What is happiness?

I want to begin with a question: According to the ancient rabbis of the Talmud, there was a certain day which they considered to be one of the happiest days of the Jewish calendar year? Anyone want to guess what it was? It was not Purim, or Pesach, or Chanukkah –it was this day! Yom Kippur!  In the very last chapter of Mishnah  Ta’anit it relates that just after the High Priest emerged from the inner sanctum of the Holy Temple, and pronounced God’s personal name aloud, the young maidens of Israel would then go out in borrowed white linens ( they were all borrowed so as not to shame those young ladies who could afford less)  and they would dance in the vineyards and say to the young men gathered there: “Young man, lift up thine eyes and see what thou wilt select for thyself, set not thine eyes on beauty but fix thine eyes on family, for “charm is deceitful and beauty is fleeting, but a God fearing woman is much to be praised.” And in this way, centuries upon centuries ago when the Temple stood in Jerusalem and Yom Kippur was drawing to a close, many engagements took place between eligible young men and women –What can I say? Obviously it was a bit more intimate, and certainly more immediate than JDate

I want to shift gears for a moment, and throw out a personal question on this Day of Atonement –this day of recognition –this day of “at-one-ment” –and I want you to think about it, don’t answer, but just think about it: are you happy? Are you content with your own life? And I don’t mean today, right now, this moment on Yom Kippur –I know the ancient rabbis had their ideas about Yom Kippur, but when we are fasting, and standing, and sitting, and praying, we can get irritable.  I mean in general, over this past year –are you happy? And if so, what makes you happy? What gives you that sense of peace, ease, satisfaction, recompense? What helps you to sleep well at night, or what is it you can take a certain amount of pride, or comfort in?  Is it your job? Your career? That is okay –it is good to have a sense of professional accomplishment, and if you feel you have accomplished a great deal, and that makes you happy –getzunt a hey!  Your success can help others. Maybe it is your family ---your spouse, your kids, your friends, the sense of love and companionship you feel with certain people –that is great too, because life is meant to be lived, and is best when shared with others.  As the Beatles sang: And in the end, the love you take, is equal to the love you make. You may not like classic rock but you can hardly disagree with the sentiment.

            Now the rabbis of several generations ago may have had an assumption about what was possibly the happiest day of the entire year, and why that might be so –you were finding someone whom you could start a life with, and share your love with.  But even beyond the mere concept of physical affection and companionship, they also understood on some level the value that people put on physical objects and possessions –and being Rabbis, it is no surprise that they objected to it.  A famous rabbinic adage from nearly two thousand years ago (Mishna Avot) reads: Azeh hu Ashir? Who is (truly) wealthy? Hu Sameach b’Chelko! The one who is satisfied with their lot in life!  In other words, happiness is a state of mind –not a state of your finances! And any mental health professional can tell you this. The topic is more than just germane, there is an entire course at Harvard on happiness, taught by an Israeli psychologist, and it is the most popular course taught there! I can tell you as a Rabbi my most difficult pastoral cases deal with people who are simply unhappy –and I am NOT talking about those who suffered a loss who walk around the most dissatisfied with a farbissen attitude.  In our society, it is not those people who seem to have less who are so unhappy, –oftentimes, it is those who seemingly have enough, more than enough, yet are still so unhappy, so unfulfilled.  I don’t know why that necessarily has to be the case –everyone has their own reasons for what goes on and what they feel inside, but more to the point, is there anything that we can do about it?

            I mean, think about this radical concept for just a moment: can you put a price on happiness? If so, what might it be? Would a million dollars make you  happy –or at least, let’s just be fair and say –a happier person? No maybe? Not enough? How about two million? I would think that would make most people happy!  Well, it might surprise a lot of you here to know that the actual number is something far less than that. Believe it or not, there was a recent study conducted by Princeton University using Gallup data collected from nearly half a million Americans across the U.S. which determined that $75,000 was the actual benchmark number! In other words, this same study determined that households with higher incomes were generally happier, felt more satisfied and content than households that existed and operated on or near the poverty line –that is no surprise seeing as it is hard not to feel a certain amount of stress and anxiety when you are wondering about where your next meal will come from or how it will be paid for –but that comfort level actually tapered off somewhere around  $75,000 –what researchers were able to determine was that this “better mood index” if you want to call it that was no more measurable in households that had a very high per family income in comparison to those that just took in $75,000.  So happiness apparently can come with a price tag, and the good news is that it isn’t so high --the magic number being just $75,000 a household, or roughly what the average family in America would need just to meet all its expenses and pay all its bills –sounds simple enough! Or does it?

Sometimes the simplest things can make us happy. Whether it is the smell of fresh cut grass on the first warm spring day that set off sensors in the brain which cause a feeling of contentment, or maybe it is the smell of a freshly baked noodle kugle you will encounter at a break-fast tonight, the aroma of which not only causes a deep sense of satisfaction after fasting all day, but triggers memories of your mom’s cooking from childhood.  Yet at the same time, spending money on the most expensive objects and trying to fill a void in our life with purchase after purchase can often leave us feeling empty and even more depressed.  The rabbis of the time of the Mishnah were also fond of saying “marbeh nichasim,harbeh d’agah” –“increasing your possessions increases your worries” –and unfortunately that is often the case.  We work as hard as we can to be able to afford as much as we can and keep up with the Joneses –or the Cohens –but where does that leave us? Overworked and under appreciative of all that we have.  I believe that is one of the reasons we are meant to fast on Yom Kippur –it is not meant to punish us or make things harder for us, but to show true atonement, true penitence, we need to clear our system as much as our soul, and clear our physical being as much as we clear our mind.  So much about Jewish Holy days are about feasting and drinking, Yom Kippur teaches us occasionally we need to take things in a different direction.  It is not always about satisfying the self, sometimes it is about holding back and denying ourselves, to teach us what should matter most.

When I was in college I read a book that had a profound influence on my life and would help shape not only my future career path but my own personal philosophy.  It was called Siddartha, by Herman Hesse and it is about one man’s spiritual quest for religious truth and fulfillment.  At one point, the protagonist of the novel, who has given up a life of luxury and comfort in his pursuit, comes across a boat man, whose sole task in life, is to ferry people across a river, continuously.  We might think that a profession like that would be monotonous and unfulfilling, perhaps even akin to being trapped in a circle of hell, but this boat man is perfectly content to go about his life’s mission: rowing people from one side of the river to the other.  And the hero of our story, the Bodhisattva (the Bhudda) who has his own journey to fulfill, can’t help but admire the boatman’s bliss.  I used to wonder if I could be happy like that simple boatman, in the same way, doing one thing but doing it well, especially if it meant helping others in the process.  But the life we live in our society is not simple, the world that surrounds us is not simple. And seeing what we do, what exists around us, distracts us from any simple message or task. There is a pressure to do more, and have more as a result.  And of course something is lost in the process. So think again about that question I asked as we all stand together at the outset of this New Year and on this most Holy Day of Atonement –are you happy? And if so, why? And if not, what can you do differently in the year ahead? Steve Jobs used to say that he greeted each new day by staring into the mirror and asking himself the profound and personal question: if today was my very last day, am I living it the way I would want to? And he knew that if there were too many days in a row where he had to answer that question in the negative, it was time to switch gears.  Aristotle stated “happiness depends upon ourselves.” Remember that this is our life to live, we can control much of what we do and feel.   

About a year ago I experienced a monumental birthday –don’t ask me my age if you don’t already know -although the beard I now sport, all the grey hair included (they came free of course with the beard) now matches how I old I feel- and to cheer me up my wife got me a very special present –something I had always wanted –a Mariano Rivera autographed baseball. And I am sure many of you are hanging your heads in guilt right now –yes, you forgot my birthday –and yes, it is too late to now get me a present –but you can make it up to me I guess by writing a nice check to the shul in my honor (it’s like I said on RH –tzedakah –you can “send it on ahead!”) anyway, I was at first elated to get that generous gift, that object.  But then something interesting happened –or rather uninteresting if you think about it. The baseball sits on my desk, along with some balls signed by Willie Mays and Yogi Berra, it just kind of collects dust (thank God it is protected by a plastic coating). That is the thing about things…they often fail to transform us in any meaningful way, all we really do is project value unto the possession and objectify the object, but owning something is never a guarantee of any long term happiness. One of my most favorite columnists, David Brooks recently remarked that more than buying things we should instead strive to achieve personal fulfillment by buying experiences.  Owning a baseball might not do much for you on a personal level –but taking your kids to a ballgame might.  This past year for my birthday I went fishing with my family (which I assume you ALL doubt know already by reading my weekly blog)–of course I caught the fewest fish –but we got some nice pictures to put up on our facebook page and although that day might now be gone, fading with the last rays of summer, I will always remember it –and I’ll always have it (in here. My mind, and heart) something else that Mr. Brooks mentioned as a way to better achieve happiness, and an opinion that was reinforced by the Princeton study I quoted earlier, was that buying things for others, friends, family members, your shul, your Rabbi (look at Pam) whether it is a gift or a charitable donation, can often increase your own sense of joy and satisfaction, often more so than if you yourself were the recipient.  As one congregant once remarked to me: the more you give, the more you get. And sometimes trying to help others, more so than ourselves, can leave us with a longer lasting sense of happiness and personal fulfillment.

One of my most favorite movies is City Slickers, circa the summer of 1991 and starring the late Jack Palance, Bruno Kirby, as well as Billy Crystal and Daniel Stern (any Generation Xers out there remember it?) three middle aged male friends go off for a two week vacation herding cattle around Santa Fe.  The plot of the movie is unimportant, but at one point the three friends, played by Crystal, Stern and Kirby come up with a game to pass time as they are riding their horses, and they ask each other the very profound and personal question: what was your best day, and what was your worst day –think about that for a moment –could you answer that question? Well, not surprising, they all come up with slightly different answers.  The Daniel Stern character, who is about to get divorced after being stuck in an awful marriage, talks amazingly enough about how his wedding day was his favorite day –all the guests, and the family –and the worst day would be a tie for everyday afterwards! Kirby talks about turning 15 and being mature enough to stand up to his father and throw him out of the house, defending the honor of his mom and sister after their father was caught having an affair with another woman –he felt independent and responsible for the first time. And when the friends ask him what was the worst day –he stoically responds “the same day.” And Billy Crystal talked about the first time he went to a Yankees game as a kid and how wonderful and magical if felt –something we might expect.  But when asked about the worst day he divulged how once his wife thought she might have cancer, and all day long as they waited for the test results they walked on egg shells.  The kicker is of course in the end of the day it was revealed that she was not sick, and when his friends protest that that in fact meant the day itself was actually a good day, Crystal simply can’t see it! Kirby then remarks “you’re a real glass half empty kinda guy” –which of course he is. What is interesting is that on some level, all of them had similar experiences in that their best days, were also their worst days. Think about that for a moment: sometimes in life the best of times and the worst of times (to paraphrase Dickens) can be synonymous and what is most challenging and difficult for us can also lead to tremendous growth and fulfillment because we learn from it, and can often grow stronger as a result.   Not everything that happens is for the best, the challenge is to make the best of everything that happens.

This past year, I have had my own personal challenges, and in the midst of it I performed a record number of weddings, and funerals. Of course as a Rabbi I ALWAYS prefer weddings, (maybe that is why I opened this sermon relating to you the incongruous and surprising relationship between marriage and Yom Kippur) but there is an association I have made in my own mind vis a vis some of the customs and superstitions we see at both ceremonies.  At a wedding we smash a glass at the conclusion of the ceremony –and there are multiple explanations as to why this occurs: the loud noise frightens ghosts and spirits that want to spoil the affair, or even in our moments of joy it reminds us of the destructions in Jerusalem and this should be a sobering thought amongst all the joy and celebration.  But it also reminds us not to take one another for granted –and that life is fragile –that is the symbolism behind shattering a glass –while you attempt to remain whole and united.  Likewise the rocks on a gravestone can remind us of that same destruction –the rubble from Jerusalem, and our villages, towns, cities, throughout history –the collective loss we shared as a people.  But we rebuilt –we persevered. And moved forward, creating new life and family whenever possible.  We don’t forget, because that is no way to heal, but we cannot let loss perpetually hold us back, because that is no life, and as Jews we celebrate life! In ancient times on Yom Kippur we would fast, prostrate ourselves, listen attentively until the High Priest emerged from the Holy of Holies and pronounced God’s ineffable name like a judge announcing his sentence, and then run out to celebrate and hopefully find love. Shlomo Ansky, the Yiddish playwrite who wrote the Dybbuk related how the day itself was filled with anxiety for if God forbid the high Priest had an impure thought while sequestered inside the Holy of Holies, the whole world could be destroyed as a result.  So when our ancestors ran out to the countryside with relief and abandon as YK slowly drew to a close, it was with good reason!  It also represented the incongruous nature of life, there is tension and there is happiness, there is trouble and there is joy, one moment to the next. We just have to try and adjust for it. As it was once stated: life never goes according to plan –so plan accordingly.  Or more to the heart of the matter, there is always a silver lining somewhere, sometime, we just have to be ready to look for it.

And I want to close by stating honestly and openly: I understand everyone handles loss differently, but bear with me please as I end with this personal anecdote to try and put the ever elusive notion of happiness in proper perspective.  Most of you here know that I lost my father back in November –and as anyone who has lost someone close to them can attest it is hard, it is hurtful, its draining, the sense of loss you feel never quite goes away, but for me there was also an aspect that was unexpectedly quite empowering –being in this community for support and assistance, seeing those who turned out to mourn with me during shiva and helped enable my kaddish over the course of my eleven months really meant a great deal –and so I thank you.  But there was one moment I will never forget –and I would never want to.  My father passed away on an early Wed morning (of course today would have to be a Wed) and I lay in bed as my wife got my kids up and ready for school because of course I had been up most of the night.  And I could hear her outside our room as she told them what had happened  --how their zayde had passed away.  And without saying a word, both my son and daughter came into our room, and got in bed with me and just lay there, hugging me, no words were said, it was all just felt.  They knew –right what I needed at that moment. True story –my worst day –and my best day –as crazy as it seems. I felt more protected and loved at that moment then I had in a long time –I would survive –I would have to, because I had all I needed at that one moment. Just as our tradition teaches to reflect on the fragility of life even in the midst of celebration, it also inspires us to appreciate the gift of life amongst loss and sadness. You see sometimes life isn’t always about riding out the storm –sometimes life is about simply learning to dance in the rain.