The Rabbis of the Talmud, however, thought differently. They boldly recorded that: “Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said: There were no days as joyous for the Jewish people as the fifteenth of Av and as Yom Kippur…”
In one sentence, the rabbis urge us to relax a little, and feel joy on this day…claiming that it is one of the two happiest days of the Jewish year, equivalent to the 15th of Av, otherwise known as Jewish Valentine’s Day.
Zeh hayom asah adonai. Nagilah v’nismichah vo. This is the day, the Psalmist proclaims, that the Holy One has made. Be glad and rejoice in it.
Another year has arrived, and so we are filled with gladness and blessing, happy for the opportunity to wipe our slates clean.
But as we turn inward, I would ask: are we really happy?
The United Nations, which measures happiness, suggests that we aren’t. America has recently 14th internationally and we can’t help but wonder: how come Norway and Canada are happier than we are?
We New Yorkers, living in the unhappiest area of the country, are doing our part to try to overcome these blues. We’ve been on the leading edge of “wellness” as we seek to bolster our fitness, spirituality, and mental health - all in the hope of being happier. We spend $27 billion just on yoga annually! And we can’t walk down a city street without passing a pilates or meditation studio aimed at transforming us into better, happier people.
Judaism whole-heartedly endorses wellness. After all, Yom Kippur is the Jewish poster-child for wellness. This is the day we recommit to becoming better versions of ourselves.
But before we train for that marathon or go vegan…let’s pause and consider why we’re struggling with unhappiness in the first place.
I’d like to share three perspectives with you this evening. In a moment we’ll consider happiness in connection with those whom we are closest to; and we’ll consider happiness in the context of how we relate to ourselves. But let’s begin more globally, considering the question of happiness as it relates to our connection with the wider world, and particularly those in our country and around the world who have less than we do.
Psychologists tell us that once our income reaches $75,000 a year, wealth no longer impacts our happiness. This explains why American happiness has actually decreased over the last few decades, even as incomes have risen.
Dr. Shige Oishi of UVA theorizes about the role of a country’s income gap in this happiness paradox. His data suggests that the smaller the income gap, the happier the average person in that country is.
We Jews have reaped extraordinary blessings in this land during the last 200 years. And so we are uniquely positioned to respond to our country’s income gap, where the top 10% of all earners make more than 9 times that of the bottom 90%. In choosing to address this crisis, we can increase our happiness and that of others, on two separate fronts.
From a public policy point of view: we could advocate to insure that those who are most economically vulnerable have access to the resources they need in order to survive and prosper. Gaining inspiration from the Book of Proverbs, which notes: "speak up, judge righteously, champion the poor and the needy,” our Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism encourages us to work together to increase the minimum wage, create more affordable housing opportunities, and protect existing child nutrition programs.
Beyond public policy, we can address the income gap by becoming even more generous with the tzedakah we share with others. There are remarkable not-for-profit organizations that address economic justice, and by making a gift, you can partner in this sacred work. I am thinking of Mazon, the leading Jewish response to American hunger. And I am thinking of American Jewish World Service, the leading Jewish organization promoting development in the Global South.
I encourage you to contribute to Mazon, to AJWS, and to their allies. Not just because they are effective change agents, and not just because Judaism has always stood up for the poor, but because our tradition teaches us that we become happier, more fulfilled versions of ourselves when we share with the world around us. In that spirit, Psalm 41 notes: “Happy is the one who is mindful of the needs of the poor.”
But happiness isn’t just a question of how we relate to those who are in need. It is also a question of how we relate to the social networks made up of those closest to us. Judaism, at its core, is social. Our traditional has always believed that our sense of meaning and happiness is reliant on the health of our interpersonal relationships.
Of course, to be in relationship with others is not always easy. When we make ourselves emotionally vulnerable with anoter, we know that there’s always the chance we might get hurt.
Woody Allen argues that all unhappiness grows from this conundrum, noting:
“To love is to suffer. Therefore, to avoid suffering one must avoid love. But then one suffers from not loving. Therefore […], to suffer is to suffer.”
But why are our interpersonal lives causing so much unhappiness?
For decades, our bonds with one another have been degrading. Robert Putnam called his opus on the subject Bowling Alone. There he chronicled how we once socialized with neighbors in bowling alleys and fraternal clubs. Those interactions became the building blocks for lifelong friendships. If a loved one died, friends visited with condolences, hugs and food. Today: we have “Facebook Friends.” And all we expect from them is a one sentence message online.
Something’s lost in this shift, because there is an emerging perception that showing up in person no longer matters. And that’s diminishing our happiness.
25 years ago, the average American found emotional support from three people they felt close enough to confide in. Today, we have on average two, except that one quarter of Americans don’t have any.
So…another thing we can do to increase our happiness is to tend to our social lives. Spend more time with those we care about to cultivate support to carry us through the course of our lives.
There are so many different places we can spend that quality time with others, especially here at our synagogue.
Yes: we come to pray, learn, and serve. But we do all that here because there’s something powerful about sharing this space with others who express similar values. Right here, you’ll find others who want the same things for themselves, and their children.
On Erev Rosh HaShanah, I alluded to the “Worship Revolution” that Cantor Becker and I have planned for the year ahead. And perhaps you have seen the signs in the lobbies. We are excited to dedicate the year ahead to our worship experience, intentionally creating new spaces of prayer, study, service (and meal sharing) - all so that we might get to know one another even better. We do this in accordance with the teaching of Martin Buber, who wrote that: “all real living is meeting [others].”
Finally: I’d like to examine happiness in the context of how we relate to ourselves.
We are hard-wired into believing happiness is our God-given right. The Declaration of Independence guarantees life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It’s apparently our right to always be happy.
We see this in kids’ sports, where everyone is a winner and gets a trophy. And we see it in the workplace: where we speak of “opportunities for growth” instead of shortcomings or weaknesses.
But there is a danger in this. Psychologists argue that the more we try to protect each others’ feelings, the less equipped we’ll be to actually navigate sadness in our lives. And the more we emphasize being happy all the time, the less happy we are, because we are constantly measuring our internal unhappiness.
There is a Jewish response to this, suggesting that we resist the urge to be happy all the time. Be open instead to the rich spectrum of emotions that life sends our way, training ourselves to simply “be” and “sit with” the feelings of the moment.
We will see this approach illustrated in tomorrow morning’s Torah reading, when we’ll read these words from Deuteronomy 30: “When all these things befall you—the blessing and the curse that I have set before you—you shall take them to heart…”
Rabbi Harold Kushner puts a positive spin on the Torah’s reference to curses, teaching that blessings are found within curses. He writes: “There is no calamity that does not have a kernel of blessing concealed within.”
But there’s a larger teaching that can emerge from the verse: a sensitive Jewish awareness that life isn’t just happiness and joy and blessing. There are curses - sad, painful, and frustrating moments that we all have to navigate over the course of our lives. We need not be afraid to admit that.
The notion that we should permit ourselves the full range of emotions is reflected in our calendar. In 5778, we will be sad on Yom HaShoah, as we remember the Holocaust…and we will be irreverently silly on Purim.
We also seek the midpoint between joy and sorrow by bringing both into Jewish rituals. Think about how a Jewish wedding ends. After the couple happily kisses, we dramatically shatter glass.
Isn’t it shocking that brokenness is inserted into joy? The reason is balance. At the happiest moments of our lives, we acknowledge sadness too.
On this day in which we resolve to be new and improved versions of ourselves…yes: let us take better care of our bodies, our minds and our souls. But yoga and wellness won’t automatically make us happier.
Our tradition counsels us, instead, to share our abundance with others; to build social networks filled with friends and family who are present for us, even as we are present for them; and to create an inner emotional life that is open to the moment, whether we are feeling happy or sad or both.
Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav speaks of interconnectedness that is happiness. He writes: “We reach out in three directions. We reach upwards: to lift up the ones around us who are in need. We reach outwards: to discover the community before us, those we are closest to. And we reach internally, to discover our own selves. And the miracle of creation is that when we reach out in one direction, we automatically make contact in all three.”
May this year be a year of dreaming, achieving, and believing. But most of all: may this be a year of reaching - for the fulfillment and happiness we so yearn to know. Keyn Yhi Ratzon - may this be God’s will.