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Rabbi Marc E. Berkson - Rosh Hashanah Eve - 2013/5774


Happiness Will Follow
Rosh Hashanah Eve—2013/5774

We were in New York—the 10th graders of our Kabbalat Torah class and I—on our annual trip there to experience the varieties of Jewish life in the city with more Jews than any other city in the world.  Shabbat eve was spent at Rodeph Sholom on the Upper West Side.  They always extend their hospitality to us—and I have yet to reciprocate.  We joined their high school kids and a number of visiting Israeli high school kids from Kol Ha-neshama, the progressive congregation in Jerusalem, after the Kabbalat Shabbat service for dinner and a movie.  Entitled Israel Inside:  How a Small Nation Makes a Big Difference, the movie examined several of the core character strengths found among Israelis that have enabled them to prosper in the midst of many challenges.  Yes, it was kind of a film version of Start-Up Nation.  But I was immediately drawn to and fascinated by the narrator, a dynamic and charismatic Israeli academician by the name of Tal Ben-Shahar.

Not particularly happy as Israel’s youngest squash champion or as a student of philosophy and psychology at Harvard, in his academic work Ben-Shahar came upon a relatively new specialty called Positive Psychology, or the science of happiness.  In short order, not only was Ben-Shahar happy as he earned his doctorate, but was fascinating hundreds of Harvard students in the largest course ever offered at Harvard—some 900 students taking Positive Psychology.  Yes, we could refer jokingly to it as Happiness 101.  But perhaps the best way to understand Positive Psychology is through a metaphor offered by another of the experts in the field, Sonja Lyubomirsky.  She noted the serious studies during World War II by aviation experts trying to understand why planes went down.  One day, somebody asked, “Why aren’t we studying the planes that stay in the air?”  In other words, instead of focusing on why sad people are sad and lonely people are lonely, systematic empirical methodologies should be used to study why happy people are happy.” (see Myths of Happiness, p. 253)   Thus, in a field long dominated by self-help books and workshops and motivational speakers selling riches and happiness who, as Ben-Shahar put it, overpromised and under delivered, Positive Psychology stepped in to deal seriously with happiness.  And when I came across this issue of Reform Judaism from a couple of years ago (Winter 2011), I knew what I had to talk about tonight—Happiness and the Jews.

Take this day, this Rosh Hashanah, this New Year.  Instead of a party or late night celebration, we come to synagogue.  And on this birthday of the world 5774 years ago, we don’t even have a birthday cake.  In fact, we Jews almost never celebrate birthdays—the only birthday mentioned in Torah is that, of all people, Pharaoh’s.  In reality, the only yearly anniversary we observe in the life of an individual is that of a yahrzeit, the opposite, if you will, of a birthday.

Yet more.  To use the title of Michael Wex’s book, we sometimes seem born to kvetch, as if we are happiest when we have something to complain about.  It is the Judaism of oy, not joy, as in the old joke in Annie Hall of two older women having breakfast at a resort.  “The food at this place is really terrible,” offers the first.  Responds the second, “Yeah, I know…and such small portions.”

Add in centuries of persecution and anti-Semitism, exile and destruction.  And then remember that we are not named after Isaac, Yitzhak, the one who will laugh or bring joy, but after his son, Jacob, Yaakov, who became Yisrael, the one who struggled or grappled or wrestled with God.

Happiness.  Rabbi Dannel Schwartz tells the story of a woman he calls Jill who was a successful lawyer married to a handsome and successful man who adored her.  She had two bright, healthy kids and her 31 years had been unmarked by any tragedy.  But she worried—about being a partner in a major law firm in a Midwestern city saying, “If I were in New York or Los Angeles, I could be really big, a national figure;” about her car not being good enough; about her children who may not have read as well as others.   Still, with all that, she felt that she should be happier.  So she turned to self-help books and passed through a serious of Eastern religions.  She tried countless diets and hobbies.  Then, one afternoon, she appeared at Rabbi Schwartz’s office totally despondent.  “Maybe,” she pleaded to him, “you can find something in my soul that will make me happy.”

The positive psychologists would tell Jill that she could learn to be happy but that it would take some very serious work.  And the idea that happiness takes work surprises many people.  There are those who think that happiness is simply a number of fun experiences that, at some point, add up to making one happy.  Others, perhaps like Jill, think that happiness is a feeling that comes as a result of certain good things happening.  In other words, if I were famous and had that position in Los Angeles, I would be happy.  If I were more beautiful, I would be happy.  If I were richer, I would be happy.  If my kids were better students, I would be happy.   

Happiness, you see, is not just fun, although fun is a component.  Happiness is not just pleasure, although pleasure is a component.  And happiness is not just material wealth; in fact, once basic needs are met, the rich are not much happier than the rest of us.   We know of all too many lottery winners who quickly become rich; checking back with them several years later finds them miserable and, often, as poor as they were before their winnings.  In other words, if they win, they lose.  One of the positive psychologists, Professor Dan Gilbert of Harvard, offers, from a different perspective, the story of Harry Langerman who, in 1949, was offered a franchise to buy a hamburger stand from two brothers for $3000.  He then went to his own brother, an investment banker, to raise the money.  His brother’s response, “You idiot, no one eats hamburgers.”  Six months later, another man by the name of Ray Kroc came up with the money and purchased the franchise from the McDonald brothers and then went on to become one of the wealthiest people in the country.  Langerman’s understanding of his missed opportunity years later?  “I believed that it turned out for the best.”  Notes Gilbert, “while we think that money will bring lots of happiness for a long time, it actually only brings a little happiness for a short time.”

So if fame and beauty and riches do not bring happiness, what does?  Perhaps the most fascinating study was done by Lyubomirsky, who offered the earlier airplane metaphor, and her colleagues.  They found that 50% of the differences among peoples’ happiness could be attributed to genetic makeup and 10% to life circumstances, leaving 40% for people to work with.  In their words, 50% is determined by who one is, 10% is determined by what one faces, and 40% on how one, through thought and behavior, responds.  We cannot change our genes, it is hard to change our circumstances, but we can change ourselves. 

Thus did Lyubomirsky and her colleagues look to those who were happiest to see what they could learn.  Among their findings:  happier people have learned how to express gratitude; happier people have learned how to savor life’s pleasures; happier people are deeply invested in relationships, particularly with family and friends; happier people reach out to others; and happier people tend to see themselves as religious or spiritual.  And thus the task—to develop exercises that people could use to change themselves.  For example, how does one cultivate the habit of gratitude?  An early study split participants into four groups—one group to write down once a week for ten weeks five things for which they were thankful; another group to similarly list five hassles; a third group five things at which they were better than others; and a fourth group any five miscellaneous things that had happened with them.  The result—the participants in the group which recorded things for which they were thankful felt more optimistic and satisfied with their lives than all the other participants.  Ben-Shahar had his 900 students keep gratitude journals; another professor instituted a gratitude night wherein each student had to bring in someone who had played an important part in that person’s life and had never been thanked.

In similar fashion did Lyubomirsky and her colleagues develop other exercises.  To help people learn to savor life’s pleasures, researchers asked participants to choose one activity a day and spend a few minutes enjoying what is normally hurried through and then to jot down some notes on how it was experienced differently.  To help people reach out to others through acts of kindness like visiting someone who is confined and cannot get out or simply helping someone carry a bag of groceries to the car, participants were told to start consciously doing one once a day for a week and then write up a kindness report.  Exercises for strengthening relationships included making time, setting aside a weekly date to go with a friend to the gym or an additional hour a week to spend with a spouse, and creating a media-free zone in one’s house—no phones or TVs or computers or handheld devices allowed—to encourage true conversation.  And to deepen one’s religious or spiritual life, participants were asked to dedicate a set period of time each day—five minutes, 30 minutes, an hour—to pray or to meditate.  By doing these exercises, and many others, even if we have to force ourselves to do so, we can become happier.  Our behavior changes us—bringing happiness and well-being and meaning along with all other kinds of fringe benefits.

A positive psychologist I am not; a rabbi I am.  Judaism is neither about the pursuit of happiness nor is the purpose of Judaism to make one happy.  Rather, Judaism is about the pursuit of holiness; its purpose, if you will, is to bring one closer to oneself, to God, and to all of God’s children.  And that is where we find true joy.  Think about all the exercises, if you will, Judaism builds into our daily lives.  Tomorrow, when we return, as we do every day, we will thank God for the gift of life.  Take a look at pp. 85-87 in your mahzors, in your prayer books—we will thank God for waking up, for our eyes opening so we can see, for the strength and the ability to ambulate on solid ground, for a body which works, for a soul which joins that body unique to me.  And note how those morning blessings end on p. 89—“How greatly we are blessed/how good is our portion/how pleasant is our lot/how beautiful is our heritage.”  What else, in fact, is Jewish prayer, what else are all the blessings we say every day to God but a way of showing gratitude.    Traditional Jews say we should find a hundred things to be grateful for every day thus reciting a hundred blessings.  A liberal colleague suggested creating our own blessings of thanks, using the traditional blessing formula of Baruch Ata… and adding our own words in whatever language we prefer—God understands them all.

Everyday Judaism tells me to savor the pleasures of this world.  For Judaism has always understood this physical world and our physical bodies as gifts from God.  Listen to these words from the Talmud (Eruvim 54a):  Grab and eat, grab and drink, for the world from which we depart is like a wedding feast.  God wants us to enjoy the pleasures of this world which God called good—food and drink, sexual intimacy and riches—all in their proper context.  And when we die, know that one of the questions we will be asked is if we denied ourselves the permitted pleasures of this world (Kiddushin 4:12).  Judaism always discouraged asceticism and self-denial; at the same time, whenever we saw physical suffering and hunger and poverty, we were commanded to be concerned with their bodies and our souls.

Every day Judaism tells me to practice acts of kindness.  These simple acts begin with greeting every human being with a smile and with gladness—yes, it is there, in the Mishna (Avot 1:15 and 3:16) and then the rabbis make it clear that we should try to initiate each greeting (Avot 4:20).  It almost seems like the suggestions of the positive psychologists—act happy.  It will be contagious and you will become happy.  And tomorrow morning, on p. 90, we will read—as we do every morning—the acts of lovingkindness that are daily expected of us.  (Go ahead, take a look at them.) 

Every day since our creation 5774 years ago, God has reminded us that it is not good for one to be alone.  Thus, we must build relationships—for everything is in relationship—and what else is a relationship but a brit, a covenant, between two people with the covenantal relationship of which marriage is the paradigm to, yes, the marriage, the covenant between God and us.  That is why we read from Bereshit, from Genesis, on the New Year.  For Genesis contains all kinds of human stories—stories of joy and sorrow, stories of loneliness and love, stories of sickness and recovery, stories of sin and of forgiveness, stories of birth and of death.  The stories begin with two questions—Am I my brother’s keeper? And Ayekah—where are you?  Yes, we are our brother’s, our sister’s keeper—and, everyday, we must ask ourselves where we are.

Relationship is also what brings people into religious life.  We all know the old joke which, in short, has Goldberg responding to his daughter when asked why, since he was an avowed atheist, he went to synagogue every day.  “Nu, Cohen goes to talk with God; I go to talk with Cohen.”   Cohen talks to God, Goldberg talks to Cohen, they share their stories.  Research has shown that both Cohen and Goldberg will live longer lives than Rosenberg and Sassoon who neither belong nor go.  And this is just as true for non-Jews who belong to faith communities.  Some would like to think that is has to do with belief.  But Cohen, Cohen is an atheist.  Instead, it probably has more to do with connection and community.  Cohen looks out for Goldberg just as Goldberg looks out for Cohen.  But congregational life also builds a sense of reciprocal responsibility.  To pray, Cohen, the believer, needs nine others.  He needs Goldberg, the atheist.  Berkson, the rabbi, needs Greenberg, the agnostic.  Rosenberg, the left-winger, needs Levin, the right-winger.  Yet we also know that congregation can build a sense of transcendent purpose bringing profound meaning into people’s lives.  The sanctuary can become that media-free zone and Shabbat that weekly date to deepen those relationships.  There is no meaning in isolation.

We find in Proverbs these words we sing when we return the Torah to the ark:  Etz hayyim hi l’mahazikim ba-v’tomcheha me-u-shar –it is a tree of life for those who hold fast to it, and all its supporters are happy.  Yes, in the pursuit of holiness, we find joy and happiness.  In fact, there are several words in Hebrew for joy and happiness—among them simcha and sasson and osher.  Surprisingly, however, there never was a word in Hebrew for tragedy.  Modern Hebrew had to borrow one—you can tell by its sound—tra—ged—yah.      Happiness and joy—yes!  Tragedy—no!  So how understand all of our complaining and kvetching, all of our wrestling and our struggling?  Let me try through these words from the former Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth, Lord Jonathan Sachs:  “Judaism is a religion of active engagement with the world driven by the cognitive dissonance between the world that is and the world that should be.”  In other words, we struggle to reduce the distance between what is and what ought to be.  That also means that we are eternal optimists, that we believe we can make the world that is into the world that ought to be just as we make our own inner worlds what they ought to be during these Ten Days of Repentance.

So, this new year, this birthday of the world, we will not wish each other a “shana semeicah, a Happy New Year!” we will not wish each other happiness; rather, we will wish each other a “shana tova, a good year,” we will wish each other goodness.  For our goal this new year is not to seek happiness and passing pleasure and celebrity, fame or beauty or riches; our goal this new year is to strive for goodness and meaning, holiness and wholeness.  We can change neither our genes nor our circumstances; but we know that, over the next ten days, we can change ourselves.  We do not seek a big bash of a New Year’s Eve party that is over in a lonely moment; we seek rather relationship with those we love and with the One Who loves us.  In so seeking, sweetness and happiness will follow.  And in this place–Emanu-El, God will be with us. 

Sat, May 27 2023 7 Sivan 5783