal change, as well as all of the guilt dug up over Yom Kippur, brings up a sort of general sadness or anger each year during this time.
I suppose that’s why we need this holiday, this zman simhateinu, the time of our joy, to jolt us out of our funk, at least for seven days. And when I say jolt us out of our funk, we literally are commanded to go outside of our usual spaces, to witness the beauty of the outdoor world with every meal. We are commanded to perform the strange, somewhat humorous ritual of shaking a bunch of plants to and fro, a ritual that I think is a little difficult to perform without laughing. Once a year, Sukkot reminds us that although we did wrong in the past year, we covered that last week. We are in the clear enough to deserve enjoyment, at least for this week.
Fittingly, as I was tidying up around the synagogue a few days ago, I came across an Wall Street Journal article that someone had left for me to read at the beginning of the secular New Year - “For the New Year, Say No to Negativity.” The article covers our tendency to pay more attention to the negative than to the positive:
Our minds and lives are skewed by a fundamental imbalance that is just now becoming clear to scientists: the negativity effect. Also known as the negativity bias, it’s the universal tendency for bad events and emotions to affect us more strongly than positive ones. We’re devastated by a word of criticism but unmoved by a shower of praise. We see the hostile face in the crowd and miss all the friendly smiles. We focus so much on bad news, especially in a digital world that magnifies its power, that we don’t realize how much better life is becoming for people around the world.
When we are at a time in our lives, or even a time in the year, in which we let down our guard, it is so easy to be overwhelmed by our own, human negativity bias. But once a year, Sukkot reorients us towards the positive, towards the funny and the celebratory and the good. We have just focused on the fear and awe of Yom Kippur, but as the authors of the Wall Street Journal article, John Tierney and Roy F. Baumeister, write, “Bad is stronger than good, but good can prevail if we know what we’re up against.”
Long before psychologists began their research into negativity bias, Judaism recognized such a bias and built it into the halakhic system. Both in the first few days after a loved one has died and in the day after a person’s wedding, a person is exempt from all positive mitzvot but still obligated to all negative mitzvot. The Rabbis of the Talmud knew that not stealing and not afflicting the stranger were more important than choosing to daven three times a day. As the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yevamot (7a) teaches, transgressing a prohibition has more dire effects than transgressing a positive mitzvah. When we actively cause harm, we generally do much more damage than when we refrain from acting - as Tierney and Baumeister teach, the first step to encouraging a positive state of mind in ourselves and others is to “do no harm.”
For those of us who struggle to find the good and exciting post Yom Kippur, or for those who hope to stay positive, Tierney and Baumeister also teach us to “remember the rule of four.” As studies have shown, negative experiences and emotions have three times the amount of psychological effect than positive experiences and emotions. When we experience something negative, then, we can search for four positives to balance out the effect of the negative. That could mean that each time we berate ourselves for something we did imperfectly, we could ask ourselves to name four other things we have done successfully. When a friend calls with unfortunate news, we can use the time after we hang up the phone to do four actions we enjoy - eating ice cream, listening to our favorite artist, reading good poetry, and taking a nap, for example. Of course, some news and some experiences are more dire than others; for some of those moments, no amount of positivity can or should make up for anger or sadness.
Our authors also restate vital principles of Jewish tradition, when they tell us to “put the bad moments to good use” and to “capitalize on the good moments - and then relive them.” On Passover, we recall our moments in slavery, in order to remind us both how good we have it now and how important it is for us to encourage freedom for those who are currently enslaved or impoverished. We fast on Tisha B’Av, the saddest day of our Jewish calendar, to remind ourselves to avoid baseless hatred. We celebrate on Shavuot and Simhat Torah in order to find the delight in the commandments we have been given. And we celebrate on Hanukah and Purim to relive our moments of historical victory, reminding ourselves that we have that communal power to prevail. Even at times that are not specifically set aside as holy days, we can set aside time to remember our finest moments - moments of career security and family togetherness - and figure out how we can recreate those moments in the present. And of course, in times of sadness, we can look towards what lessons we can bring forward from the darkness once we are again able to look towards the light.
Perhaps more simply, we can learn from Sukkot to recreate our physical environment as one that embraces positivity. When we notice our room is dark, we can open some windows. As so many of us do, we can keep photo albums, heirlooms, and thank you gifts we have been given close by so that we can remember our blessings each and every day. One tip that I love - A New York Times article suggested this morning that we can put together a laughter box in each room, a stash of joke books and odd-looking tchochkes to grab whenever a bout of sadness strikes.
V’samahta b’hagekha v’hayita ah sameah. As a Torah verse and popular Sukkot song demands us - and you shall rejoice on your holiday, and you shall only be happy. While it might be a struggle to only experience happiness on this holiday, I wish for us that even if we can’t fully embrace happiness, that we can at least begin to embrace positivity through this holiday of altered reality that we call Sukkot. Thank God that at this time of year we are commanded to celebrate in community, with individuals of all emotional states, to lift each other up with each passing Shabbat, with each passing holiday. Hag Sameah and Shabbat Shalom!