My Rosh Hashana Sermon on Happiness

These are the notes from my sermon on Rosh Hashana on happiness. They are not really in essay form, because I like to talk instead of speak, which is a little more formal. I think they might be useful and give the main ideas. Please feel free to share them.

If you have any questions please let me know.

Last November I attended Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management seminar for Jewish non-profits.

Most of the Professors were not Jewish. One asked what Jews want from Judaism. I offered an answer. I said people want to be happy. Most colleagues disagreed strongly. I was surprised, but knew I had a rosh hashana sermon.

Best reason to live Jewishly is because it can make you happy. Or at least happier. Otherwise there is really no point.

Rabbi Nachman said, -Mitzvah gedola lhiyot bsimcha. It is a great precept to find a way to be in a state of happiness.

Psalm 100 says that we connect most spirituality when we approach life in happiness.

Word for happiness is in Hebrew is simcha, which means happiness despite what is going on, not because of. It is an inner sense of well being not dependent on anything else. Not about fun or the pursuit of pleasure, though Judaism believes these things are important, too. It is not about getting what you want when you want it. It is about understanding that the world is what it is, and though we can try to make it better, we cannot fix or change everything.

It is about finding something to celebrate everyday, no matter how small a thing that may be.

Judaism cares more about the small everyday thing, than the big occasional event.

Reasons for people not being happy

1-knein a hora, poo poo poo theory. “Keep away the evil eye.” We are so afraid of losing what we have, we do not enjoy life as full as we could. Instead, when you have something good in your lifetry to think good thoughts about others, and that good should come to them.

2-Pain, sometimes physical and chronic pain. Pain of loss. Pain of not getting things to be exactly the way you want them to be. The pain of getting what you want, but not being able to hold on to it or keep it from changing.

3-Hollowness and emptiness- a whole in our heart, lack of self worth. The feeling of being ignored.

Being unhappy can have devastating consequences for ourselves, our loved ones and the people around us. These feelings cause us to be angry and judgmental, and when we are we cannot be happy.

No one who is happy and feeling in balance says to themselves, how can I mess this up for myself and my family.

We do very destructive things to end the pain or fill the hollowness.

Alcohol, drugs, gambling. I was lucky that I never found substances appealing, and I lost a week’s salary in 3 card monte game in high school, so I don’t find gambling appealing. But Food. Food. It’s everywhere. They sell it to kids. Even in school.

Before I continue, Let me say a word about others in our lives who may be unhappy. There is not much you can do. They are not unhappy about anything, they are just unhappy and looking for excuses. This is important to remember during time of family simchas, like weddings and bar and bat mitzvahs. Obligation of guest to make celebrants happy, not obligation of celebrants to make guests happy. Unhappy people will have plenty of chances to be unhappy. Each simcha is once in a life time for the person.

You might be pleasantly surprised how much nicer people are when you act a little happier.

Judaism provides a way to approach life in a happier and better way. This happiness is a fundamental and indispensable part of Judaism and can help with the pain and the loneliness.

I think it is the only reason God created us. Parents don’t have children to make them miserable. At least not at first. God is our parent and has given us the potential to be happy. Whether we choose to is up to us.

I am going to take you through a Jewish day and to the end of the week to show that Jewish living is structured to make us happier and feel better about our lives, no matter what.

The rituals and ideas were created when the world was just as terrible place as it is today. Our sages were not naïve, but refused to give in to the misery around. They believed their joy could change the world for the better. We are descended from them.

Modeh ani- I thank, therefor I am. Grateful for being alive, with the opportunity to do good during the day. Amazing that we get to be a person. If grandpa misses the boat to ellis island, or a caveman had a bad day with a saber tooth tiger, maybe some of you are not here.

Asher yatzer-awareness of our body, and how much goes right even when things are not perfect or are starting to fall apart. It is not just the spirit that starts to sag a little. It is also an acknowledgement of new normals in our life and how we can adjust to them, not easily or comfortably, but often well.

A woman with cancer when she started really paying attention to her body realized all the places that she was not sick, that she was well. She was not sick. There was sickness in her body.

We may have to let others take care of us, and be happy that we are giving them a chance to do a mitzvah. This is very hard when we are used to being the helper, but it may help us handle these things in a better way.

Elohai neshama, The soul within me is pure. There is no such thing as a tainted our impure soul, only bad actions. No accidental souls. No one is an accident. Maybe a surprise, but indispensable.

Torah blessings. Laasok bdivrei torah. To involve ourselves in living a deep and spiritual life.

Uniting physical and spiritual, making body and soul friends.  Reminder that we are here to do good things for others, which means we are always needed. The purpose of a mitzvah is a reminder of how much the world needs our unique abilities and gifts. That is why our tradition says, schar mitzvah mitzvah, the reward of having done a good thing is the opportunity to do another. We always have value no matter what.

One of the biggest causes of depression outside of clinical causes is a sense that we are not needed. The concept of mitzvah means we are always needed, and just for who we are. We only need to be ourselves to be of infinite worth.

Shema-If you stop and listen, you will hear that all things are connected and you are part of that connection. We feel alienated and disconnected from the world. Shema says if we pay attention, we will realize we are part of the infinite potential of the universe, and that we have a place in it. We are not strangers in a strange world, but full citizens of it.

First paragraph of shema says, anochi mitzavcha hayom. It is not that I command you on this day, but that the command itself is TODAY! Live your life fully today. The past is gone and the future is unknown. Living in either of those states is guaranteed to make you unhappy. Happiness is only possible if you are living today.

Amidah-private prayer. We are thankful for our gifts and abilities, and think about how we can bring peace and well being to others. All others in the world, not just people we like, but people we do not know, or do not like.

We should always include something personal, not just the words in the book.

Sylvia Boorstein said her prayer is may I meet each moment fully and may I meet it as a friend.

Enough prayer. Let’s talk about food.

Blessings over food. Pretty specific. It is to get away from same old same old. You may have had a tuna sandwich for lunch a million times, and maybe you will a million more, but the blessing is the realization that you never had that specific one, and never will again. Realizing the uniqueness of the moment will make it a much happier experience. A reminder to pay attention as we eat. We will eat more slowly, enjoy it more and maybe make better decisions.

This fall at the synagogue we are introducing the Lchayim project. Becoming better friends with our bodies and what we eat.

Thoughts for the workday. The chassidic rabbis said that serving others as best we could was something we should feel happy about. No matter what we do, we can make someone’s day better. Even if we think kind thoughts toward them, we can make them a little happier.

Driving to work-think compassionate thoughts. Probably not true, but you will be less angry and aggravated.

Six days a week, we are happy because of the great things we can do for others in making the world better. This is called the joy of the mitzvah. Doing these precepts makes us happier, even if we just do one.

Shabbat though, is simcha shel chelek. The joy that comes from who we are right now, and what we have in our lives right now. As a great master said, there is  no where to go, nothing to do, no one to be. For twenty five hours we and the world are perfect and whole. Those we love are perfect and whole. They don’t need advice or to be changed. We are simply happy in our perfection. Shabbat shalom, the peaceful feeling that comes from wholeness.

End of shabbat is maybe the most important part. We take that feeling of wholeness into the week.

Symbolized by havdallah. We hold our hands to the light to remind us that we are made of light, that the light of our souls is our true self, and that soul is pure. Midrash about light and skin.

At havdallah, we say, lyehudim hayata ora vimcha. That we had light and joy. We say this at the end of shabbat to remind us that happiness and joy is what God wants for us all the time, if we just allowed it to happen.

I know there are people going through very difficult times, and there are times when we must mourn, or be angry in our grief. But most of life is an opportunity for happiness.

Rabbi Alan Lew in his book Be Still and Get Going talked about a teaching of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik. We often now talk about the good old days as though they really weren’t that great, and that we are just nostalgic.

Soloveitchik said that those days really were that great, but that we just do not notice them until they have passed.

Study at Alyn hospital about happiness. It turns out that the patients in the hospital had about the same level of happiness as their care givers. The single determining factor  is whether the person felt valued.

I believe the purpose of Judaism is to make us realize that all of us have great value, and that every day we live can be that great and that we can be happy if we pay attention to the endless opportunities we have to help others, and the endless moments of joy we can have in what we have when we pay attention.

There will never be a better day than today. Until tomorrow. I wish us all a year of joyous and happy todays.

One thought on “My Rosh Hashana Sermon on Happiness

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  1. Wonderful sermon———–it is astounding to me that most of the other Rabbis disagreed that what people want most is to be happy———-shocking———-I do agree with you, though, happiness trumps all else————Marv Trimas

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