Kol Nidre 5774: “Worry, and Be Happy–the Jewish Way of Happiness”

As you know, this year I turned 40 years old. And now that I am 40, I’ve come to realize and gain perspective on many things. And one of the many things I have realized since reaching this milestone, is that I suddenly realized why my parents listened to the “oldies” station growing up.

They connected to that music of the 50s and 60s because it was the music of their youth, the music of their formative years and so it continued to hold a place in their psyches, their narratives. When we are in formation we are impressionable, and so what surrounds us, including the music we listen to, will make an impression. And so it is no surprise that for me it is the music from the 1980s.bobbymcferrin

One song from that era that is impressed upon me, that sticks in my brain, is Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” Released 25 years ago in 1988 when I was a wee lad of 15, that catchy tune ran up the charts and was ubiquitous for a period of time. The novelty of the song was that it was a capella, and McFerrin overlaid tracks of “music” using only his vocals. The lyrics, as an example, go like this:

Ain’t got no cash, ain’t got no style

Ain’t go no gal to make you smile

But don’t worry, be happy

Cause when you worry, your face will frown

And that will bring everybody down

So don’t worry, be happy

[I apologize for giving you an earworm—I hope you can hear the rest of what I have to share.]

And so I think back to my teenage years when this song came on the scene, and I now look back on it 25 years later as I become an older man of 40. I have come to the realization, after all these years, that this song is complete baloney.

Why is it baloney? Because the message is all wrong. Telling us to “don’t worry, be happy” reinforces a problem we have in America. I believe we have a happiness problem in America. And that problem, is that we are trying too hard to be too happy. We are supposed to be happy all the time, and to not be happy, is seen as falling short.

Here is an example. I like to read the obituaries. I’m fascinated by the lives people lead, their great triumphs and small struggles, the different paths their lives take, their work life and their hobbies. Some obituaries are more extensive than others, and they serve not only as means to tell a life story, but to provide us, the reader and the community, with information—details about remembrances, where to direct charity, etc. And one thing I’ve noticed over the years as I have been reading obituaries, is that nobody has funerals anymore. Nobody has memorials anymore. Rather everyone is having a “celebration of life.”

I remember when I first heard the term. It was not long after I arrived in Olympia—I don’t know if the emergence of the term has to do with time or geography but up until that time 10 years ago living back east I had never heard it. I was talking with someone and they mentioned they had just come from a celebration of life. And I thought “how wonderful,” and I even said something to that effect. I thought it was like a retirement party, or a party to honor an elder. Only after I put my foot in my mouth did I realize the life that was being celebrated, had ended.

Let me ask you: how many of you, when a loved one dies—a close friend or relative passes away—are you happy? How many of you are joyful when someone you love dies? So if we are not happy, then why do we have a “celebration”?

Because as Americans, we are supposed to be happy. We are not supposed to be sad. We are not supposed to grieve. When someone dies we are supposed to feel happy that they lived a good life, that they are in a better place (more on that in a minute), and so there is no reason to be sad. There is no reason to cry. So we have a “celebration.”

Another example. As you may remember, at the beginning of January I came down with bacterial meningitis. After not feeling completely well and having a bad headache, I began to speak incoherently which prompted Yohanna to call the paramedics. I was taken out of my house on a stretcher, and woke up the next day in the ICU. Five days in the hospital and two weeks of heavy duty antibiotics and I was on the mend.

I remember that shortly after I came home, my parents had come out from New York to be with me, and my father was reading the newspaper, looking at the book review section in the New York Times. He noticed a book in the best seller list about a doctor who got meningitis and had a vision of the afterlife. I made a mental note of it but didn’t think much of it at the time, I was focused on my own healing and it was taking a while, day by day to get my energy back.

Recently I investigated this book. I had heard a bit more about it, even caught the author briefly on TV once, but finally took it out of the library. It is called Proof of Heaven. The author, Eben Alexander, is a neurosurgeon who similar to me, came down out of the blue with bacterial meningitis. Based on his description his case was more severe than mine, in that he had to be in a medically induced coma for a week. During that time, he had a vision of the afterlife, which he describes in detail in his book. What he saw, what he felt, what he experienced. And he had what we can only describe as a spiritual experience. He tried to take his rational doctor mind and apply it to his case and condition, but could not explain what he had experienced. The only answer, he concluded, is that there is a higher power and that this life is not the end.

Now I cannot dispute Dr. Alexander’s experience or his recollection of it. His experience was I’m sure real to him. But the fact that he was able to write a book that is a phenomenal best seller tells us again something about us, as Americans. That we want to know. We want to be certain that what comes next is better than what is now. That things will ultimately turn out good in the end. And knowing that will make us happy, indeed this is an emotion that Alexander describes in his book as feeling—content, peaceful, happy.

Well I too had bacterial meningitis. Yet I didn’t have a near death experience and I’m sorry I can’t provide you with the happy knowledge of what comes next. The only thing I can tell you is that seemingly healthy people can get struck down in an instant and almost die. But if I wrote that book it would not sell. If I was honest about the Jewish approach to the afterlife that at best we are agnostic on what comes next, and that theologically we are oriented towards this life as opposed to any that might come after, it wouldn’t make for inspirational reading. We need to know it is going to turn out OK. Because we need to be happy.

There are other examples of the “happification” of our culture. Think too not only of the sanitization of the difficulty of death or illness, but the increased consumerism which promises happiness if you buy the right car, or breakfast cereal. We are told if you find the right partner, or the right job, or have children, you will be happy. It’s the “pursuit of happiness” at its most superficial.

So, I think we have a happiness problem in this country. But there is also a happiness solution. I do not mean to say that happiness should not be a goal of life, it is. But we need to look at the Jewish way of being happy, and not the American way of being happy.

I know what you are thinking. I know this might sound strange, the Jewish way of being happy. This from a culture that brought you the stereotype of the never satisfied, always anxious Jewish mother. This from a religious tradition which many have experienced as “what you are not supposed to do,” the tradition that denies you bacon, for example. (Well, in theory. I’ve seen some of your Facebook pages). This from the people that brought you the joke about the waiter in the Jewish deli who goes up to some patrons and asks, “Is anything alright?”

But there is a Jewish way of being happy. And maybe in response to Mr. McFerrin, the Jewish way could be called not “don’t worry, be happy” but “worry and be happy.” Because it comes not from the point of avoiding pain but dealing with it, not acquiring objects but acquiring attitudes, and not taking things for granted. And increasingly it is this Jewish way of being happy that is proving to be, from a psychological standpoint, a more authentic and lasting means of happiness.  For it is not just a happiness for the sake of feeling happy, but a happiness which is deeply tied into meaning.

The growing field of positive psychology and happiness studies has shown that an authentic and sustained happiness comes from a happiness which is infused with meaning. A new study in the Journal of Positive Psychology published this year notes, “Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desire are easily satisfied and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided.” What we must seek is a happiness which does not try to cover up difficulties like death, or life-threatening illness. It is a happiness which confronts them head on, a happiness that comes not despite the challenges of life, but because of them.

So how do we live a life of meaningful happiness? Positive psychologists have identified through studies many different means by which we can improve our lives through understanding the intersection of meaning and happiness. For it is something which can be learned, can be practiced. And we see that many of the paths to happiness identified by contemporary psychologists already find expression in the teachings of the Jewish tradition.

One path is the cultivation of gratitude. Being grateful has been shown to promote attention to positive life experiences, bolster self-worth, help cope with stress and trauma, it encourages moral behavior, helps build social bonds, inhibits envious behavior, eliminates negative emotions

The Hebrew word for Jew is yehudi, because the Jewish people sprang from the ancient kingdom of Judah, yehudah, and the kingdom of Judah from the tribe of Judah, and the tribe of Judah gets its name from Judah’s mother Leah who draws from the Hebrew word for praise, or thank. Gratitude is ingrained in the name of our people. And it is ingrained in our practice as well.

This is the practice of berachot, of blessings—each is an expression of gratitude for a particular act, or food, or object or time. We say a blessing of thanks when we wake up in the morning. We say a blessing over each food we eat. We say a blessing over seeing the ocean, or a mountain, or a friend we haven’t seen in a long time. During our morning service we recite birchot hashahar, a series of morning blessings offering thanks for the little things: the ability to get up, stand up straight, put on clothes.

To pause to say a blessing—and the Talmud teaches we should strive to recite 100 blessings every day—is to be open and mindful to the good that surrounds you. It is a means to express gratitude. If you can focus on that which is good—despite any difficulty or trauma—then you will emerge happier and more whole. Reciting blessings is an act of gratitude which reminds us to take note of the good things in our life.

Earlier this year our beloved matriarch, one of our founders, Eva Goldberg, died. One of Eva’s favorite practices was the recitation of the shechecheyanu, the blessing when we come to special occasions. There is no limit to how often you can say it, and she said it all the time. What a gift that is, to be able to recognize those important moments and say a brief word of thanks.

If you haven’t already, develop a practice of gratitude. It could be reciting blessings, sure. But it could also be taking time to identify what it is you are thankful for. Try this: each day, at the end of the day, write down 5 things you are grateful for. If you don’t want to do it every day, do it once a week. This is a great Shabbat practice—look back over your past week and write down the things you are grateful for. The idea of Shabbat comes to teach us that we are meant to spend one day out of seven in reflection, taking a break and saying thanks. However you choose to celebrate Shabbat you can at least take that time to take stock—to look back over your past week and note the things you are grateful for.

And if someone did you a kindness, tell that person and thank them. You can do this in person, or you can write a note. But express your gratitude. They will appreciate it, and you will have developed a sense of meaning and happiness for your life.

While we have a path to happiness though expressing gratitude, especially to those who have done us a service, we also have the path to happiness through forgiveness, to those who have done us wrong.

Forgiveness is difficult, that we know. We have been engaged with the idea of forgiveness during this most recent period of time. Yet psychologically we know that forgiveness is important to our well-being. Sonja Lyubomirsky points out in The How of Happiness, “Forgiving people are less likely to be hateful, depressed, hostile, anxious, angry and neurotic. They are more likely to be happier, healthier, more agreeable and more serene…People who forgive hurts in relationships are more capable of establishing closeness. Finally, the inability to forgive is associated with persistent ruminating or dwelling on revenge, while forgiving allows a person to move on.” (172)

Judaism is focused on teshuvah, on the personal work of repentance that we must do. But we can not forget that a part of teshuvah is forgiveness. When we seek to do the work of teshuvah that involves repairing the relationships that have been damaged, that oftentimes involves seeking forgiveness from one we have wronged. And when we are wronged, we may be asked for forgiveness.

When we are in a position to grant forgiveness, we do two things: we allow for another person’s teshuvah to be complete, and we allow ourselves to be free. If someone comes to us, sincere, contrite, having done their own personal work of teshuvah and repentance, and he or she comes to us seeking forgiveness, if we don’t grant it, then we have erred, for we have not allowed another to come to completion. And if we do not do our work to enable us to grant forgiveness, we will be locked in a state of anger and resentment.

We just recited a prayer together, at the end of the Amidah, “Master of the World, I now forgive all who have angered me or sinned against me whether through my body, my possessions, my honor or anything that is mine, whether by accident or by intention, knowingly or unknowingly, word or deed.” Is everyone who has ever hurt us off the hook when we recite this? No. But we are off the hook. We have allowed ourselves to have a bit of healing, and taken another step towards happiness.

Circumstances are different in every case, but the goal is to forgive. Strive to work on forgiving. When someone asks you for forgiveness, grant it. Don’t wait for someone to seek forgiveness from you, do your own work of forgiving them in your heart. Preemptively write a letter to someone who has hurt you forgiving them, and you don’t even need to send it. And when we release the hurt through letting go, we allow meaningful happiness to come in.

The fact that you are all here today listening to these words of gratitude and forgiveness is indeed another step towards happiness. Did you know that attending synagogue can improve your overall well-being? Yes, its true. In a survey, 100 percent of rabbis agree that if their congregants attended services, they would be happier. Well, not exactly, but two recent studies in the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality and the Journal of Happiness Studies finds that those who attend synagogue do regularly report a higher well-being.

There are several offered reasons for this—the routine of going somewhere regularly and the positive messages one receives in synagogue. But what seems the most compelling and beneficial about attending services is the social engagement and the grounding in ritual and tradition.

One important aspect of meaningful happiness is the development and maintenance of social relationships. A study by psychologists Martin Seligman and Ed Diener identified that a major factor for people who identify as “very happy” is “rich and satisfying social relationships.” In citing this study in his book Happier, Tal Ben Shahar writes, “Having people about whom we care and who care about us to share our lives with—to share the events and thoughts and feelings in our lives—intensifies our experience of meaning, consoles us in our pain, deepens our sense of delight in the world.” (111) This is oftentimes the key for happy people.

In Pirke Avot, we are taught “do not separate yourself from the community.” Elsewhere in the Talmud we learn “friendship, or death!” The psychological need for social connections is well known in our tradition. Acts of gmilut hasadim—lovingkindness—which is one of the pillars of Jewish practice, are essentially social acts: visiting the sick, comforting the mourner, celebrating a wedding. Just being together has a positive effect on people. Knowing there are people who care for you makes you happy even during difficult times—I know this because it helped me when I was in my hospital bed.

The community is one thing, the ritual and tradition are another. Religion and spirituality is a source for meaning-making and coherence in our otherwise chaotic lives. Jonathan Haidt points out in the Happiness Hypothesis that humans are multilevel systems: we are physical objects, we have minds and consciousness, and we then use that consciousness to form societies and cultures. And meaning, he points out, comes when there is a sense of coherence across these three. And one way we form coherence is through tradition, and ritual.

Haidt says, “You can’t just invent a good ritual through reasoning about symbolism. You need a tradition within which the symbols are embedded, and you need to invoke bodily feelings that have some appropriate associations. Then you need a community to endorse and practice it over time.” (229) Thinking about our example of the rituals after death, we may feel we are doing ourselves a favor by eschewing traditional ritual at a time of death, because we seek to avoid the difficulty it evokes, but it is exactly through the ritual that our grief can find meaning, and we will be the better off for it.

So make an effort to connect with tradition, connect with ritual, connect with sacred community and connect with each other.

One final way psychologists have identified a path to happiness is in the setting of goals. And this may sound familiar or obvious when it comes to happiness—if I have a goal, and I get it, I will be happy. If I get this new job, I will be happy. If I get this new house, I will be happy. But that is not actually the case. For while it is important to have goals, psychologists say it is not in the attainment of those goals that we find happiness, but in the pursuit of them.

Goals according to psychologists give us a sense of purpose and a felling of control, a feeling of confidence and a purpose. Pursuing goals adds a structure to our lives, and allows us to master time in a more effective way. And goals are more often than not bring us into contact with others, who will help us meet our goals. But these goals must be the right goals. The goals must be intrinsic—authentic to who we are and fitting with our own desires and needs—rather than extrinsic, trying to fulfill another’s desires of us, or needs that are imposed upon us from the outside.

What is the most powerful part of the Torah? The end. At the end of the Torah, the Israelites are poised on the eastern banks of the Jordan River, preparing to enter into the land which was promised to them, the land they have waited 40 years for, since their release from bondage and the exodus from Egypt. Entering into the land is the fundamental intrinsic goal of the Israelite nation. The latter part of the Torah, the book of Deuteronomy, was all about Moses preparing the Israelites for their new life. They are reminded of their history, their wanderings. They are reminded of the Torah, the covenant, the mitzvoth, the laws and practices. And they are reminded of what is expected of them, of their need to be diligent, and loyal and faithful.

And then the Torah ends. And the Israelites are still camped out on the eastern edge of the Jordan. They never make it. The point, the Torah teaches, was not the goal of reaching the land but the journey.

And as with the ancient Israelites, so too with us. Look inside, identify your goals, work for them and enjoy the journey.

As Tal Ben Shahar writes, “For sustained happiness we need to change the expectations we have of our goals: rather than perceiving them as ends (expecting that their attainment will make us happy), we need to see them as means (recognizing that they can enhance the pleasure we take in the journey) When goals facilitate the enjoyment of our present experience, they indirectly lead to an increase in our levels of well-being each step of the way, as opposed to a temporary spike that comes with the attainment of a goal. A goal enables us to experience a sense of being while doing.” (70)

This last sentence is fundamental. Doing won’t make us happy. Being while doing is what makes us happy. All of these things—expressing gratitude, granting forgiveness, connecting with each other and with tradition and ritual, and setting goals and pursuing them—this is what makes us happy because they are all means of being while doing. There is a path to happiness which does not circumvent the difficult times in our lives but rather one that allows us to accept these things and be happy anyway. There is a path that allows us to worry and be happy at the same time.

And while we should practice constantly all of these paths to happiness, they all come together on this day, this awesome day of Yom Kippur. This is the day in our calendar when we exercise all of these paths to happiness: we come to the synagogue in the greatest number, establishing or reaffirming connections with each other. We engage in ritual and tradition, we express gratitude for where we have been and we set goals for where we want to go. And we seek forgiveness, from ourselves, from others and from God. And this is why Yom Kippur is the happiest day of the Jewish calendar. Our ancient sages already knew this when it says in the Mishnah, “there was no happier day in Israel than the Day of Atonement.”

In a recent article in Psychology Today on happiness we read, “The happiest among us (cheerfully) accept that striving for perfection—and a perfectly smooth interaction with everyone at all times—is a loser’s bet.” And that is what affirm on Yom Kippur. We come face to face with our humanity, our imperfections, our stumblings. We recognize that we have hurt loved ones and friends, and ourselves. And yet we are happy, because we recognize that we are not perfect.

Because with respect to Bobby McFerrin, its not “don’t worry, be happy.” We must think, “worry, and be happy.” That is the message of Yom Kippur, and our lives. Yom Kippur sets the path for us for the coming year and encapsulates the Jewish approach to happiness:

On Yom Kippur we worry we will not make it in to the book of life for the coming year, but we are happy we made it for this year.

We worry that our fortunes will not improve but we are happy for the many blessings we do have.

We worry that we will make the same mistakes as last year, but we are happy that we do have the opportunity to change and grow.

We worry that we are alone, but we are happy when we look around and see that we are not.

We worry that we are not rooted and adrift, and we are happy when the familiar songs and rituals give us context.

We worry that we have hurt others and others have hurt us, but we are happy that we can seek and grant forgiveness.

We worry that we don’t have surety, or all the answers, or any guarantees in this life. And we are happy when we realize that’s OK.

There is a Jewish way to happiness. Its “worry, and be happy.” And that, my friends, is the real celebration of life.

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