Friday, September 26, 2014

Recipe for Happiness (Rabbi Jonathan Miller, Temple Emanu-El, Birmingham, AL, Rosh HaShanah, 2014/5775)

Sermon: Rosh Hashanah, 5755, 2014
Rabbi Jonathan Miller
Temple Emanu-El
Birmingham, Alabama

U'ntaneh tokef kedushat hayom ki hu norah v'ayom. Uvo t'nasseh malchutecha, v'yakun b'hessed kisecha, v'tashev alav b'emet. Let us declare the sacred power of this day. It is awesome and full of dread. For on this day your dominion is exalted. Your throne is established in steadfast love. There, in truth You reign.

In truth you are Judge and Arbiter, Counsel and Witness. You write and You seal. You record and recount. You remember deeds long forgotten. You open the book of our days, and what is written there proclaims itself, for it bears the signature of every human being.

The great shofar is sounded. The still, small voice is heard; the angels, gripped by fear and trembling, declare in awe: This is the Day of Judgment! . . .

And then the words that awaken every slumbering soul--the words that frighten even the most complacent and skeptical:

As the shepherd seeks out his flock, and makes the sheep pass under his staff, so do You muster and number and consider every soul, setting the bounds of every creature's life, and decreeing its destiny.

Now comes the confines of our mortal lives:

On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed: How many shall pass on, how many shall come to be; who shall live and who shall die; who shall see ripe age and who shall not; who by fire and who by water, who by sword and who by beast, who by hunger and who by thirst; who by earthquake and who by plague; who by strangling and who by stoning?

Yes, the poem tells us, you have made it this far. You have made it to another Rosh Hashanah. Our New Year celebrations are fixed in number, but we have made it to the Sanctuary. So far so good. If you have gotten this far, dayeinu, we have enough for us to be grateful for our lives.

But the poem does not end here. It then addresses the quality of our lives.

Who shall be secure and who shall be driven; who shall be tranquil and who shall be troubled; who shall be poor and who shall be rich; who shall be humbled and who exalted?

And finally hope. No matter how challenging our lives might have been, no matter how challenging our life is today, no matter how uncertain our times or our destiny,

Repentance, prayer, and charity temper Judgment's severe decree!"

This 13th century poem examines human frailty and the cauldron of life's uncertainties and asks all of life's pressing questions, except one. The poet does not ask, "Who shall be happy, and who shall be unhappy?" And I think it should. Because attaining happiness is the most important task a human being can achieve. And happiness too often eludes us as we work our way through the years. Like a rainbow, we love happiness and we are awed by it. But when we run to grab its pot of gold and make it ours, it disappears out of sight. "Who will be happy and who will not?" That is the hardest question. Even the U'ntaneh Tokef doesn't tackle this one.

It is the hardest question because happiness means different things to different people at different times in life. What exactly is happiness, and how do we measure it? The man who works a lifetime and builds a million dollar nest egg is happy with his accomplishment. The man who has millions of dollars tucked away and earns another million dollars, his earnings will not bring him happiness. The woman who drinks an occasional glass of wine at dinner, that wine will make her happy. The woman who drinks a bottle of wine every night, that wine will not bring her happiness.

I used to think that the most difficult human questions were these: Why do we live? Why do good people suffer? What is the meaning of life? As I have matured, I have learned to live with my deep questions and my shallow answers.

Why do we live? Because God gave us life. I am good with that.

Why do good people suffer? Because they do. Suffering is by its nature unfair. That is the best answer I have.

What is the meaning of life? Perform mitzvot and serve God with a full heart.

These are life’s hard questions. I can only offer easy answers. But the questions surrounding happiness: What exactly is it? How do we get it? And how do we keep it? These are the hardest questions a person can answer and the greatest puzzle to human life.

On Sukkot, two weeks from now, we will read the book of Ecclesiastes. According to tradition, King Solomon wrote this book in his old age. He described how happiness has eluded him. He sought happiness in laughter and merriment and the pleasures of the flesh. But these did not bring him happiness. As enjoyable as laughter and pleasure are--and we should enjoy the things which bring us pleasure--a life devoted to pleasure will soon grow tiresome. One cannot build happiness on a foundation of laughter and merriment and pleasure.

King Solomon sought happiness in wealth and success. And he achieved more than any man in his generation. He built palaces and gardens and amassed fortunes of silver and gold, more riches and beauty than the eye could behold. But he realized that he would leave behind all of his accomplishments. And my friends, to add insult to his injury, he realized that another person, a person who did not earn what he labored to achieve would enjoy the wealth that he accumulated throughout his life. Wealth is much better than poverty, but happiness cannot be bought.

King Solomon sought happiness in wisdom. But the more he knew, the more troubled he became. Knowledge and wisdom do not make us happy. He shared the sobering observation that the wise man and the fool share the same fate. The knowledge and wisdom we work so diligently to accumulate disappears with us when we are laid to rest.

And my friends, while we seek out happiness, paradoxically, unhappiness plays a constructive role in our lives. At some basic level, if we were not discontent with what we have and who we are, why would we strive to create anything or take on new challenges? If we are content with what we know, why bother to learn anything new? And if we are content in our relationships with our parents, siblings and children--and if we are content with the love we give and receive from our life's partners and our appointed tasks, why even bother to work to make our relationships better and more fulfilling as the years and decades progress. A settled life is an unfulfilled life. A life of ease is not the same as a life filled with happiness. We cannot attain happiness unless we also endure a dose or two of unhappiness. The two opposites are a pair.

So what are we human beings to do? To sum up Ecclesiastes' conclusion: Enjoy all the pleasures to which we are entitled, but happiness will not come to us from enjoying our pleasures. Earn money and appreciate the comforts and security that wealth can bring, but happiness will not come from earning money and accumulating wealth. Fill the mind with wisdom, but know that wisdom will not make us happy. So what are we human beings to do?

I am going to share with you my five part recipe for happiness.

My first ingredient in my recipe for happiness is forgiveness. People who bear their grudges--that they have rightfully earned on the playing field of life--will find that happiness will elude them. Even when we are justified in our anger and sadness and disappointment, at some point we need to give it up and let it go. Rosh Hashanah is the Day of Judgment. And we ask God for forgiveness. But not only does God judge us, but we judge others too. With Divine wisdom, God did not appoint us to be judge and arbiter, counsel and witness. At some time in our lives all of us will give up our hurts and disappointments. When we are laid to rest, we will not take our resentments to heaven. We would be happier today if we laid our resentments now on the altar of forgiveness, rather than keep them clutched tight in our hearts.

My second ingredient in my recipe for happiness is satisfaction. It is hard for the human spirit to be satisfied. We feel that we have to be the very best. But few of us will ever earn a gold medal, and none of us will earn a gold medal in everything we undertake. Instead of working to be the best in everything we do, we ought to strive to be good at what we take on and become better in the future. Perfection is impossible. Incremental betterness is within our reach. Be satisfied with what is good about you and your lives, and focus your energies on how you might be better and do better.

My third ingredient in my recipe for happiness is appreciation. Appreciate more. People can be so critical. We can be so quick to find fault and pass judgment, and for what purpose? Of course, we cannot expect that all of our efforts are our best, and criticism can be necessary to help others and help us improve. But too many people focus their constant attention on the things that need improvement, and praise comes infrequently. How does an attitude of criticism make anyone happier with the people they love, their community, or their own view of themselves? We all know people who are fault finders. They are insufferable. And when we shine the light of truth honestly on ourselves, we all know that we can voice plenty of fault and dissatisfaction with people we are closest to. If we would have just a glimpse of our critical selves through the eyes of others, most of us would be shocked. Here he comes again. She is ready and willing to spread her doom and gloom. Happy people make happiness. Unhappy people make unhappiness. The Dali Lama said about the happy person, "It is better to want what you have than to have what you want." And I would like to take the Dali Lama's wisdom and apply it to us. "It is better to be who you are than to strive to be who you are not." Appreciate what you have and who you are, and appreciate what others have and who they are, and in the future you will capture some more happiness in your life.

My fourth ingredient in my happiness recipe is for us to live with concern for others. But we intuit the opposite. When we put ourselves at the center of the universe, we won't find ourselves increasing our happiness over time. How many times do we engage in a conversation, and it is as though the person on the other end of the line is not even there? Notice how often we talk about ourselves. One would think that with the rise of social media, with the fact that we can have thousands of friends on Facebook and be followed by a multitude on Twitter, that we should always be happy. But Facebook and Twitter can add to our existential unhappiness. Because all we do is talk about ourselves. When we are the center of the universe, we lose our happiness. Again, words from the Dali Lama:

Consider the following. We humans are social beings. We come into the world as the result of others' actions. We survive here in dependence on others. Whether we like it or not, there is hardly a moment of our lives when we do not benefit from others' activities. For this reason it is hardly surprising that most of our happiness arises in the context of our relationships with others.

Make other people matter, and when you do, you will be happier.

My fifth ingredient in my happiness recipe is faith. But faith is not a simple declaration that we believe in God. God should be the last thing that engages a faithful person. Before we can get to God, we have to believe that our lives have significance; that our struggles matter for something; that other people matter to us; and that fairness and justice mean something. Before we can believe in God, we have to live In such a way that God believes in us. I believe that our dedication to others and our willingness to sacrifice what we desire for ourselves to enhance the greater good is what it means to believe in God. God is not simply some abstraction or some formulaic utterance. The living God lives in us, and we live with the knowledge that life existed before us, and will continue beyond us, and that our struggles have meaning. So when we are kind and generous, when we reach out to someone struggling or suffering, when we place others before ourselves, when we show gratitude and appreciation for the magnificent world in which we live and create for ourselves a purposeful life, we then can say we believe in God. The Higher Power is just that, the world beyond ourselves that we strive to engage with our best selves.

So these are the five ingredients that we need to create our own happiness recipe. You can mix the ingredients as you wish, but nobody gets to be happy without a proper measure of forgiveness, satisfaction, appreciation, concern for others, and faith. Only with these elements in place will our lives make sense, and we will be happy. Maybe that is the reason the U'netaneh Tokef poem does not ask, "Who will be happy, and who will not?" Because our happiness is not like life or death. We have little control over whether we will live or die, whether we will be secure or be driven, whether our lives will be long or not so long. God decides those things for us. But happiness?--that is in our control.

We are the only ones in charge of our forgiveness. We are the only ones in charge of whether we are satisfied with our lives today. Only we can measure our appreciation for what we have and who we are. We alone can exhibit concern for other people. Our faith starts within us and only much later ends with God. These five factors are totally within our control. We are powerless over so much of our lives, like the lamb before the shepherd, the subject before the king, or the defendant before the judge. But when it comes to our happiness, we are our commander in chief.

A story is told about a teacher, maybe he was a rabbi or priest or an imam or she was a roshi or a college professor--it doesn't matter. At the start of their learning, the teacher invited all of his students to take a cup on the table. Each student grabbed hold of a cup near to them. The teacher poured the tea for the students, and they began to sip. But soon they noticed that some of them had cups that were large and others that were light and delicate and others had cups that were chipped or cracked or the finish was peeling off the sides. And the students began to eye each other's cups. Soon they stopped enjoying their afternoon tea, thinking instead about why they had one cup and others were different, and wouldn't they be happier with someone else's cup instead of their own?

The teacher expected this response. It is such a human response. And she taught her students this first lesson in happiness. "Each of you holds up a unique cup, one of your own, unlike anyone else's cup around the table. And no one has the perfect cup. But each of you is drinking the same tea. You should all be equally happy with this gift, set aside for each of you. You share the same tea, the same warmth and the same sweetness. It doesn't matter what cup you are holding it in."

Rosh Hashanah is the tea in our cup. It is the sweetness of another year of life. For each of us, the cup is different. For some of us, the cup is cracked. For others, the cup is chipped. Some of us would like a cup that would be larger or smaller; lighter or more sturdy. Nobody's cup is perfect. But let us be happy in the life that we have been given. This is a sweet time. All of us drink from the cup of life. Let us drink it all in with happiness and joy.
Shanah Tova T'kateivu, May you be inscribed in the book of life for a sweet and happy year.