How Hard Is Happiness?

I know I am in my second year at Temple, but, obviously, I am still very much a new comer, especially by San Antonio standards. A question I get asked a lot, is, “are you happy here?” My answer is always, “Yes! I love it!” And I do. But truth be told, I am not quite sure what ‘happy’ really means.

Yes, I am extremely glad that Larry and I made the decision to come here. Yes, I find my work challenging but rewarding and inspiring. Yes, our children have been adjusting well to their new schools and new lives. And yes, we feel welcomed, have already made close connections to many people and are looking forward to making more. But am I happy?...Not always.

That being said, I’m pretty sure that has very little to do with San Antonio and everything to do with the vicissitudes of life.

Happiness is a universal human longing. And tonight of all nights, when we are called to examine our lives, considering where we have gone wrong and where we’ve gone right, our cosmic well-being feels somewhat called into question.

I imagine I am not the only person here who doesn’t occasionally day dream that I would be much happier if……fill in the blank: I was thinner; I had more money; I had more free time; I had more plans; I had less plans; things were different; things were exactly as they used to be.

Whatever it is, I can personally attest that none of these ‘things’ will ultimately bring the happiness we crave.

So I am on a mission.  Not to simply seek happiness, but to redefine what it is we are actually seeking, with a little help from Jewish ethical wisdom of course. And we have only to look to the Talmud for the answer. Azeh hu Ashir? Who is rich? Ha-Samecah b’chelko…The one who is happy with their portion. (Pirkei Avot 4:1)

What does it mean to be ‘sameach b’chelko?’ Happy….with what we have? It’s a simple statement, but taking full advantage of its wisdom is a complex challenge indeed.

First let me say, that it’s relatively clear that our material possessions are not the key to success in the realm of happiness. Studies show that despite the fact we are far more affluent, are better educated and have many more material comforts and technological tools than existed 40 years ago, we are slightly less happy and at a much greater risk of depression and assorted social pathologies.

According to Hope College psychologist David G. Myers, “our becoming better off over the last four decades has not been accompanied by one iota of increased subjective well-being.” Having more stuff does not empirically make us more happy. Azeh Hu-Ashir? HaSameach b’chelko.

Each of us has a chelek….a portion….a lot…a piece of the pie. But how we look at that chelek and how we see our ability to affect it, well, that’s where Sameach comes in. And understanding that happiness is the key to our success.

There are many ways to unpack Sameach- happiness. Avot D’Rabbi Natan, a minor tractate of the Talmud, lists ten nuanced definitions that can articulate this complex emotion. (Avot D’Rabbi Natan 34:9) (Rabbi Paul Kipnes, Jewish Spiritual Parenting, pg. 167-68).

For our purposes tonight, I give you three. Three aspects of sameach which I believe bring richness and understanding and appreciation to our lives. They are subtle, maybe even a little esoteric. But the shades of happiness they define are wonderfully instructive tools that might help us recognize the happiness that is already inherently within us all.

Aspect #1…Osher—
Connected to a yearning for inner peace and a life of meaning.

The practice of mindfulness and its various disciplines has been around in mainstream American culture since the 1970s. Originating in the Buddhist tradition, Western psychologists and psychiatrists use mindfulness to help people manage a variety of emotional challenges. By focusing on the present in an intentional, accepting and non-judgmental way, we are better able to find balance and perspective in our lives.

These days, we also see its influence in the proliferation of yoga studios, meditation groups and tai chi classes that are constantly springing up. Even here in San Antonio, our Western mind’s desire to attain more of an Eastern Soul.

But Judaism has always had an East meets West mentality. We have only to look to the morning blessings of our prayer book. To see the practice of mindfulness in action. Though we tend to skip through most of them here at Temple- for brevity’s sake- the morning blessings in our prayer book that come before the Barechu include blessings for our physical selves and our spiritual selves, followed by a list of blessings called Nisim b’chol Yom, which translates as ‘the miracles in every day.’ They all start… Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech Ha’Olam… And then each thanks God for a specific miracle in our lives: Who makes the blind to see; Who clothes the naked; Who sets free the captive; Who straightens the bent; Who stretches forth the earth upon the water; Who provides for my every need; Who makes firm a person’s steps; Who gives strength to the weary; these are some of my favorite blessings because they are both tangible and spiritual at the same time, meant to be read on both a literal and figurative level.

Found originally in the Talmud (Berachot 60b). The initial intention was that each blessing would corresponded to a specific physical action when you woke up in the morning each day. When opening your eyes you would say Pokeach ‘ivrim’ “who makes the blind see”. When sitting up after having been comparatively motionless during sleep one should say, matir asurim ‘blessed the one who releases the bound.” While getting dressed one should say malbish arumim ‘blessed the one who clothes the naked’ and so on. Eventually around the 9th century, these blessings got moved from the home to the Synagogue, but the intersection between the physical and allegorical is powerful still, as Rabbi Steve Sager explains: “In their public setting, the morning blessings took on a new level of meaning. Removed from the acts of awakening, individual activities became metaphors for Godly action. The blessing “who clothes the naked,” ceased to be a pointed acknowledgement of personal possessions and personal protection. Instead it became a celebration of God as the power that prompts the care and nurturance of humankind. [Kol Haneshamah: Shabbat Vechagim]

It’s a great example of the evolution of Jewish prayer and practice, but I still think that the power of these blessings dwells in the space between the literal and figurative meaning. We need to be thankful for our ability to be out in the world and function as human beings, to consider what a miracle it really is that we can open our eyes, get out of bed and be out and about.

These blessings can also be a catalyst for cultivating Osher: a sense of graciousness and gratefulness, and an acknowledgment that even the most mundane acts possess an inner meaning. This sort of awareness is a primary layer of happiness.

Orthodox Rabbi Noach Weinberg suggests a practical exercise to help us accomplish this sort of happiness. Step 1: Spend one hour writing down everything for which you are grateful. [for example family, friends, a comfortable home etc.] Most people fly through the first 15 minutes. The next 15 minutes the pen moves more slowly. The next 15 minutes get even tougher but you can pull through if you include your eyebrows and your socks. That last 15 minutes are excruciating. Step 2: Add one new blessing each day. Step 3: Prioritize and re-prioritize regularly.

The power of this exercise is clear. Only when we consciously remind ourselves of ALL our existing blessings, are we able to put the setbacks, disappointments and the deficits in perspective. A sense of perspective is a priceless commodity. Only when we acknowledge how rich we really are, can we be sameach b’chelkeinu. Happy with our portion.

Nevertheless, it would be naïve to imagine that perspective will always result in a sense of goodness. So how do we incorporate the challenges that are present as well?


Aspect #2… Ora— the light and joy that come from awareness and bringing uplift to others.

This summer, Disney’s Pixar came out with its newest animated film. Billed as a kid’s movie, if you’ve seen Inside Out, you’ll most likely agree it was anything but.

‘Inside Out’ is about how five emotions- personified as the characters Anger, Disgust, Fear, Sadness and Joy grapple for control of the mind of an 11 year old girl named Riley during the tumult of a move from Minnesota to San Francisco. (The Science of ‘Inside Out’, NYT, 7/5/15)

Riley’s personality is principally defined by Joy who is determined to maintain that primary position in Riley’s life even though Riley is beginning to experience the upheaval of pre-adolescence in addition to her family’s cross country move.

While some of the movie takes place out in the real world the majority takes place inside the precincts of Riley’s mind. Not as a dream sequence but in the ‘head-quarters’ where her experiences are monitored and her memories are made.

In the movie, every joyful experience or memory is represented by a golden sphere. Memories that are disgusting…like eating broccoli pizza for the first time- green. Fear- purple….Anger….Red….and sadness….blue. Joy, wants every memory to be golden and begins to panic when sadness suddenly seems to be taking center stage. To Joy every experience, every moment MUST be a happy one or all will not be well in Riley’s world.

Over the course of the movie, however, Joy comes to understand the important role that Sadness (and anger, disgust and fear) play in Riley’s life and development as a human being. And the adult viewer is not only given a primer on how to approach pre-adolescent children but we are poignantly reminded of how important those moments of awareness have been, even when they lead to melancholy. They help form us into empathetic and caring and yes, happy, human beings.

Strange to think about, but sadness actually is a necessary component of our well-being. And while modern society tends to emphasize buoyancy and cheerfulness Suffering and disappointment are core parts to universal experience. (Hannah Jacobs, Happify). There is simply no way to avoid grief and loss. From the death of a loved one, to the end of a relationship. From losing a job, to confronting sickness and pain in ourselves or for others in our lives. To ignore them does not make us any happier. To acknowledge and work through our melancholy or despair not only keeps us honest, but often brings others to us to offer love and support and by extension strength and resiliency. Each of these attributes is a necessary component to a rich and fulfilling life. Azeh Hu Ashir…ha Samecah b’chelko.

Aspect #3 Hana’a—enjoyment of something specific.

Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech Ha-Olam.

Shehecianu, vikiyamanu, v’higianu lazman ha-zeh.

Blessed are you Adonai Our God, ruler of the Universe.

For keeping us alive, sustaining us and enabling us to arrive at this time.

Shehechianu…it’s a blessing that thanks God for sustaining our lives so that we can experience a moment of joy. We say it at the beginning of holidays and festivals, at b’nei mitzvah and baby namings at a brit milah- at many holy occasions. It’s a wonderfully accessible tool to help us express a feeling of sacredness, of gratefulness and goodness at having the opportunity to be with others and mark an important occasion.

Similar to those morning blessings we spoke about…the nisim b’chol yom, shehechianu reminds us to be mindful of what is going on around us. But unlike the nisim b’chol yom which are all about the ‘me’. Shehechianu is about the ‘we’. It’s in the plural…as so many prayers of gratitude are. And I would say, considering we say it at moments that tend to bring family and or friends and or community together it is a uniquely wonderful opportunity to define ‘living joyously’ with all the complexity such living entails.

Over the course of my life I’ve been to a lot of b’nei mitzvah. And considering I am a rabbi, I’d say that other than Rabbi Stahl and Cantor Berlin I’ve been to more than most if not all of the people here tonight. Each is special in its own way. Yet when I think about my own children’s b’nei mitzvah particularly my son Isaac, who will be called to Torah this coming Spring, I find myself experiencing a very particular kind of happiness.

Just imagining him up here on the bimah often makes me start to cry.

You could say these are ‘tears of joy’. And you’d be right. But to leave it at that doesn’t really do my feelings justice. It’s such a jumble of contradictory emotions this Ha-na-ah. There is pride at thinking about what my child will accomplish. Anxiety at how he will actually get there. Gladness to anticipate being with dear family and friends from near and far. People we miss seeing all the time, friends we are so grateful to have made here already. Wistfulness to recognize how childhood is fleeting--my little boy is not so small anymore. Sadness thinking of those who are gone, who would have LOVED to be here. And joy…that a moment that has been anticipated since the day he was born has finally arrived!

Most people say milestones such as these are some of ‘the happiest days of their lives.’ But I think its happiness in that more complicated kind of way. The happiness comes not from everything being perfect and not from having it all turn out exactly the way you would have imagined, but in having made choices and lived our lives in a way that has enabled us to get there. Having arrived at that moment IS the celebration.

How much richer to acknowledge all the ups and downs the tears and laughter, the frustration and triumphs that make up the layers of such a happy moment, rather than to project perfection. As I tell every family as we get ready to walk onto the bimah through the President’s Room door. It won’t be perfect, but it WILL be wonderful.

Shouldn’t that be our perspective on life as well?

Osher—a rich yearning for inner peace and a life of meaning.

Ora— the light and joy that come from awareness and bringing uplift to others.

Hana’a—the enjoyment we experience from a specific moment in time. These are some of the ways we build a rich life in which we are sameach b’chelkeinu- Happy with our portion.

Happy with the time we take to appreciate what is around us. Happy with the depth of experiences and relationships we share. Happy with the blessings of fulfilled expectations, knowing full well that perfect they are not.

Ultimately happiness is grounded, not in some idealized existence, but in learning to appreciate the opportunities that present themselves within our complicated, far from perfect life itself. Azeh Hu-Ashir? Ha-Sameach b’ Chelko.

As we continue to move forward into our new year, may we each in our own way embrace the potential for happiness and holiness within our community and within ourselves, challenging ourselves to maintain perspective, integrating the wealth of emotions we experience into the larger view, celebrating the journey we are so privileged to share together, and truly discovering happiness in the life we have been granted to live.