ROSH HASHANAH EVENING 5768
By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy
This evening I wish you “L’Shanah Tovah”, while in English we say Happy New Year.” These are not exactly the same. “L’Shanah tovah” implies all will be well, but also that you will live a good life to be worthy of blessing and inscription in the book of life. I want that for you, but this evening I wish you a Happy New Year as well.
It is my sincere hope that you can find happiness in the year and years to come. Times have been challenging the past two years. All of our lives have been turned upside down. Uncertainty is an ongoing theme in our community. Recognizing and accepting that reality, we seek to live meaningful, fulfilling lives. As your rabbi, someone who has known many of you for decades, I want you to be happy, but first we have to determine what happiness is, how to attain it and avoid impediments to maintaining it.
This past summer, while working with some of our children at Henry S. Jacobs Camp, I was asked to describe one of my happiest moments. This was an easy recollection. Eight years ago we were celebrating Karen, my oldest daughter’s, wedding. During the reception, I was dancing the hora in the center circle with Lynn, and all of our children. Twirling around, I recall the thrill of celebrating this life cycle event, being immersed in the moment. We were surrounded by family and friends. I clearly remember saying, “it doesn’t get any better.”
There is a verse from the Talmud, that the world is like a wedding hall, which Rabbi Hanoch of Aleksandrov explains with a story:
A man came to an inn in Warsaw. In the evening he heard sounds of music and dancing coming from the next house.
“They must be celebrating a wedding,” he thought to himself.
But the next evening he heard the same sounds, and again the evening after that.
“How can there be so many weddings in one family?” the man asked the innkeeper.
“That house is a wedding hall,” he answered. “Today one family holds a wedding there, tomorrow another.”
“It’s the same in the world,” said the rabbi. “People are always enjoying themselves. But some days it’s one person and other days it’s another. No single person is happy all the time.”
I have been blessed to share simchas with many of you: weddings, Bar/Bat Mitzvahs, births and birthdays and anniversaries. It never becomes old or boring or repetitive to see the glow in a father’s face, to hear the joy in a mother’s voice, to feel the love and excitement of a young couple. The high simcha moments are few and far between. I urge you, when it is your time, embrace the experience as much as you can.
When you are invited to be with others for their milestones, by all means attend. You add to their happiness and can access your own at the same time. It’s a mitzvah.
The study of achieving happiness is now its own field of legitimate psychological study. Who knew? “Positive Psychology” focuses on mental wellness, as opposed to mental illness. You can see how this might become quite popular, studying what is good in life, not just our psychoses and neuroses. The Intro class in Positive Psychology at Harvard had 855 students, the most attended class in the university.
Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania, one of the trailblazers in the field, has determined that each of us has a set range of happiness, some are more open to being happy than others. Our common experience tells us that there are some people who feel life and react to it more deeply than others. The goal is to learn how to live at the top of our set range.
Based upon extensive testing in Happiness Research, Professor Ed Diener of the University of Illinois focused on three ingredients that are vital to happiness:
1. Family and Friends- the wider the grouping and the deeper the relationships, the higher will be the level of happiness. Those who are or have been parents of teenagers know how significant friends are in their lives. We may think that this changes as we age, but it does not. According to the studies, friendship, correlated with happiness, even seems to protect us from disease. Specifically, marriage, potentially the ultimate close friendship, adds 7 years to the lifespan of men and 4 years to the life span of women. (With the difference between men and women, I’m sure there is a joke in there, but I’m not about to touch it, at least not if I want to go home tonight.)
2. Meaning in life- This is when you embrace a belief in something bigger than yourself. Formal Religion, disciplined spirituality or holding steadfastly to a particular philosophy of life provides the structure for happiness. You’d have been disappointed had I not re-discovered that religion can make a qualitative difference in your happiness quotient.
3. Happiness comes when you have clear goals and values towards which you dedicate your life. This includes jobs, projects, hobbies that are both interesting and enjoyable, which call upon you to use your strengths and abilities. Albert Schweitzer once said: “Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful.” And when you are successful, you will be happy.
Judaism has understood these ideas for quite some time. In particular the Psalmist provides a variety of prescriptions for finding happiness. In the very first Psalm and the very first verse we read: “Happy is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked and does not stand in the way of sinners, or sit in the seat of the scornful.” In other words, if you want to be happy, first choose your company wisely. You obviously don’t want to be with people who will lead you astray down the wrong paths of life. Every parent regularly monitors those with whom their children associate. But we also need to be aware that there are those who drag us down either by their values or with their pessimism and negativity. These too are people to avoid.
The Psalmist continues: “rather the teaching of the Lord is his delight, and he studies that teaching day and night. He is like a tree planted beside streams of water, which yields its fruit in season, whose foliage never fades, and whatever it produces thrives.” (Psalm 1:1-2) What a surprise, the Psalmist calls upon us to study Torah, the teachings of what it means to be a good Jew, how to lead a meaningful life. Then, when we are well grounded, and live according to the values we know to be right and just, we are able to face each day with a sense of equanimity and happiness.
We often equate happiness with wealth and pleasure. There is a Talmudic teaching, which many of you have appreciated over the years. We learn: “Enjoy life while you can. When you face your Maker, God will ask why you did not partake of the pleasures of life which were available… and you’d better have a good explanation.” (Yerushalmi) Judaism does not call upon us to withdraw from the world’s pleasure, but neither should we overindulge.
However, pleasure seeking does not necessarily result in real happiness.
Positive Psychologist Todd Kashdan helps his college students discover that feeling good , whether through sex, drugs, drinking or most other forms of pleasure seeking actually only creates a hunger for more pleasure. After exploring the limits of pleasure seeking, they learn that doing good for others leads to a more lasting form of happiness and they back this up with research.
During our trip to Israel this past summer, we visited a 3rd century synagogue and homes in the village of Tsippori, where part of the Talmud was written. I came across a lesser known bit of Talmudic wisdom. There was a bedroom and not far from it, what we would refer to as an outhouse for which the rabbis wrote: “Happy is the man who has a privy near his bed.” As some of us get older, we appreciate that saying even more. Clearly having some of the basic creature comforts of life engenders a feeling of happiness. As many of us were forced to renovate our homes, we added those little touches that were not there before, but which provide us with pleasure: the flat screen television, nicer kitchen appliances and countertops, perhaps in keeping with the teachings of the Talmud, we even upgraded our bathrooms.
However, the Positive Psychologists teach that being richer does not make us happier, once you have the basics of life- home, food and clothes. Why is it that money and material things do not ultimately make us happier? Scientists say it is first because we adapt to pleasure. We enjoy short bursts, whether chocolate or a new car, but then the joy wears off. We also tend to compare ourselves; while richer people feel happier compared to poor, the poorer do not feel happier as they look up and there is always someone richer than we are.
Real wealth according to our tradition comes to those who are happy with their portion in life. It is a matter of attitude. One man who brought laughter and happiness to millions had this philosophy: “Each morning when I open my eyes, I say to myself: ‘I, not events, have the power to make me happy or unhappy. I can choose which it will be. Yesterday is dead, tomorrow hasn’t arrived yet. I have just one day, today, and I’m going to be happy in it’.” Along with the wit, we now have the wisdom of Groucho Marx and you can bet your life on it.
The problem is that we tend to put up barriers to our own happiness. Some of us are worriers. “Yes, I’m healthy now, but you can never tell about tomorrow.” “Yes, there are more restaurants and life is pretty much normal, but all it takes is one more storm.” “Yes, the kids are doing well right now, but will it last?”
To all of the worriers among us, the Talmud teaches: “Do not worry about tomorrow’s trouble, for you do not know what the day may bring. Tomorrow may come and you will be no more, and so you will have worried about a world that is not yours.” (Yevamot 63b) In other words, deal with life’s challenges when they come. Don’t allow them to diminish the happiness and contentment of the moment.
Of course greed and envy are twin traits, which easily tear away at our happiness. We see what we have, but all too often try to compare to others, diminishing our own lot in life by doing so. “Yes, I like my Camry, but it’s not a Lexus.” “Yes, I have a good job that I enjoy, but I could be earning more if I were promoted.” “Yes, I made the team, but I should have been chosen Captain.”
Don’t misunderstand what I am saying. There is nothing wrong with having high goals and aspirations, but when they cloud your appreciation of the moment then you are diminishing your potential for happiness. A Chasidic saying puts it well: “while we pursue happiness, we flee from contentment.”
Another barrier is a guilty conscience. We cannot be happy when our sins weigh upon us. Once again the Psalmist hits the nail on the head: “Happy the one whom the Lord does not hold guilty, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.” (Psalm 32:1-2) This is one of the basic themes of our High Holy Days- teshuvah, repentance.
We are called upon to use this season to come to terms with misdeeds, confess to God and those whom we may have wronged by word and deed, action and inaction. Let us make amends where possible. The reference to the spirit where there is no deceit, suggests that we must mean what we say and do. A clear conscience opens the path to happiness and contentment with who you are.
We put up so many obstacles to feeling happy and enjoying life. So stop waiting…
Until your car or home is paid off
Until you get a new car or home
Until your children leave the house
Until you go back to school
Until you finish school
Until you lose 10 pounds
Until you gain 10 pounds
Until you get married
Until you get a divorce
Until you have kids
Until you retire
Until you die
Now is a time to appreciate the happiness that is in your life and seek it with all you ability.
This evening we are here as a community and I truly wish you a New Year in which you find abiding happiness. As was indicated by the positive psychologists, just being here creates that possibility. A Psalm which is frequently utilized as a prayer begins: “Ashrai yoshvai vaitecha, od yehallelucha sela- Happy are those who dwell in Your house, they forever praise you.” (Psalm 84:5-6) By spending regular time in the synagogue, whether connecting with God and all that is eternal or socializing with the person sitting next to you, psychologists suggest and tradition teaches that you can increase your happiness. So may it be this holy day. So may it be throughout the year as you enjoy a Happy New Year.