The Pursuit of Happiness
Rabbi Richard A. Block
The Temple – Tifereth Israel
Cleveland and Beachwood, Ohio
Yom Kippur Yizkor Sermon 5774/2013
Jack Benny’s most famous gag involved a confrontation with a man who accosted him, brandishing a gun, and threatened, “This is a stickup…Your money or your life.” For two or three minutes, Benny, who often played a comical miser, fidgeted, but did not reply. Finally, the exasperated robber demanded, “Look, bud, I said, ‘Your money or your life.'” To which Benny replied, “I’m thinking it over!” Jack Benny, the son of Jewish immigrants, was actually one of the most generous, charitable people in Hollywood, but his renowned skit points to a deeper truth, that we sometimes cling to our material possessions as if they were as dear to us as life itself.
A prayer from our Yom Kippur liturgy poignantly describes the seemingly insatiable, virtually universal ambition to acquire. “The eye is never satisfied with seeing; endless are the desires of the heart. We devise new schemes on the grave of a thousand disappointed hopes. Like Moses on Mount Nebo, we behold the Promised Land from afar, but may not enter it. Discontent abides in the palace and in the hut, rankling alike in the breast of prince and pauper. Death finally terminates the struggle, and grief and joy, success and failure all are ended. Like children falling asleep over their toys, we loosen our grasp on earthly possessions only when death overtakes us. Master and servant, rich and poor, strong and feeble, wise and simple, all are equal in death. The grave levels all distinctions and makes the whole world kin.”
In George Bernard Shaw’s play Man and Superman, we find the trenchant observation, “There are two tragedies in life: One is not to get your heart’s desire. The other is to get it.” The notion that that getting what we long for can be disastrous is illustrated graphically in the Torah. Bellyaching about conditions in the Sinai wilderness, ungrateful for the manna God was providing, the Israelites yearn for meat. God inundates the encampment with a torrent of quail. The people eat until it “comes out of their nostrils,” a plague ensues, and many die, illustrating the adage, “Be careful what you wish for, lest you get it.”
The Torah also contains verses known to Jewish tradition as birkat hakohanim, the Priestly Benediction: “May God bless you and keep you! May God deal kindly and graciously with you! May God bestow favor upon you and grant you peace!” The first phrase, “May God bless you and keep you,” is understood to be a prayer for material prosperity. With this in mind, an ancient commentary restated the verse in a strikingly contemporary manner: “May God bless you with possessions and keep those possessions from possessing you.” This lesson is confirmed by experience: it is not only possible, but can be unhealthy, to have too much of a good thing.
As Americans, we celebrate the Declaration of Independence, which proclaims “unalienable rights” including “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” But Judaism reminds us that liberty becomes license without an accompanying moral code, self-discipline, and a communitarian ethos that emphasizes sharing and voluntary limitations on our inherent acquisitiveness and self-centeredness. And as the Torah’s quail story suggests, we aren’t always the best judges of what we need, especially when our culture bombards us with the superficial and misleading message that how we look and what we buy are the primary determinents of human happiness.
Still, Judaism regards material prosperity as a blessing. In the weekly havdalah service, we ask God to increase zareinu v’kaspeinu, “our offspring and our means…like the sand of the sea and the stars in the night sky.” And even as Jewish tradition commands each of us to engage in acts of lovingkindness and righteous giving, it forbids us to be so generous that we impoverish ourselves.
Judaism permits us, even commands us, to enjoy life. The Talmud holds that we are accountable not just for sins we commit and good deeds we fail to do, but also for the legitimate pleasures of life we pass up. While at my first congregation, I became president of the local clergy association, so Susie and I hosted its annual holiday party. Dessert was a luscious Black Forest Cake. Taking a second helping, a minister said, smiling, “This is what we Christians call ‘sin.'” Susie replied, “This is what we Jews call ‘pleasure.'” Excellent theology!
Nonetheless, if we ignore the warning that the blessing contains, “May God…keep those possessions from possessing you,” the things we think own may end up owning us instead, confining rather than liberating us, like a pair of golden handcuffs. Perhaps you’ve heard the story: Thirty five years ago, I stood on a California sidewalk. Susie, our two young sons, and I, were about to set off for Jerusalem for my first year of rabbinical school. We had sold our comfortable suburban home, our two cars, and lots of other “stuff.” As the buyer of our second car drove off, I put my hands in my pockets, realized I didn’t have a single key, and felt weightless. In 2013, we have a nice home, two cars, and stuff we enjoy, but I remember how it felt to be free, momentarily, of such burdensome blessings.
At the time, I was not yet aware of the teaching of the ancient sage, Ben Zoma, who asked rhetorically, “Who is wise? Those who learn from every person…Who is powerful? Those who conquer their impulse to evil…Who is rich? Those who are happy with their portion…Who is honored? Those who honor others.” The key to fulfillment, Ben Zoma was telling us, is personal growth, self-discipline, enjoying what we have, and devotion to the wellbeing of others.
This accords with the central theme of the High Holy Days, which is teshuvah, repentance. Teshuvah is more than feeling regret for our failures and shortcomings, trying to make amends to those whom we’ve hurt, and doing more good deeds. It is an active, ongoing process of improving our character, developing habits of mind and action that allow us to transcend ourselves, that enable us, in the words of Psalm 90, to “count our days rightly” and thereby lead happier, more meaningful lives.
I was surprised to learn recently that there is an entire academic field called “happiness studies,” that devotes considerable research to understanding what makes people happy. This endeavor is familiar to Jewish tradition. For much of our history, most Jews have been poor. To rabbis living in poverty during talmudic times, happiness meant simple things: a nice bed, an accessible toilet, even warm water to wash one’s hands and feet. For others, whose means sufficed for life’s basics, happiness was finding a good spouse, a painless death, or a proper burial place. On a higher level, happiness involved attaining wisdom, subduing one’s evil inclination, having one’s sins forgiven, being righteous. As our prayerbook puts it, the Torah “is a tree of life to those who take hold of it, and those who cling to it find happiness.”
In the Mishnah, which dates back 1800 years, we find this remarkable description of the Day of Atonement, “‘There was no happier day for Israel than…Yom Kippur, for on that day the young women of Jerusalem used to go out in white garments that were borrowed, so those who did not own them would not be embarrassed,…And [they] went forth to dance in the vineyards, [saying], ‘Young man, look up and see what you would choose for yourself. Look not for beauty, but for character, for [as Proverbs teaches] ‘Grace is deceptive and beauty is illusory. It is reverence for God [that is praiseworthy].'” From a Jewish perspective, then, physical comfort, wellbeing, material possessions and pleasure are all wonderful, but happiness derives from deeper, more enduring things.
Modern research supports that conclusion. While each of us has what might be called “a happiness set point determined by genetics and personality,” a significant percentage of our happiness level can be influenced by intentional activity, such as practicing acts of kindness, being grateful, generosity or using signature strengths. That which connects us with others, strengthens social bonds, and deepens relationships, leads to happiness.
These findings are consistent with a verse in the V’havata: “You shall love your Eternal God with all your heart, your soul, and your might.” Our sages understood the Hebrew word me’odecha, “your might” to mean our material assets. Thus, they said, we must love God with our hearts, souls, and possessions. The underlying spiritual principle is that all property, all wealth, belongs to God. As Scripture puts it, “the earth is the Lord’s and all that it holds.” It follows that we are not the owners, but the custodians of what we possess, which God entrusts to us to enjoy, to share, and to devote to worthy purposes.
Dennis Prager, talk show host and syndicated columnist, wrote a book called Happiness is a Serious Problem. Prager’s theme is that happiness is not an accident, a feeling, or a psychological state. Nor does happiness correlate with the circumstances of our lives. Every person’s life has pain and each of us struggles with demons that others cannot know. Prager notes, “We all know people who have had a relatively easy life, yet are essentially unhappy. And…people who have suffered a great deal but generally remain happy.” Happiness, he contends, is not a mood or “a feeling to be awaited.” Rather, it is a decision, a trait of character, a moral achievement to be pursued, “a battle to be waged.” It is choosing to be cheerful, “to find the positive in virtually every situation,” a choice that is “a mitzvah in both senses,” a good deed and an obligation. Ultimately, Prager argues, and Jewish tradition confirms, the secret to happiness is gratitude for our blessings, doing things that give our lives purpose, and believing that something permanent transcends us.
The primary challenge is one of balance. As Hillel taught, “If I’m not for myself, who will be for me? If I’m only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” Utter selflessness would be a kind of saintly foolishness, even self-destructive, but if we only look out for ourselves, we are vain and self-centered. And if we don’t strive to get the balance right now, when will we do so? Tomorrow? Who says we’ll have one?
Our High Holy Day liturgy drives this point home dramatically. “On Rosh Hashanah it is written, 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…” I don’t take the prayer literally, but I take it seriously, because it expresses a fundamental truth of human existence: that life gives us no guarantees. We are not promised good health, long life, prosperity, success or happiness. What life gives us is a series of todays, each a precious, irrecoverable gift, an opportunity to give and receive love, to bless the lives of others, to make a lasting difference in the world for good. If we’re fortunate, we’ll have many todays. We’ll never have a single tomorrow.
In the final analysis, a happy and meaningful life involves choices – choosing between good and bad and between less and more worthwhile, between important and unimportant, superficial and substantive, ordinary and extraordinary, transcient and transcendent, between what passes away and what lasts. As the Day of Atonement draws near its close and the new year gets fully underway, may God help us choose wisely and well, as those whom we remember today, with love and gratitude, taught us, by word and deed, to do.