Erev Rosh HaShanah Sermon 5776

on Wednesday, 30 September 2015.

Have you heard the story about the Jewish mothers sitting by the pool? The first begins with a heartfelt “Gevalt.” Before she can explain, the lady next to her sighs, “Oy, tatenyu.” Then the woman to her left exclaims, “Oy vey.” and then the fourth woman cuts things short. “OK, ladies, enough about the children. We're here to play Mah Jong!”

With all the other possible forms of amusement available, why is it that so many people today choose Kvetching as their preferred recreation.  Just in case you are unfamiliar with the term, let me define it. To Kvetch is to complain persistently and whiningly. In recent years Kvetching has actually become a field of academic study. Barbara Held, a psychology professor at Bowdoin College, wrote a book called Stop Smiling, Start Kvetching, subtitled ‘a five step guide to creative complaining.’ The text includes chapters such as “Obstacles to Creative Kvetching,” “The Tyranny of the Positive Attitude,” and “Famous Creative and Non-creative Kvetchers.”

Americans enjoy kvetching, but research suggests it does not make us happier.  A World Health Organization study conducted by the Harvard Medical School concluded that Americans have a higher percentage of depressed people than war-torn Lebanon, or job-starved Mexico. We even have a higher rate of depression than Nigeria, with its desperate poverty and violent tribal conflicts. How is this possible? When this study was reported in the Wall Street Journal the reporter suggested, “Maybe if your life is a struggle for clean water and adequate food, you don’t have time to indulge in being unhappy over luxuries.”

In truth, we Jews come by kvetching very legitimately. It is in our DNA. Think back to the stories in the Torah about our ancestors as they wandered for forty years in the wilderness. It wasn’t gratitude for freedom, or sustenance, or protection from the desert sun that dominated their conversation. It was a long series of complaints. The one that always stands out in my mind is the yearning for the fish and cucumbers they had eaten when they were slaves in Egypt. Can you imagine?  We miss slavery, because we enjoyed the food. That was a remarkable instance of world-class kvetching.

Very little has changed in four thousand years. We complain about our work, about our parents, about our children, about our neighbors. We even complain about ourselves, “Why didn’t I do such and such twenty years ago?”  Why do we spend so much time complaining?

You have probably heard rabbis talk about why we wish people a Shana Tova - a good year, rather than a Happy New Year. I have done it myself, but in truth, the difference is largely semantic. Why not have some happiness in your life? If you are like everyone else, you already have your share of troubles and tension, so I do wish you a happy new year. You deserve it.

I visit convalescent centers and I visit with people who are home-bound, virtual prisoners in their homes. Neither are places you would expect to find happiness or satisfaction in life.  Yet, you would be amazed by what I see. Meeting with many of those people gives my day a real boost. For example, there is the woman over a hundred who loves to share the books she has finished reading.  There is a woman whose knees won’t carry her anymore but she feels tremendous gratitude that otherwise her life is good. I love visiting the ninety year old who just about jumps out of her wheelchair with joy just because I stopped by to say hello. In every case, the issue is perspective.  Whether we choose to kvetch or kvell largely depends on how we view things.

Sometimes happiness has to do with the here and now, feeling good in the moment and that is not so bad. A Happy Hour is the period of time a bar offers drinks at reduced prices. But what we really seek is something that lasts not just an hour, but a lot longer, and that is the satisfaction that comes from a life of meaning.

The superstar of adding meaning to life was Viktor Frankl. He was a prominent Jewish psychiatrist in Vienna before the Second World War.  He was arrested and transported to a concentration camp with his wife and parents. By the time the camp was liberated, three years later, most of his family, including his pregnant wife, had perished. He survived and shortly after the war, in 1946 he published his magnum opus, Man’s Search for Meaning. In that classic book, Frankl explains that if one can live a life of meaning, he can endure almost anything. He writes, “A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears towards a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life.  He knows the “Why” of his existence and he will be able to bear almost any 'How'.”

If you go to the self-help section of any book store you will find a myriad of books on finding happiness. I did next best thing, I went to Amazon.com.  In a search for books on happiness 87,891 titles were listed! Titles came up like Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill,Secrets of True Happiness, and The Happiness Hypothesis. There appeared to be no end to books about happiness. That vast market tells me there must be a lot of people desperate to find this in life.

A famous Chassidic maxim tells us, “Mitvah gedolah l'hiyot b'simcha tamid.  It is a great mitzvah to be joyful at all times.”  This saying, particularly in the Hebrew, is very instructive because it combines the notion of happiness and longer term satisfaction. You may be familiar with the term Simcha. We often use it to refer to a particular event such as a Bar Mitzvah or a wedding. On the holidays, we wish each other “Chag Sameach,” A holiday of joy.  In the Chasidic adage the word ‘Simcha’ is followed by ‘Tamid,’ ‘always’, which changes it from ephemeral happiness - as in a ‘happy hour,’ to joy in life, a sense of satisfaction and pleasure that lasts much longer.

How can we find that? The first word in that maxim gives us the answer: mitzvah. Technically, and most correctly, a mitzvah is a commandment and can refer both to how we treat other people and how we serve God.  For now, I want to use the word mitzvah in the colloquial sense; the way it is most often used in English: a good deed. This really gives us the answer to how we can find meaning in life.  All the experts tell us, even if they don’t put it terms of doing a mitzvah. The best way to help yourself is to help others.

When you think of experts on happiness, I doubt the name Nicholas Kristof will be at the top of your list. He is a New York Times Pulitzer Prize winning columnist, but he spends much more time writing about starvation, disease, and oppression in the developing world.  He, also, wrote a fascinating column on basic human pleasures, which he listed as food, sex, and giving. The three elements don’t seem to go together, but he reported that Dr. Jorge Moll of the National Institute of Health found that when a research subject was encouraged to think of giving money to a charity, parts of the brain lit up that are normally associated with selfish pleasures like eating or sex. He quotes another expert as saying, “The most selfish thing you can do is to help other people.”  Think about interviews you have read with people who did hurricane relief in Haiti or New Orleans, or worked in Guatemala to rebuild houses. They loved it and got so much pleasure from their hard work and sacrifice.

A colleague of mine gave a beautiful Jewish definition of happiness. Rabbi Gerald Zelizer wrote, “Happiness has to do with concretely contributing to a more merciful and compassionate world....with giving rather than taking. It has to do with moving the locus of our concern away from kvetching about what comes in to ourselves and back to what come from ourselves to others.”

That is a key lesson in achieving happiness: strive to be a contributing human being. That effort will go far toward lessening your sense of dissatisfaction in life and the likelihood that you will kvetch about it.

I want to conclude by returning to the theme of finding happiness in unexpected places. This story takes place in a nursing home.

Two men, both seriously ill, occupied the same room. One man was permitted to sit up in his bed for an hour each afternoon and his bed was next to the room’s only window.  The other man had to spend all his time flat on his back. Every day the men talked for hours on end.  They spoke of their wives and families, their homes, their jobs, where they had been on vacation.  Every afternoon, when the man in the bed by the window could sit up, he would pass the time by describing to his roommate all the things he could see outside the window.  The man in the other bed began to live for those one hour periods where his world would be broadened and enlivened by all the activity and color of the world outside.

The man next to the window did a spectacular job of describing what he saw. The window overlooked a park with a lovely lake. Ducks and swans played on the water while children sailed their model boats. Young lovers walked arm in arm amidst flowers of every color and a fine view of the city skyline could be seen in the distance.  As the man by the window described all this in exquisite details, the man on the other side of the room would close his eyes and imagine this picturesque scene.

One warm afternoon, the man by the window described a parade passing by.  Although the other man could not hear the band - he could see it in his mind's eye as the gentleman by the window portrayed it vividly.

Days and weeks passed.  One morning, the nurse arrived only to find the lifeless body of the man by the window who had died peacefully in his sleep.  The roommate was devastated with grief, and asked if he could be moved next to the window. The nurse was happy to make the switch, and after making sure he was comfortable, she left him alone.  Slowly, painfully, he propped himself up on one elbow to take his first look at the real world outside. He turned slowly to look out the window besides the bed.  It faced a nondescript brick wall.

The man turned to the nurse in total confusion. “Your roommate was blind," she told him. “His pleasure in life seems to have been giving you the view.”

An ancient Hebrew source tells us, “Shared grief is half the sorrow.” I am not sure about that. What is certainly true is that when happiness is shared, the joy is doubled.

May the New Year 5776 be one of happiness, joy and meaning for you and all your loved ones.