Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Seeking Meaning vs. Seeking Happiness (Turn, Turn, Turn!) - Sukkot 5774

Sukkot is acknowledged throughout Jewish tradition as the happiest festival of the year. We referred to it today in Shaharit / the morning service as “Zeman simhateinu,” the time of our joy. The Torah reading from this morning included the commandment (Lev. 23:40), usmahtem lifnei Adonai, you shall rejoice before God on this holiday.

Untitled, by H. V. Adelson. Courtesy of the artist.
But what does it mean to be happy? And is happiness a goal unto itself, or should we rather seek “meaning”? And what does “meaning” mean, exactly?

When I was a sophomore at Cornell, the folk singer Pete Seeger played on campus. I have always loved folk music, and Seeger’s performances (he was already quite advanced in years then; he is now 94) are special because of the way he incorporates the audience, urging them to sing with him as he accompanies on the banjo.

My enjoyment of this particular concert was heightened because my physical chemistry professor was seated a few rows in front of me to the left. He was, I had suspected, the most boring man on Earth, one who spoke in a monotone that put you to sleep even before the lecture began. (He once told a joke in class, a rather mediocre joke, and I remember that not only did nobody laugh, but those of us that were still awake just kept taking notes.)

So I was quite surprised to see my physical chemistry professor, a few rows in front of me, soaking up the twangy folksiness of Pete Seeger. And yet, I soon noticed that, while his wife seemed to be having a good time, my physical chemistry professor had nodded off. I was sure that this was a sign from God that he was, in fact, the most boring man on Earth.

One of Pete Seeger’s best-known songs goes like this:
To everything (turn, turn, turn!)
There is a season (turn, turn, turn!)
And a time for every purpose under heaven

A time to be born, a time to die
A time to plant, a time to reap
A time to laugh, a time to weep
A time to kill, a time to heal...
Of course, it was popularized by the Byrds. But Seeger wrote the music.
Not the lyrics, however. It is almost a direct quote of the opening verses of Chapter 3 of the King James translation of Ecclesiastes, known in Hebrew as Qohelet. We will be reading from Qohelet tomorrow, as is the custom. This particular passage, to which scholars refer as “the Catalogue of Times,” is a reminder that while every event in life occurs in its proper time, we have no control over these times; the “when” is solely in the hands of God. Since they are paired as opposites, one way of reading this is that neither happy times nor sad ones are to be expected. Reality is such that sometimes we are happy, sometimes we are sad, and much of the time we are neither.

Qohelet, ostensibly written by an ancient king of that name, is among the more-challenging books of the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible), theologically-speaking. It puts itself forward as a book of philosophy (e.g. 1:14: “I observed all the happenings beneath the sun, and I found that all is futile and pursuit of wind.”), but, somewhat like the book of Job, leaves us with a very unsatisfying conclusion. To Qohelet, effectively everything that we pursue - wealth, wisdom, food and drink, labor, and so forth - is vanity and emptiness. Nothing will bring you lasting satisfaction. Qohelet’s conclusion is, therefore, merely to enjoy the things that you have when you have them, fear God and perform the mitzvot. That’s it.

Not very satisfying, right? Perhaps, though, there is an important message here. After all, there must be a reason that we read this book during Sukkot, the most joyous festival of the year. So what’s the reason? One possibility is that Qohelet points to the transience of human life, which is also suggested by the fragile, temporary sukkot in which we are commanded to live for the week. Another is that fall is the season that most suggests mortality, a feature of our lives that the Catalogue of Times clearly invokes.

Here is another thought: in the wake of Yom Kippur, after beating our chests and seeking return and forgiveness and afflicting our souls and so forth, it may be our intent to seek happiness, albeit perhaps from a new perspective. Qohelet is a reminder that happiness is not an end unto itself, but rather ebbs and flows with the randomness of our lives.

Speaking of ebb and flow, allow me to return for a moment to Cornell University of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Despite a physical chemistry lecture that occasionally made me consider javelin catching as a career, those were great days. The academic ferment of that particular ivory tower provided a rich backdrop for developing strong social bonds and discovering who I was as a person. I had good friends and good times. It makes me think of the well-known song, “Those Were the Days” (Mary Hopkins, 1968, although based on a Russian folk tune).

We tend to speak of the “good old days.” Maybe those were they; there is a time for every purpose under heaven.

But perhaps reality is not so simple; we do tend to see the past through etrog-scented glasses (or something like that). The gypsy-punk band Gogol Bordello recorded a philosophically-minded song titled “Ultimate,” which decries the existence of such days. On the contrary, the song suggests that to refer to the “good old days” is in fact an insult to both the present and future:
“There were never any good old days,
They are today, they are tomorrow
It’s a stupid thing we say
Cursing tomorrow with sorrow.”
Qohelet, I think, would agree with Gogol Bordello. There were no “good old days,” says Qohelet. Ve-ein kol hadash tahat hashamesh. And there is nothing new under the sun (Eccl. 1:9).
Maybe my Cornell days were the good old days, or maybe these days are just as good, and 5774 will be even better. Only God knows, and about that I’m not even so sure.

One thing, however, is certain: happiness is fleeting, while “meaning” is enduring. Rather than seek happiness, we should seek meaning. That is a message that is difficult for a college student to understand, but it is a message that we can glean from Jewish tradition. 

An article in The Atlantic by Emily Esfahani Smith, published last January, crossed my desk a while back. It cited a study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology that

“asked nearly 400 Americans aged 18 to 78 whether they thought their lives were meaningful and/or happy. Examining their self-reported attitudes toward meaning, happiness, and many other variables -- like stress levels, spending patterns, and having children -- over a month-long period, the researchers found that a meaningful life and happy life overlap in certain ways, but are ultimately very different. Leading a happy life, the psychologists found, is associated with being a "taker" while leading a meaningful life corresponds with being a "giver."
This is a fascinating revelation. Perhaps Qohelet’s suggestion to fear God and fulfill the mitzvot is an ancient attempt to steer us away from seeking happiness in favor of meaning. You might make the case that a certain portion of the mitzvot are about giving, not taking: giving your time and yourself over to holy pursuits. It’s not what we reap in this world, to borrow Qohelet’s language, but rather what we sow.

And that may in fact be one message of Sukkot. Why does the Torah command us to live in a shack in the backyard for a week? To remember that it is not our possessions that are important and valuable; that meaning may be sought in the simplest environment. That living in a sturdy, well-appointed home, when compared to a shaky, non-climate-controlled sukkah, might seem more like taking than giving.

The article goes on to say:
“Meaning is not only about transcending the self, but also about transcending the present moment -- which is perhaps the most important finding of the study, according to the researchers. While happiness is an emotion felt in the here and now, it ultimately fades away, just as all emotions do; positive affect and feelings of pleasure are fleeting. The amount of time people report feeling good or bad correlates with happiness but not at all with meaning.

Meaning, on the other hand, is enduring. It connects the past to the present to the future. "Thinking beyond the present moment, into the past or future, was a sign of the relatively meaningful but unhappy life," the researchers write. "Happiness is not generally found in contemplating the past or future." That is, people who thought more about the present were happier, but people who spent more time thinking about the future or about past struggles and sufferings felt more meaning in their lives, though they were less happy.”
In other words, happiness is in the moment. Those university days were joyful for what they were, but the real satisfaction of living comes from the fullness of life’s experiences: the glorious and the miserable, the bountiful and the meager, the cacaphonous and the silent, and the entire palette of humanity in between. The researchers agree that “What sets human beings apart from animals is not the pursuit of happiness, which occurs all across the natural world, but the pursuit of meaning, which is unique to humans.”

To everything there is a season, and we all need the carefree periods in our lives in which to pursue the momentary happiness that sustains youth. But we also need, at some point, to reach deeper, to seek out those things which bring us meaning, to give as much as we have taken, and maybe more. The good old days are indeed today and tomorrow.

So it is as much comforting your screaming child in the middle of the night as it is to see her standing under the huppah, as much receiving a wonderful promotion as losing a parent that makes life meaningful and rich. These are the things that make us human, and this is the takeaway from Sukkot.

As we celebrate the transience of life on this joyous festival, we would do well not only to fulfill the mitzvah de’oraita (commandment from the Torah) of being happy in the wake of Yom Kippur, but also to reflect on the discomfort that comes with being removed from your house for a week. Spend some time in the Sukkah, with the bugs and the rain and the cool fall breeze. It’s the human thing to do, and will help make these days as good as the good old days. 

Hag sameah!


~
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, second day of Sukkot, Friday, 9/20/13.)