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Pursuit of Happiness

September 2013

Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5774

 The pursuit of Happiness doesn’t always get us to our goal – but the pursuit of goals offers the possibility of happiness.

It’s comforting to me that every year, at least once a year when we gather together on the High Holy days, we get a chance to return to the Garden of Eden. The sound effects include birds chirping, monkeys nattering and waterfalls gently cascading down a cliff. It includes Adam and Eve frolicking amid the trees and grasses, naming animals and enjoying the full glory of God’s new splendor. They are described as blissfully happy, and permitted everything within their reach save the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. An idyllic sort of life.


I can envision that kind of life. I could even long for that kind of life, as I do when we prepare to take our family vacations to some tranquil, sun-lit spot, where the great decisions of the day revolve almost entirely around food: the what and where and when our next meal is going to be.  On occasion, we even explore strange new worlds, like the jungles of Costa Rica or the ancient Mayan  ruins of Chichenitza in the Yucatan peninsula. But we also “program” in lots of lying on recliners, naps at the beach and endless hours of Bananagrams. (That makes me very happy.) And we always return recharged and renewed and ready to resume the hectic schedules we have created for ourselves.

Why do we do it? Why can’t we bring back home a measure of rest and relaxation, of delighting in the simpler things in life to the exclusion of all things stressful?

The obvious answer is that we need to work the other weeks of the year to feed, clothe and shelter our families. And even provide for the things in life that make us happy.

The pursuit of happiness is not as frivolous a concept as you might think. In fact, in October of 2010, the greatest ethical minds from among all major religious faiths convened in Georgia at the Emory University Law School to explore on “The Pursuit of Happiness in Interreligious Perspective,” with each scholar devoting him or herself to exploring the meaning and measure of happiness in the Jewish, Christian, Islamic, and Buddhist traditions respectively. Imagine that – a five year project of study culminating in this conference to promote understanding about happiness from many different perspectives. Hours and hours and hours talking about happiness. And I listened to a great many, though hardly all, of the lectures and panel discussions and question/answer periods from the 4000 participants. While I learned a great deal about the pursuit of happiness from many perspectives, try as I did, listening to eminent academicians did not make me happy.


I’d have to look elsewhere for answers in my pursuit of happiness.


We don’t have to go far – as the pursuit of happiness is as American as apple pie. It was so important to the framers of our Declaration of Independence that it was the part of its very premise and promise: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.


When Thomas Jefferson wrote down those words, he didn’t expand the phrase using specific examples, perhaps because he innately understood that what makes one person happy does not make everybody happy. But we, as Americans, were protected by law to pursue our happiness, as long as doing so didn’t infringe on anyone else’s safety or well-being. You might love sitting around a campfire, but you can’t indulge in that behavior if you risk starting a raging forest fire at the same time, endangering the lives of others and destroying our national parks.


Which is why “pursuing happiness” only comes after “Life” and “Liberty”, without which the whole subject is moot. You can’t pursue happiness if you live in fear for your survival and do not have your most basic needs such as food, shelter and the ability to provide for such needs.


But I do find it fascinating that Jefferson didn’t articulate the right as “being happy.” Instead, he stresses the right of having the freedom to pursue it.


Somehow, that seems to be the message that we as a culture have embraced completely. Pursuing happiness here in America is a full-time job, for children as well as for adults, for those who have a great deal as well as for those who have little material wealth.


The key component to everything is having happiness, which you can easily get by buying this product, or signing up for this activity – at a price you can’t refuse - or by traveling to this destination which you can find at “our lowest prices of the season.”


So we buy the latest gadget or the most recent “in” fashion piece of clothing or the biggest TV or the best vacation. How many of you can report that the Toy of the Season, or the latest video game that you waited 8 hours on line to purchase, held your child’s interest for a week or so, only to be discarded some time later because its “newness” wore off.

But don’t worry and I kid you not, for the reasonable price of $8.95, Amazon is selling a “New Car Aerosol” – guaranteed to work by “eliminating old odors and reducing new odors - a Premium air freshener formulated with unique fragrances engineered to smell just like a new car.” Even if you can’t afford a new car, you can indulge in the myth that your 10 year old Honda Accord is the newest vehicle off the production line.

When did we start drinking the Kool-Aid? That new is always better, that what we have is not enough to satisfy us for long, that the pursuit of happiness requires that we all be frantically pursuing the next best thing?

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the recently retired Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, recounts the story of an 18th-century rabbi, Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, who is looking at people rushing to and fro in the town square. And he wonders why they're all running so frenetically. He stops one and he says, "Why are you running?" and the man says, "I'm running to make a living." And the rabbi says to him, "How come you're so sure that the living is in front of you and you have to run to catch up to it? Maybe it's behind you and you got to stop and let it catch up with you." I would agree that stopping to smell the roses is necessary to appreciate what we have and Shabbat, for instance, is the gift which allows us to stop running on a regular basis. But I don’t think it’s enough.

Because there is no guarantee that pursuing happiness will achieve the goal of being happy. In contrast to Buddhists who believe that happiness is everything, Judaism offers a different perspective. The pursuit of Happiness doesn’t always get us to our goal – but the pursuit of goals offers us the possibility of happiness in ways we never anticipated.


I was having lunch recently with a colleague who was particularly distraught over some family matters when we were interrupted by a couple sitting at the next table. Addressing my friend, the man gushed, “Oh my God, You’re the woman who came to visit each week with my dad when he was in the long-term care facility and then in hospice. You have no idea how grateful we are that Dad’s last days were so meaningful, both to him and to us, because I think he died happier than he had been in a long time.” My colleague doesn’t accept praise well, based on a childhood where she received little encouragement, but on hearing those words from a man she barely remembered, happiness flooded her body. You could see it in her face, in her eyes when she spoke of the volunteering she had done and continues to do. And as I listened to how she had developed special programs for the many different populations in this nursing facility, I realized that the gift she gave to others was a gift she also gave herself. Her goal after retirement was to find an alternative to serving the elementary children whom she had taught for over three decades. She sought out a number of assisted living facilities where she could provide a fun and meaningful Shabbat experience and she has sustained these visits faithfully and regularly.

So this past month, I encouraged her to keep an Elul diary. The entire month of Elul is an intensive prep session for High Holy Days, demanding that we take a good hard look at ourselves, evaluating what we have done well and done badly in the previous year, so that when we hear the haunting, uplifting and majestic melodies of Rosh Hashanah, we are open to the possibility of turning back to God, to returning to our best selves and improving on that model. In her journal, my friend wrote: “On this 24th day of Elul, I want to seek and reach out to those who are empty and devoid of happiness.” So after her programs are done, she wanders the halls to find those for whom a half hour of one-on-one visit might make a difference in their lives.

Not everyone can do that. My friend’s husband knows he can’t possibly do what his wife can; he has found that serving the Jewish community in leadership roles provides him with similar satisfaction. And with satisfaction comes happiness. Note, however, that he doesn’t volunteer as a leader was for the expressed desire to be happy, but to make meaning out of his life, as serving the elderly population does for his wife. And when I see my friend’s face light up, I pay attention to what she is telling me, because it is invariably interconnected with her search for worthwhile goal.

You know that our temple has a unique name: Temple Rodeph Torah, the Temple of the Pursuit of Torah. The word “Rodeph” is often used as a derogatory term: a pursuer who has to be stopped. But it is also connected with lofty ideals, like “Rodeph Tzedek” pursuer of  justice, from “tzekek, tzedek tirdof – justice, justice you shall pursue.” (Deuteronomy 16:20.)

I offer you a second name to add to our first: Rodeph Tachlit (Mata rah) – Pursuer of Purpose.”   As pursuers of purpose, each of us can find – must find – our own definition of the term. What works for you might not work for the next person, much like happiness does. We each must find our own path to happiness.

Becoming a Rodeph tachlit will mean paying attention to the world around you, finding the empty places where your contribution will fill in with the appropriate gift.

My favorite image for this was created by my teacher, Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, who, thirty years ago, wrote Honey from the Rock. Kushner himself describes the book as "an attempt to synthesize some of the world view of classical Jewish mysticism, or Kabbala, with the ordinary life experience of its author." I have used this prose poem since then in most of my funerals, my healing services and as a metaphor for creating meaning in my counseling sessions.

Each lifetime is the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle;

For some there are more pieces.

For others the puzzle is more difficult to assemble.

Some seem to be born with a nearly completed puzzle.

And so it goes.

Souls going this way and that

Trying to assemble the myriad parts.


But know this. No one has within themselves

All the pieces to their puzzle.

Like before the days when they used to seal

jigsaw puzzles in cellophane. Insuring that

All the pieces were there.


Everyone carries with them at least one and probably

Many pieces to someone else's puzzle.


Sometimes they know it.

Sometimes they don't.


And when you present your piece

Which is worthless to you,

To another, whether you know it or not,

Whether they know it or not,

You are the messenger from the Most High.


                                                          Rabbi Lawrence Kushner

                                                          Honey from the Rock


Just like a classic puzzle piece, each one of us has pieces that are different, whether in shape or color or size. Some fit at the corners, with neat lines at right angles. Others are curved and intricate and more easily placed when the “empty spot” becomes apparent.

Becoming rodphei tachlit, pursuers of purpose, is to embody the best that Judaism offers. We need to find where our puzzle pieces fit in the world around us, seeking out those, who, like my colleague described, are empty and devoid of happiness. And when we offer our piece, our gift, to them, sometimes we can even achieve happiness along the way.

Rabbi Weber asked you to find your passion, your joy. And I add to that, finding what goals fulfill you, suffuse you with happiness when you do them. It means that during these days of Awe, these Holy Days, you need to look inside to determine what pieces are not needed by you, but might complete someone else’s puzzle. Feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, singing an old melody to a housebound person whose memories are trapped inside by dementia, but released when a familiar tune triggers a response.

And while these targeted and purposeful acts often create a very long-lasting sense of well-being, oddly enough, you may find that they are even more fulfilling when repeated. “Whether you know it or not, whether they know it or not, you are the messenger of the Most High.”

May this year, 5774, become a year of purpose and completion, full with happiness and fulfillment.


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