July 17, 2024
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July 17, 2024
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‘V’hayita Ach Sameach’

Discovering and enjoying true happiness this Sukkot and beyond.

With Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur behind us, we are about to enter the chag of Sukkot, which is a time designated in the Torah for great happiness. Specifically, regarding the chag of Sukkot, Hashem instructs us “v’samchta b’chagecha, v’hayita ach sameach, You shall rejoice on your festivals, and should be fully happy.”

It is no coincidence that it is at this time of year, having just exited from the Aseret Yemei Teshuva, culminating with the awe inspiring and cathartic experience of Yom Kippur, that we are instructed to be happy.

As someone who has personally been on a four year-long journey, seeking internal peace and, ultimately, happiness, it is fascinating to see this command to us: “Be happy”—as if this is something we can simply instruct ourselves to do.

It seems as if all around us, everyone is searching for happiness. How do we find happiness and how do we sustain it?

The connection between the commandment of “v’samachta b’chagecha,” to Sukkot, which occurs in the fall season, is understood to be a direct outcome of the farmers harvesting their crop, their year of work now complete, and the fulfillment and ease that comes with being prepared for the winter season.

I would like to explore a different understanding of the connection between the holiday of Sukkot and happiness, and it is intrinsically tied to the days in which we have just immersed ourselves—not just Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but perhaps all the way back to Rosh Chodesh Elul.

During the period of the Aseret Yemei Teshuva we understand that it is an auspicious time to “Dirshu Hashem B’himatzo, Seek Hashem when He is to be found.” While Rosh Hashanah is recognized as the Jewish New Year, the Hebrew word shana also has another translation, which is, to change. With this understanding, Rosh Hashanah is the “head” of the year for change. In gematria, the word shana totals 355, seemingly just shy of the 365 days that total one year. In all aspects of life, there really are no coincidences; The 10 short in the gematria is no coincidence either. The 10 seemingly missing days are the 10 days of the Aseret Yemei Teshuva, which neither belong to the prior year (which has concluded) or the coming year (which has not really begun until after Yom Kippur). Over these 10 days we are in limbo, in transition, in a time dedicated to setting forth real changes in our lives for the coming year.

It’s an emotionally charged time: We are inspired. We want to be better and we are nervous and worried for the coming year; hopeful that our prayers will be heard and answered l’tova, for health, relationships, livelihood—for all or any of the areas in our lives where we are seeking yeshua, saving.

As children, the focus of these 10 days is spent asking others for mechila, forgiveness, from our family, friends and classmates, whom we may have wronged over the last 12 months. This year, mechila takes on a different meaning for me. In the same way that we know forgiveness from God cannot help us with forgiveness from our fellow man, there is only so much that (external) forgiveness from others can accomplish. At the root, is really finding a way to forgive ourselves.

If we look at ourselves with honesty and examine our flaws, not with shame and judgment, but with empathy and compassion, we can make space for ourselves, our full self, both the qualities we love about ourselves and are proud of, and the parts of ourselves that we wish were different; the flaws we wish we did not have, and of which we are ashamed.

As I prayed in shul over the Yamim Noraim this year, I unexpectedly discovered, and really stumbled head-on during the moving tefillah of “U’nesaneh Tokef,” that beneath the pain and struggle I have faced these last few years, was a deep feeling of guilt, of shame, over the parts of me that feel flawed. The parts of myself that make me feel broken and not enough. By the end of Kedusha, tears were streaming down my face, releasing the shame and the guilt for all the mistakes I have made this past year—in my life and in my relationships. (I am told now that what I journeyed through is something referred to as transformative guilt.)

A friend shared a letter with me, written by Rav Hutner to a student who was despondent and struggling, unable to imagine that he could ever change and be great. In this letter Rav Hutner quotes the pasuk “sheva yipol adam, v’kum, seven times a man falls, and then he rises.” Traditionally, this is understood, despite stumbling, man will rise. Rav Hutner said no, to the contrary. It is because of the seven failures, that man is able to triumph—the struggling, the stumbling, the failing, is all part of the journey. The struggle itself, our flaws and the challenges we face, is something we can learn to embrace with radical acceptance, and is very much part of self-acceptance and self-love. It is a false belief to wish life could just be easy and perfect all the time. Being human is, by default, the very opposite. We were put on this earth by God to work, even before Adam’s sin and our punishment: “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food,” we were put in the Garden of Eden to “guard and protect it.” To reject the struggle and wish we were always thriving is to bemoan our very humanity.

Perfect is the enemy of good. When we leave perfection behind, we make room to strive to just be, to do the best we can each day and to embrace who we are today—our strengths and especially our weaknesses, which are opportunities for our greatest growth and self-transformation. Where we are today is just a set point. It doesn’t define us and it is not our destiny, unless we choose for it to be.

In Selichos and on Yom Kippur, we recite the 13 middos harachamim to evoke God’s empathy, mercy and forgiveness. Following this recitation, we are told “Salachti k’dvarecha, I have forgiven as you have asked.”

God granted us His forgiveness after the biggest betrayal in history, the cheit haegel, the worshiping of the Golden Calf just as we became God’s nation. Preceding these passages, when Moshe descended from the top of mountain to discover the idol worship down below, the luchot (tablets) became heavy and he dropped them and they broke. After God forgave Bnei Yisrael on the first Yom Kippur in history, Moshe ascended the mountain again and came down with a second set of luchot. Interestingly, the first set of luchot, now broken, were not discarded, rather they were kept in the Aron. Why would we keep a reminder of our failure, our betrayal? In fact, when we went out to battle, we took the Aron with the broken luchot in it. Why? To remind us that even at the time of our greatest vulnerability, even after the sin of the Golden Calf, God forgave us, salachti k’dvarecha. When we go out to battle, whether literally on a battlefield, or metaphorically in our daily battles with our yetzer hara, we are vulnerable and we need God’s protection. We take the broken luchot with us to remember God is with us and forgives us even when we stray. Even if we’re not worthy to be protected in battle, God protects us. We take our brokenness with us. We take the most vulnerable and flawed parts of ourselves, our very humanity, to remind us that God is always there with us, supporting us through our battles and struggles.

We each have a part of us that feels broken, feels unworthy. If God is compassionate, so must we be to ourselves. Forgiveness starts with radical acceptance, self-compassion and forgiving ourselves.

The journey towards forgiving oneself is not for the faint of heart—it is painful, vulnerable and only those brave enough to truly seek it, and be open to encountering pain along the way, will come out on the other side. Mechila this Yom Kippur took on a whole new meaning for me—forgiving ourselves for our choices, mistakes, behaviors, even the things that happened to us that were out of our control. Perhaps forgiveness starts with us; We must ask ourselves for forgiveness, and give it with compassion, so that we can open ourselves up to progress, change and self-transformation for the coming year.

Many of us struggle with a harsh inner voice and critic, a voice that follows us through our daily lives, judging us, shaming us and taking away our right to enjoy life, be proud of ourselves and be happy. Comedian Whitney Cummings in her book “I’m Fine and Other Lies,” wisely questions herself: “I would never treat my friends the way I treat myself, so why do I allow myself to treat me this way?”

An integral key to forgiveness of self is compassion. I understand very clearly that I could not have experienced forgiveness of self without self-compassion. Compassion entered my energetic space on Rosh Chodesh Elul. I was invited to a women’s New Moon gathering, where we were each asked to share the emotion that we are bringing with us into the new month. I was surprised (embarrassed, isolated?) as every other woman in the group shared that their emotion was joy. I thought to myself—joy, I own joy! I am always in joy, and yet that evening I was not in joy. I have learned in life, if we are not going to show up as our authentic selves, we may as well not show up at all. And with Tisha B’Av just behind us at that time, I was still feeling the waves of loss from Tisha B’Av. I was seeking healing and I understood intrinsically that without compassion, and specifically self-compassion, there can be no healing from pain. And so for me, on Rosh Chodesh Elul, I infused compassion into the new month.

As I look back now, I am in awe and wonder, that on Rosh Chodesh Elul, I unknowingly planted the seeds of compassion and began the emotional journey which brought me to experience the most pristine and genuine level of forgiveness during the Yamim Noraim, that of the self.

Only once we have moved through Yom Kippur, through the experience of facing our vulnerabilities, our flaws, our struggles, our brokenness—our very humanity and forgiving ourselves, v’salachti—can we journey forward into happiness, into a year of fulfillment and purpose and into Sukkot, the very holiday that celebrates happiness.

Wishing you a year in which you too will experience the depth of true, lasting simcha.

*With special thanks to Edith Eger (The Gift), David Sacks, and Mrs. Shifra Revah for inspiring this article.

Alanna Apfel is the founder and patient advocate at AA Insurance Advocacy, which helps therapy patients, individuals, couples, and children, save thousands of dollars annually on their out of network mental health therapy bills with their preferred therapist. In the months that AA Insurance Advocacy has been advocating on behalf of patients, clients have collected anywhere from $5,000 to $50,000 a year in reimbursements, depending on the cost and frequency of therapy. For additional information, please contact [email protected].

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