Below is my Rosh Hashanah Evening Sermon for 5774.
Shanah Tovah u’metukah-I want to wish each of you a happy and sweet New Year! Tonight we have begun our New Year’s observance with exuberance, with music and song, and reflection. Thank you to Cantor Saltzman to our student Rabbi Jeremy Gimbel and our musical director Lisa Sylvester and are musicians. You have helped us create a place of pure happiness, especially as we live in a world of chaos.
As this holiday arrives we wish one another Shana Tovah tikateivu. We wish one another Happy New year and good inscription in the Book of Life. This is our way of saying we hope it is a good year for you. We hope it is a happy year for you. The New Year comes with a promise, a hope, a dream of happiness.
Our Declaration of Independence declared that each citizen shall have the inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness! This perhaps more than many other written guidelines have defined the American ideal. Each of us as citizens, whether native born or naturalized has, as the founders of our Country held, has the God-given right to these three things.
Tonight as the New Year begins I want to focus on the pursuit of happiness. This wish we give one another to have a happy life. It is our entitlement, our right as Americans to have the liberty and freedom, to pursue our happiness. After all isn’t living a happy life our goal? We all want to be happy. Even the philosopher Aristotle wrote so long ago: Happiness then, is the end of action… –the whole point of life!
Many of us spend our own lifetimes trying to search out what will make us “happy”. Sometimes it is a new car. Sometimes it is a special vacation. Sometimes it is pursuing an educational goal. Sometimes happiness is sought through finding the right relationship. It is different for each one of us. It is personal. It is unique.
But the Pursuit of happiness certainly has defined our American ideals. And perhaps just perhaps, it is simply an important part of being human.
For many of us the wonderful decision that brought an end to DOMA-the defense of Marriage Act and the Supreme Court Decision that threw out Prop 8 on an issue of standing-brought a kind of happiness that many of us could have only dreamed of. It was a day of joy; the ultimate expression of our humanity to have a relationship solemnized and to be formally recognized as a family by society.
To be really able to marry the one you love for so many of us has been fleeting. And now that avenue of the pursuit of happiness is available. Will all of you who are getting married or have gotten married since Prop 8 was overturned please stand?
We wish you blessings of peace and joy, health and yes, happiness. May your lives together be entwined with patience and caring through sad times and time of joy. And May you create a home filled with reverence, faith, laughter and hope. Let us all say Amen! (You can be seated)
Now that was a happy moment. But happiness is a state of being not just a state of mind. And there is science to back that up!
Years ago an experiment was conducted in which test subjects were asked to mimic facial expression for six different emotions; happiness, surprise, sadness, anger, fear, and disgust. According to the researches when the subjects showed fear, their skin temperatures dropped and their heart rates increased. Appropriate physical responses were recorded for each of the remaining expressions.
So wouldn’t it make sense to act happy, confident and positive as often as possible? That’s not to say you won’t have sad days or experience any negative feelings. It simply means that by making a choice we can embody and manifest the absolute best for ourselves.
Finding the key to your happiness is not just a matter of your attitude but your health!
As Daisaku Ikeda a Buddhist teacher said: One thing is certain; that is that the power of belief, the power of thought, will move reality in the direction of what we believe and conceive of it. If you really believe you can do something, you can!
You can pursue happiness. And Act happy.
On this first day of the New Year, we Jews are so lucky. We can toss out the past behaviors, errors and sins that block our road to happiness and contentment and we have rituals that are designed to help us move toward greater happiness. We are encouraged to confront the transgressions that muck up our relationships and to sort through them. That’s not always happy business. But the goal during these High Holy Days of our tradition is to lead you through a process that will restore and purify your spirit, purify your soul in an effort to create a space of spiritual contentment. Rosh Hashanah and our traditions try to restore the balance in your life – so that you can be happy.
Judaism recognizes that contentment and peace are huge part of the happiness equation. If you are content with your lot in life, the Mishnah teaches you are rich indeed.
In Jewish tradition that is why we say 100 blessings a day. We try and frame our day with a certain kind of mindfulness. A deep sense of gratitude for everything; from the food we eat, to the ability to get up in the morning, to move your bowels, and to have the chance to learn something new! Everything has a bracha, a blessing. Not to be cumbersome-but to remind you of how much we have to be grateful for each and every day. And the blessing, the bracha, is a way to take an inventory and remind yourself; how happy you should be given the many blessings in your life. The blessing is the antidote to difficult moments. And if you are affirming the goodness in your life, well then you tend not to focus on the irritations and setbacks.
This isn’t to ignore existential pain, physical pain or suffering. These are real and disrupt our inner and outer worlds. And yet even when we are faced with such overwhelming grief or distress, to continue with life we must “count what blessings we have”. Appreciating our blessings, even if they seem few in number help lead us on a path toward greater contentment and the ultimate gift of peace and happiness.
There is a great emphasis on mindfulness meditation. Time and again people are telling me that their doctors and psychologists are recommending they take mindful meditation classes to help with everything from their high blood pressure to their anxiety disorders. This is exactly what prayer is about. We are here these 10 days from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur to engage in mindful meditation about our lives and how to restore our souls and our bodies to a state of equilibrium! We do this each week as Shabbat services. And in truth if you pray daily as a Jew this is the goal! We Jews wrote the book on mindful meditation and how prayer can lead to a fuller, happier life.
A sign in a pet store read, “If anybody has seen the Bluebird of Happiness? It used to live here but seems to have flown away. The bluebird of happiness supposedly flies over the rainbow somewhere, elusive at best. But when we can find it, all happiness and joy can be ours.
But Joy and happiness are not always the same things. Happiness can be thought of as more of a temporary, emotional condition, often based on outside circumstances. Joy, on the other hand, is deeper. It is often contentment in spite of the unsettling present. We can be basically joyful, regardless of a particular unhappy situation that we may be enduring. It is sometimes just a matter of keeping perspective on our troubles, and especially when those troubles seem to be in long supply.
You may know the story of the man who had a marvelous way of keeping joy in his life. He was a carpenter (No, not that carpenter.). He followed the same ritual every day when he came home from the job. He stopped by a small tree in his front yard and placed his hand on a couple of branches. Then,
when he walked into his home, it was as if a magical transformation had occurred. All of a sudden, the stress was lifted from him. He became energetic and joyful, dare I say happy, able to fully interact with his children and his wife.
He explained it this way: “That tree is my trouble tree. When I come home I stop by the tree and, just like I leave my tools in the truck, I leave my troubles outside of my home. I hang them on that tree before greeting my family. Anything that does not have to come in my house stays outside. Anything that I do not have to deal with at home, I leave on that tree. And in the morning, I stop by the tree and pick up the troubles I left there in the evening.”
Then he adds, “It’s a funny thing, though. Every morning I always find fewer troubles remaining than I hung the night before.”
Here is a man who has no doubt seen the Bluebird of Happiness.
Chances are it is nesting in a tree just outside his home.
For most of us we too get so caught up in the things that drag us down during a day that we forget to leave our troubles outside our home. The ancient tale of the bluebird of happiness teaches us that happiness is often found just near our own homes! Happiness and contentment is close to home, with our family and friends who add meaning to our lives.
But studies show one more thing-and that is happiness changes over time—we are not static in our desires and dreams-rather our sense of self and our needs change as we change, as we age. What made us happy at 21 is different than at 40 and different yet again at 70 or 90. We are different people in the course of our own lifetimes.
The Grant Study was a longitudinal study of 238 men who graduated Harvard University in 1938-1940, of course this study might be flawed because it contained no women and tracked college graduates. Nevertheless, it does give us a glimpse into a long time over 75 year study of a group who was monitored and checked with over the course of their lifetimes. And the universality of the results were astounding. There are five lessons that come from this study, (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/08/11/how-this-harvard-psycholo_n_3727229.html)
Love is all that matters, being a part of supporting and caring relationships is the most important factor in this study. But equally important is not pushing away love. Moving from the narcissistic self, focused on the “me”, and being able to move to care deeply about others also was an important factor. We call this maturity. Connections with other people are a must especially as we get older. As we age our circles of people who cared about us gets smaller and so for our own longevity, and reduction of stress we need other people. Money and Power was not the key to happiness, it contributed something to the equation but when measured against the full life, the biggest factor was contentment at work. You can make a lot of money but be miserable at your job and the money isn’t comforting in the end. It might make things easier but true contentment and peace comes from the satisfaction you get from your work. Finally, the ability to change your perspective-make lemonade out of lemons is crucial. These five factors were the results of this long term study.
But how do we get there? What tools do we have for helping us find the secrets to a happier life? Many Jews look elsewhere, they seek it out in Buddhist practice, they explore political philosophies and politics as if it is their religion. They try new age spiritualties as an authentic expression that they can relate to. I went to a service at Agape with a friend not so long ago and there were more Jews sitting there than here tonight!
My dear friends, I want to let you in on a secret. Judaism is an age-old recipe for living a life of happiness. Perhaps you don’t know it well. Perhaps you didn’t have a strong Jewish education, perhaps the Hebrew has been a barrier or you think the only brand of Judaism that is authentic is an Orthodox one. And you say to yourself I can never do all those things like stop driving on Shabbat or wear those clothes or only eat kosher. I know more people in this room that limit their kind of food in one way or another-some of you are vegan, or gluten free, or carb free, or dairy free. You have the discipline and capacity to live out your values in your food consumption.
But if you look at contemporary Judaism, even as we age and our focus on what makes us happy as human beings, Judaism is really a constant. It reminds us that we ought to live in a moral universe and we human beings ought to live our lives no matter what age we are—seeking contentment and happiness through the goodness of our character and, as the Grant study at Harvard showed the relationships we build. .
Judaism teaches us happiness comes not from things but from relationship. Just a tree blooms and bears fruit from the watering of stream as it says in the first chapter of Psalms, a person has contentment when they have right relationships with people and with their Higher Power-that we Jews call God. When we water and nurture our spirits and our good character then we are on the path toward happiness. For these next ten days we are focused on getting right in our relationships. This is a time to own up to your mistakes, this is time to make amends. These next 10 days are part of your natural Jewish path towards a life of happiness, contentment and peace.
Our tradition –teaches happiness is not found in external things but within ourselves-
“A truly happy person does not allow his happiness to be dependent on any external factor over which he may not have control.” (Chochmah Umussar, vol.2, pp.331-2) Teaches an ancient Jewish text.
The happiness factor in Judaism comes not from how much money one has or how big a home, because our tradition teaches that things are fleeting. As the book of Ecclesiastes taught us that everything, all labor can add up to is nothing but vanities—one day we are have money and the next it can be gone with the whims of the market. We all sat here at Rosh Hashanah 2008 in panic because the accounts we had were tanking. Money comes and goes, jobs are not forever but to be truly happy is to be content in yourself. That is the key to happiness according to Jewish tradition is to be someone who is just and kind and moral. Be a person who is a mensch. Then we will know true happiness because we will find that contentment comes when we have made peace with ourselves, peace with our loved ones and peace with God.
The key to happiness is not out there. But in Here. In You. The key to happiness can begin on this Rosh Hashanah and help you re-order, re-prioritize and return to yourself. That is the nature of Teshuvah. It helps us return to the pursuit of happiness grounded in our authentic selves. Thus equipped we can through the process of these High Holy Days, seek authentic relationships, feel love, feel our own worth, and remember that God made you just as you are. The Sound of the Shofar is calling to you to remind you of that spark inside you that is God’s presence and can radiate through you into the world. When you let that spark shine through your actions, your mitzvoth, and your attitude it will change you for the better. There was a boy, whose family was very wealthy. One day his father took him on a trip to the country, where he aimed to show his son, how poor people live. So they arrived at a farm of a very poor family, as he considered. They spent several days there. On their return, the father asked his son, did he like the trip. “Oh, it was great, dad” – the boy replied. “Did you notice, how poor people live?”. “Yeah, I did” – said the boy. The father asked his son to tell in more details about his impressions from their trip.
“Well, we have only one dog, and they have four of them. In our garden there is a pool, while they have a river that has no end. We‘ve got expensive lanterns, but they have stars above their heads at night. We have the patio, and they have the whole horizon. We have only a small piece of land, while they have the endless fields. We buy food, but they grow it. We have high fence for protection of our property, and they don‘t need it, as their friends protect them.”
The father was stunned he could not say a word. Then the boy added: “Thank you, dad, for letting me see how poor we really are.”
This story shows that the true wealth as well as happiness are not measured by materials things. Love, friendship and freedom are far more valuable. And it also shows us the very point of the Grant Study-that our perspective and attitude and ability to make lemonade from lemons is the greatest measure of attaining happiness.
In other words, our attitudes and our outlook matter in the pursuit of happiness. So how in this year of 5774 will you be engaged in the pursuit of happiness? Will it merely be acquiring more things? OR chasing after vanities? Or can you shift your perception to include a focus on your inner being, your character, your attitude of gratitude in the world? Can you use these High Holy Days to enhance the pursuit of happiness, the meaning of life and your Jewish birthright to lift you to higher planes of spirituality, contentment and peace?
Rosh Hashanah is called Yom Harat Olam, The day the world was born.
Is it literally the birthday of the world—exploding into a new year-a new time, this is the chance to have tonight, Rosh Hashanah be the beginning of a new world for you. So sound the Shofar at the arrival of your re-birth. Sound the shofar that the new you is soon arriving. Sound tekiah in welcome of a commitment to a new way, a change in our attitude, healing our relationships with self, and one another and God and yes connecting in a community built on Jewish ethics and values that guide us today and into the future as well.
Ken Yehi Ratzon so may it be God’s Will