Global climate strike, Judaism, and YOU

I am feeling powerfully inspired by Greta Thunberg and the work she is doing around climate change. Her journey started with her skipping school every Friday to demand climate action from politicians. When she was challenged and told she should be in school, she would reply that school was meant to prepare her for a future that is now uncertain due to climate change. So if the grown ups aren’t going to do their jobs, why should she do hers?
 
She’s right.
 
You know who the grown ups are? Us. We are the grown ups. And we have to do something right now. The truth is that there is very little we as individuals can do to halt climate change (my goals are eliminating single-use plastics and moving to a plant-based diet — some of the best things we can do as individuals). The change needs to come from industry (and the governments that regulate industry), particularly around fossil fuels. But we as individuals can put pressure on those industries and governments. We can stand with Greta and say that we can’t continue on with business as usual.
 
Some folks have asked me why this is an issue for a rabbi to take on at all. Well, several reasons. Firstly, my Judaism is connected with my belief that we are here to make the world better. Judaism enhances my life/our lives and, in turn, we are empowered to bring more goodness to the world. These values are rooted in Jewish texts and teachings. It’s the whole “why” of Judaism, as far as I’m concerned. Secondly, the reason I affiliate myself with secular/cultural Judaism is that I am a believer in science and evidence. A lot of the climate change deniers are affiliated with the Christian Right. If one believes the world was created by a god in six days, six thousand years ago, then it’s not a surprise that they also believe that god can fix said world or that whatever happens to it is god’s will. But those beliefs are, well, wrong. Where religion comes up against our best science I’m going to choose science every time. That also is part of my Judaism. 
 
And so, my fellow grown ups, I want to know what you are doing to ensure a future for our kids and grandkids. Here is a place to start. On September 27th there will be rallies and marches for climate justice all over. I’ll be at the one in Toronto, marching with Shoresh (check out Shoresh.ca for awesome Jewish environmentalist initiatives). I’d really love company. Please hit reply right now and tell me you’re coming with me. If you’re not in Toronto, I’d love to know where you’ll be marching? 
 
On September 27th let’s show the world that this is not business as usual.
 
Oh, and this is right before the Jewish New Year of Rosh Hashanah. Am I usually frantically busy at that time? I sure am. Am I making time for this? You bet. I can’t think of a better commitment at the time of year when we contemplate rebirth than doing my part to protect the planet. 
 
See you on the 27th!

Till next week,
Denise

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The coming month can be elul-sive

Oh, summer. I have been spending time at beaches, hikes, festivals, concerts, playgrounds, splash pads, cottages, and beyond. Our summers are so very short and I really try to make the most of mine. Do you have goals yet to be achieved on your summer bucket list? There’s still time to squeeze in that play in the park or that baseball game or that walk to the good ice cream place. Do it!

Of course, as a rabbi and a teacher and a mother, September looms. I know most of the world considers January the start of the new year, but for me it is September. As school starts up and the weather cools off and the days get shorter, I start settling into a routine and get out my good old goal setting pages. Every year I reflect on the year that past and set goals for the future. Does this sound like the work of Rosh Hashanah? It is! But the party/process really starts the month before — in the Jewish month of Elul.

Elul is the final month of the Jewish year. It is meant to be a time for study and reflection, so that we are ready for the Days of Awe... the Jewish High Holidays that prime us for a year of spiritual satisfaction.

Elul doesn’t start until just over a week from now, but I want you to start thinking about September/Elul (they match up almost exactly this time) as your period of getting primed. Maybe look up the weekly Torah portion and read around it. Maybe take a class on Jewish history — there are many online options, including those that are free of charge. Perhaps you’d like to get yourself primed in a different way and do some volunteer work. Or clean up your local park or beach. Or send a letter to a friend with whom you’ve been out of touch. We don’t have to save our apologizing, making amends, and good-deed-doing until the High Holidays hit.

The goal of Elul is to get your head and heart right for the High Holidays. What will you do so that you can feel empowered, enlightened, and enlivened when I see you at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur?

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It’s a really really good month to have a good month


I was so lucky to be part of the last cohort of Rabbis Without Borders. Oraynu, my Toronto congregation, supported me in attending three retreats where I met rabbinic colleagues across all movements/denominations, learned about leadership, and got to educate others about the Humanistic Jewish approach. 

You may have seen on social media that I befriended a really cool Orthodox rabbi named Isaiah. For a while he and I were chevruta (study buddies). We come from pretty different Jewish worlds and yet forged a real friendship and connection, each learning from the other and delighting in the common ground that united us. 

Isaiah taught me a lot, but one of the most important things was a song to welcome the new month. It goes: “It’s a really really good month to have a good month, Chodesh tov, Have a good Month.” Repeat. Every month it gets in my head as the Jewish lunar calendar flips to a new month. I’m writing this on the first day of the new month (you see it a few days later), and so I want to share the song with you and wish you a really really good month: https://www.denisehandlarski.com/video

The song, like lots in Jewish text and culture, is deceptively simple. If it’s a really, really good month to have a good month, then it’s always a good time to have a good time. And, really, time is our most precious resource while we get to hang out on this wacky and wonderful planet. 

I love that in Jewish practice we welcome the new month. It’s like a mini Rosh Hashanah (Jewish new year). We get to check in, see how we are doing with our goals of who we want to be and what we want to do And, as the song reminds us, we can decide to have a good month. 

Yes, the world is rife with problems. Yes, lots of us have personal struggles. Yes, there is tragedy everywhere we look. But, there is also beauty. There are also people working on the problems. And we also have a voice and a choice to decide that every month, every day, we are going to be and do our best. It’s a really really good month to have a good month! 

This month my theme is social responsibility. I am choosing a few companies that I support and asking them to do a little better. The first is writing to some coffee places I frequent (looking at you, Starbucks), and asking them to make reusable ceramic mugs the default and charging a little bit for disposable ones. How often do you see people sitting in coffee shops drinking out of throw-away cups? Why?! One of my own personal goals is to never use disposable coffee cups. I lug a mug or I sit in the place and drink my drink. Sometimes I end up downing a double espresso really fast when on the run. That’s one less cup in landfill; one less bit of waxy paper/plastic in the world that will outlast me and all of us (no, those cups are not recyclable and no, most of the compostable ones never really get to compost). Want to join me? If you write to a coffee shop or another company of your choosing and ask them to do a little better, I’ll send you a virtual high five and a shout out on my social media page. 

It’s a really really good month to have a good month - and make the world a little better while we’re at it. 

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Laughter is the best medicine

Earlier this winter I was feeling particularly burnt out after a demanding semester of teaching and a full calendar. I went on a trip with two girlfriends. We chatted on the flight about what we were most looking forward to on the trip. And I said, “I don’t know when, I don’t know over what, but I know that at some point I’m going to laugh so hard I cry.” 

And that’s exactly what happened. Surrounding myself with some good friends, a great beach, and some mojitos was helpful for my rejuvenation. But what those things really did were to set the stage and conditions for what I really needed: a big old belly laugh. 

This summer, I can’t promise you one of those laughs that go on and on, force you to tear up, have you double over, make you lose your breath. But I want that for you. After a laugh like that, endorphins are flowing, everything seems more manageable, and we tap into deep joy. 

So, what do you need to do to set the conditions to make it more likely that you laugh? Who can you call for a coffee date? Can you invite a good group of fun people to your cottage (or, if you’re like me, snag an invite to someone else’s)? What movie or book might trigger a big laugh? 

In an interview with Comedian Jon Stewart I watched recently, he was asked why he thinks comedy is the right tool for political action. He replied that when we are laughing we are not afraid. So many of us are so concerned and, yes, afraid, of the state of things right now. Sometimes our best defence and resistance is to laugh.

So, laugh a lot this summer. We all only have so many summers in this world — we might as well make the most of them. 

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Children in Concentration Camps

This past week there was some tension in the Jewish community over whether it is appropriate to call U.S. detention centers housing migrants “concentration camps.” There were also horrific news articles about how children are being denied basics like toothbrushes, made to sleep on cold floors, and must represent themselves in court. We are talking about little children - the youngest of which is four months old.

I am ashamed that some in the Jewish community seem more outraged by the use of a term they feel belongs uniquely to the Jewish experience, than about innocent children being taken from their parents and tortured in these ways. 

What is a concentration camp? It is a small area in which innocent people are held without due process based on their ethnicity or country of origin. We have to use this term to describe what is happening because there has been too much complacency so far. Let’s start calling things what they are. Concentration camps. Torture. There are going to be round ups of migrants. The repetition of history is happening as we are watching. 

I serve many community members who are not in the U.S. But do we as Jews not hold countries besides Germany and Poland accountable for allowing the Holocaust to happen? Do we not wish there had been an international effort to stop it? We need to be that effort. “Never again” is right now. 

Here’s what I have done and I encourage you to join me:

- I wrote to my MP, to MP Freeland (who handles foreign affairs and diplomacy), and our Prime Minister asking them to use any possible diplomatic channels to ask for this to end. At the very least, these migrants — children! — deserve basic care and legal representation. 

- I have financially supported RAICES, the ACLU, and the Southern Poverty Law Center — all doing good work on the ground.

- I posted about this issue on my professional and personal social media, sounding the alarm and saying that as a Jew I am deeply concerned about where concentration camps and round ups are heading. I want everyone to act.

- I sent a message to my rabbinic colleagues in the Humanistic Jewish movement saying that after our summer meetings in Chicago (already booked), I will no longer travel to the United States. No more vacations or work travel there until this ends. It is time to vote with our dollars and our feet. I will not spend one more dollar in that country while children are being tortured. 

It feels like it is not enough but it is a start. Who’s with me? If you can’t do all of these things, what can you do? Let’s show the world that when Jews say “Never Again” we mean for all people. 

Denise

Religion and Sex

The celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Society for Humanistic Judaism took place just ten days ago. Many of us gathered at a large event at the Birmingham Temple in suburban Detroit to celebrate our Jewish movement and the awesome communities we’ve created, social justice work we’ve done, and our continued push to separate “church” (religion) and state.

Rabbi Jeff Falick (Birmingham Temple) and I co-led a session on the Association of Humanistic Rabbis statement on Sexual Ethics, available at this link. The reason the AHR felt we needed this statement is that religious leaders from all faiths have always regulated sexuality, often in dangerous and harmful ways. From horrible homophobia, to hidden pedophilia, to encouraging marital relations where women have no power, religious influences in the bedroom have been forces for oppression. As rabbis, we know we have the power to influence and lead, and so we wanted to use our voices to promote sexual ethics, not the kind that come from the bible or rabbis living centuries ago, but the kind that come from our contemporary understandings.

The separation of church/state is particularly important in schools. Part of my work is in sexual health education, and I understand that devastating effects of religious interference in this crucial education. Abstinence-only, or fear-based sex-ed, has led to high rates of teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, and terrible attitudes and shame about sex. Worse yet, they allow for homophobia and heterosexism to go unchecked, and encourage or at least do not actively discourage unhealthy sexual attitudes and relationships.

Those in Ontario know that we have been waging a fight for good sexual health education, with religious groups in the way of what we know to be best for student outcomes in terms of health, fostering consensual and healthy relationships, and positive identity and inclusion for LGBTQ folks. These are literally matters of life or death.

One of the things that drives me completely bananas about the folks (often espousing religious values) who are opposed to sex ed being taught in schools, is that they are also often anti-choice (they call themselves “pro-life” but they know people die from unsafe back alley abortions and don’t much care). There is *so* much data to show that when students have good sex ed in school, rates of abortion go down. When abstinence-only education is offered, rates of abortion go up. So, if you want abortion to be rare, you should be the first to demand good sexual health education. It’s the same religious groups who are against abortion that are against sex ed. It makes no sense.

Last week I was in a room full of teachers, and we were talking about everything from the pill to pornography, chlamydia to consent. This is not only part of my work as a teacher, I see it as part of my work as a rabbi. We need our spiritual communities to take a stand and demand good, healthy, evidence-based education.

So, read the statement. Seek out and support religious clergy and institutions that are strongly pro-choice and always, meaningfully, on the side of humanity, dignity, and women’s rights.

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Some “hands on” learning for my Teacher Candidates.

Love and Death

This past weekend folks from all over North America gathered at the Society for Humanistic Judaism’s 50th anniversary summit. The SHJ is the movement organization for Secular Humanistic Jews and communities.

It was a dynamic and powerful weekend, with speakers and programs talking about how we do Judaism meaningfully, advocate for the separation of church and state effectively, add joy and beauty to people’s lives authentically, and much more.

The folks who were there got an immersive experience in what Secular Jewish communities can provide: deep and meaningful connection with culture and community. We sang, ate, laughed, and learned together. But then, sadly, we also had to grieve together.

On Saturday evening, just as we were preparing for a beautiful Havdalah service and getting ready to welcome a Jew by choice, a beloved member of SecularSynagogue.com, into the people and our Humanistic Jewish community, we heard about the shooting in California.

It was such a sad reminder that the love and joy we were experiencing could be the target of hate. Even as people are wanting to join our community, others are wanting to destroy it.

There is a lot you can read about the shooting, including the victims and the attacker. One detail that resonates with me as a spiritual leader is that the rabbi, shot in the hand, stayed after the shooter left and finished his sermon, not wanting to leave without offering his community some solace.

It is difficult to find the words. We are struck by the pointless suffering and waste of human life. We are struck by the depth of hate. We are struck by the needlessness of gun violence. We are struck by our own fear and vulnerability. It is hard to find solace and comfort and hope.

In our movement, we often sing  a song called Ayfo Oree - where is my light. It includes the words “Where is my light? Where is my strength? Where is my hope? In me... and in you.”

These are the only words of solace I can offer you. There is no magic solution to the problems and hate we face. All there is is the light, strength and hope we find in ourselves and in each other.

Now more than ever, communities of love and support need to come together. There is real power in that. I felt it this weekend and I often feel it at Oraynu, my community in Toronto, and I feel it online at SecularSynagogue.com. We need each other.

As I have offered before, if you are needing someone to talk to in the aftermath of this shooting, even if I don’t know you yet, please send me an email or give me a call. I am here for you.

Take care of yourselves. Remember that while it’s healthy to grieve and to feel anger, fear, and loss, it is also healthy to make space for light, joy, love, and laughter. This is the human experience and we are in it together.

Sending love and light this week and always,

Rabbi Denise

Dr. Carolyn Kay and I at a vigil in Peterborough, Ontario after the PIttsburgh Synagogue shooting

Dr. Carolyn Kay and I at a vigil in Peterborough, Ontario after the PIttsburgh Synagogue shooting

Why is this night different?

Passover is my very favourite holiday of the year. I really adore sitting down to a seder that is, each year, both familiar and new. I love the ritual and tradition, the storytelling aspect, the focus on children, and, of course, the food.

Jewish teachings indicate that we are to make the seder new each year. I challenge you to figure out how to do that around your seder table this year. Perhaps it’s a new addition to the seder plate (last week I spoke about Ruth’s mix for intermarried/intercultural folks). Perhaps it’s a new poem or reading. Perhaps you find a creative and fun way to tell the story of the Exodus (one year my family told it by enacting the scenes in a game of charades).

The point of making it new is not just to keep things interesting, although that’s a worthwhile goal in itself. The point is that we must see ourselves as though we were slaves in Egypt, moving from oppression to freedom. For that to happen, the seder must be experiential and evocative. If our traditions are stale, we will experience distance from the story.

Each seder we ask “why is this night different from all other nights?” We should also ask why this particular night, this particular seder, is unique or special.

One of the things that makes each seder unique is the people who share the table. Sometimes there will be a new person: a new guest, friend, partner, child, who is at the table for the first time. Sometimes it’s the same group of people but everyone is at a new stage of their lives: having gotten married or had a baby, having lost a partner or loved one, having retired, changed jobs, or experiencing some other new change. Each year we grow and evolve and so each year we ourselves are new at the seder table. Take the time to find out who and how everyone is this year. And take the time to find out why this night is special, different from all other seders and gatherings.

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Photo of a Seder plate one person made for the SecularSynagogue.com Seder. If you missed it, join the community now so you don’t miss all the other fantastic things we’re up to! 

Intermarried/intercultural mixing it up this Passover

Passover is my favourite holiday! One of the things I love about it is how we take tradition and make it our own. This is something many secular/cultural Jews do all the time, for we give tradition a vote but not a veto in all of our Jewish practices. But at Passover this is what all Jews are meant to do: stick to traditional ritual and storytelling, but do it in a new way each year.

Do you use a contemporary Haggadah?

Do you tell the story of the Exodus in creative ways?

Do you put an orange on your Seder plate for gender and LGBTQ equality? (If so, you may want to check out the real story behind it: https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/an-orange-on-the-seder-plate/)

There is a brand new tradition I’ll be incorporating this year. It comes from JewBelong, a website dedicated to eliminating “JewBarrassment,” the feeling we sometimes get in Jewish spaces when we don’t know what’s going on. This is for Jews and also for those who join Jewish families via Intermarriage, or others who end up with us at holidays and celebrations.

JewBelong’s Haggadah encourages adding “Ruth’s Mix” to the Seder plate. The biblical Ruth married into our people, and her mix on the plate is to show that all are welcome at the Seder table, particularly non-Jews in intercultural families. The mix is a blend of almonds, raisins, and chocolate, all delicious separately, but even better together. As folks eat the mix they consider that bringing cultures and peoples together heightens our joy.

If you want to check out their Haggadah with the section about Ruth’s mix, it’s here: http://www.jewbelong.com/holidays/passover/

Here’s to mixing it up and welcoming all at our Seder tables!!

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Passover prep


As soon as the beginning of April hits, I often realize that I have not prepared for Passover the way I had meant to. Every year I imagine I will create my own Haggadah (in my case, kid-friendly), clean my whole house in the manner of Marie Kondo, get to the end of my work to-do list, and then fall into the perfect seder-mode, as though some kind of Passover queen.

None of those things happen, usually.

Last year I did successfully create a kid-friendly Haggadah, using a blend of Oraynu’s fabulous Haggadah Roots and Branches (we sell those! You can get a set for your own table!),  and the resources on Haggadot.com. This website has assembled sources on all aspects of the Haggadah so you can easily create your own. Yes, most sources are theistic/traditional, but you can edit as you wish. It’s work, but I like that we have a family Haggadah made just for us.

The rest does not happen and is not likely to happen, if I’m being honest. The best I’m going to do on the house cleaning front is making it passable in short spurts (I like the method of putting on fast music and setting a timer for seven minutes) and perhaps a controlled amount of decluttering. My work to-do list will continue to get ever-lengthier, not shorter. I’ll resemble more of a Passover working mom than queen. But all of that is just fine!

I really think that we tend to sweat the small stuff when it comes to Passover prep, and lose sight of the big picture. What is this holiday about? It’s about ending oppression, celebrating freedom, gathering with loved ones, and engaging with a story that has served as the cornerstone of Jewish culture and community. It really doesn’t matter if you haven’t prepared the perfect meal with 8 courses or cleaned each speck of chametz (bread items) or dust from your home.

For me, the big moment of joy last year was hearing my nephew and daughter sing “Ma Nishtana,” the Four Questions, in Hebrew. There is something so powerful about the intergenerational links that celebrating Passover creates. I remember seders from childhood and it’s amazing to see my kids experience their power now.

So, do your prep. Keep your eye on the important stuff. If your home is a little more cluttered or your to-do list a little too long, you can still have a wonderful holiday.

To help you along, I’ve created a Passover prep guide. Check it out here:

 https://www.secularsynagogue.com/free-download

Happy Passover prep, everyone!

 

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Rosh Hashanah sermon - Can a Humanist Be Happy?

This was the Rosh Hashanah commentary from the service at Oraynu Congregation for Humanistic Judaism, September 2018 (5779). Note: it followed the reading of Jeremiah 31: 2-20, which is traditionally read on Rosh Hashanah.

 

Stop me if you heard it: The Brandeis University rowing team has failed every time. They send an observer to watch the Yale and Harvard crew teams, and he reports back, "guys, we're doing it all wrong. We need EIGHT people rowing and ONE person yelling!" This joke works because of the stereotype that Jews yell, disagree, can’t steer together.

Jeremiah tells us that when the exiles return there will be immense joy, there will be celebration, there will be singing and dancing. Mourning itself shall turn to joy. But, with respect to Jeremiah, as the people who are more likely to call out “oy” than to experience “joy” we are perhaps still waiting for the prophecy to come true.

Quick exercise and please try not to overthink: If you have children or grandchildren in your life: what’s the one thing you want most for them in their lives?

And here’s one for you? What do you want for your life most this year?

Do the answers match up? #1 answer when parents are asked what they want for their kids is not a fancy job, or a spouse, or wealth. It’s happiness. When we set our own goals, they are often for these parts of life that we think might make us happy, but usually we do not set out simply to be happy ourselves.

Paul Golin, the Executive Director of our movement organization  the Society for Humanistic Judaism, was here this past June. He asked what job Judaism is doing in our lives, which I think is a really worthwhile question. It’s a question I put to you. I answered that I thought Judaism could be a force to make people’s lives happier, and Paul was surprised. He said something like, “wow, happy. I never considered happy. I’m not even sure I’m capable of happy. What I have is something more like righteous indignation.”

If you know me at all, you know I’m actually quite a fan of righteous indignation. I believe we are living in an incredibly pivotal political time and the very real fights we face around climate change, racism and discrimination, sexism and sexual violence, immigration and refugee rights, food security, and many more, are deserving of our fervour, our ferocity, and our fury. I’m a big fan of anger when it motivates us to act. I think we are entitled to be angry — there is a lot going on that should make us angry. But when you think about what you want for the children and grandchildren in your life is it to walk around being angry all the time? Of course not. We need to find a way to balance the righteous indignation with the joy. Can a Humanist be happy? I sure as hell hope so!

You are likely familiar with Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The bottom of the pyramid is filled with things we need to survive: food, shelter, water. As we go up the pyramid there are things like love and belonging. Further up is esteem, and the highest need we have, a need we are capable of achieving only if all the other needs are met, is self-actualization. I like a lot of what is in this theory, but I have two criticisms: firstly, while it is important to focus on the self, I believe we as humans actually need to focus beyond our selves. There is nothing on that pyramid about doing good, pursuing social justice, helping others. I think if we are to truly reach self-actualization we have to look outwardly as well as inwardly. The second criticism I have is the shape... the pyramid. Maslow suggests that we can’t focus on love and belonging until we have basic physiological needs met. I disagree. I think people who do not have the basic means for survival often experience incredible love and feelings of belonging. I also think the love and belonging help us find the tools to survive, for we are motivated by our own survival and that of the people we love.

I’m going to return to some of these concepts, particularly love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. I think they are key to our happiness as individuals and as a people.

But first I want to explore more about why this happiness thing is so hard to come by, perhaps especially for Humanistic Jews. Partly it’s that most of us do not believe in a grand plan, in fate, in things being by design. When someone believes in those things, I think it is easier to resist despair. We not only have no faith that these things will all turn out fine because they are preordained, but we don’t necessarily have faith that the humans on whom we rely have the will or the skill to address the challenges we face.

I think there is something cultural at play too. In Michael Wex’s book “Born to Kvetch,” he discusses how Yiddish encoded something in the Jewish psyche. He says Yiddish is not a “have a nice day” language. One doesn’t ask “how are you?” Because the answer will be “how should I be?”

And yet there are examples of Jews who make happiness their mission, sometimes literally. The Chasidic movement is so successful because it has a goal of making Jewish practice extremely happy and joyful, almost frenetically so sometimes. The Chasidim sure bring the party, and you know what? They’re right. There is much with which I disagree in Chasidic and other branches of Orthodox Judaism. But Chasidism got the joy piece right. Why be or do Jewish if it doesn’t help make you happy? I stand by my answer to Paul Golin. I think Jewish identity, practice, ritual, and experience can absolutely help you up Maslow’s ladder, from offering love and belonging, to reasons for self-esteem and the esteem of others, and to self-actualization. Judaism also helps with the social justice piece that Maslow forgot.

I’ve been thinking and reading a lot about happiness. We have traditional sources on this.

The Mishnaic sage, Ben Zoma, expresses it very succinctly: Eizehu ashir? Hasame’ach bechelko. “Who is rich? He who is happy with his share.” Good advice.

Anne Frank noted, “We all live with the objective of being happy; our lives are different and yet the same.”

And many people who are not Jewish have much to offer in understanding how we can increase happiness in our lives and strengthen the link between doing Jewish and being happy.

In The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin, we learn techniques that Rubin tried for a year to help make her more happy, a project she claims was successful, she is truly happier now. I’m a fan of Rubin’s. I get her daily “moment of happiness” emails with a quotation about happiness or something meaningful and I find it helps me start my day. One of the biggest takeaways from the Happiness Project for me, is one of the simplest. One of her rules for happiness is, “Be Gretchen.” She writes about how she always felt insecure about how she didn’t particularly care for music. She saw how much meaning it brought to others. She wanted to like it. She tried to like it. But she doesn’t really like it. She is happier focusing on the things that really are suited to her. In all things, be Gretchen. Or, you know, insert your own name. Later in the service we’ll here of the midrashic Zusya, a story from our own tradition with a very similar moral. Be yourself.

How does that map out Jewishly? Well, focus on the aspects of Jewish culture and practice that are meaningful to you and here’s the real trick: DFBA - don’t feel bad about it! If you are the kind of Jew who could not care less about Torah/Tanakh ( Tanakh is the Hebrew bible... like what we read from Jeremiah..) if you just went to sleep - if you’re that kind of Jew- guess what? DFBA! It’s ok! It’s better than ok! You now know your link to Judaism isn’t bible. But you’re here - so what is it? Personal betterment and fulfillment? Community and the traditions and people of our ancestral past? Social justice? Judaism has something to offer as we seek all of these things, and also shows us how these things connect. So, be Jewish your way. Be Gretchen or, rather, be you.

Last year I spoke about belief, behaviour, belonging. I returned to the concept a few weeks ago when reading Brene Brown’s Braving the Wilderness, a book that I wholeheartedly recommend. In it, Brown speaks about the human need for belonging — the middle of the Maslow hierarchy.  Brown’s definition of “true belonging” is: when we are truly and authentically ourselves and feel accepted.” But, of course, we won’t always be or feel accepted. So we must foster self-acceptance... it is a book for what she called outliers. Those who buck trends. Those who, in her words, brave the wilderness.

“True belonging” — makes me nervous. It sounds and feels a little too much like True believer. Our community is a community of misfits, skeptics, and outliers. I wouldn’t have it any other way. We have found each other in the wilderness. I love that metaphor because it reminds me of Passover - the Exodus story (sorry for the bible-haters...)  of Jews who wandered for 40 years. And still we wander... outliers.

The wilderness for Brown is being an outlier; being brave enough to stand up and stand out from the crowd. In her words, “Belonging so fully to yourself that you’re willing to stand alone is a wilderness” (49).

That’s us in multiple directions: some here left traditional Judaism and found this form of it which feels more authentic. Some left a family or community of disconnected Jews and found us and increased their Jewish experience and engagement manifold. Some married or partnered into Judaism and discovered us. But, for most of us, choosing to be in a Humanistic Jewish space on the high holidays is a sign of our outlier status. My mission is to help my community brave the wilderness - to lend support and foster community around the idea of being in the wilderness, a lonely, scary, but also beautiful space, open with possibility.

We have to sort out where we stand alone and where we stand with others. Brown notes that:

“True belonging is the spiritual practice of believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world and find sacredness in both being a part of something and standing alone in the wilderness. True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are” (196). Be Gretchen.

Braving the Wilderness talks about the how of being true to oneself and being in community and society with others — I’ll take that up on Yom Kippur when I discuss “civility, certainty, divinity, diversity.”

Some of Brown’s best tenets are: “people are hard to hate close up. Move in.... Speak Truth to BS, be civil... Strong Back, Soft Front, Wild Heart.” (7)

I love this last one best of all. We need a strong back to carry the load of working for justice, speaking our truth, being who we are. We need a soft front to stay vulnerable — it’s hard being truly who we are out in this harsh world. The soft front makes us loving, open, available. And the wild heart. If I could wish one thing for you this year, it’s this wild heart. What would or could you do with this year if you listened to your impulses? If you pursued an unrealistic dream? If you gave generously, danced maniacally, laughed and loved exuberantly?

Her book ends (spoiler) with a sentiment I feel is perfect for the start to the year:

“There will be times when standing alone feels too hard, too scary, and we’ll doubt our ability to make our way through the uncertainty. Someone, somewhere, will say, ‘Don’t do it. You don’t have what it takes to survive the wilderness.’ This is when you reach deep into your wild heart and remind yourself, ‘I am the wilderness.”

I connect Brene Brown’s words with the reading of Jeremiah. The idea here is that we are coming out of the wilderness and so will rejoice. I’m thinking though that we never really come out of the wilderness. I think most of us are stuck in one wilderness or other for a long time. There is no true Promised Land. I’m not speaking of the dream and vision for the state of Israel precisely, but we can go there for a minute. It’s clear that there is more to do. We can apply this to our own lives too. With respect to Jeremiah, I’d like to invert the meaning of the passage: I don’t want to wander through the wilderness and expect joy on the other side; I want to know how we bring the joy to the wilderness.

Does being the wilderness, or being in the wilderness, make a person happy? Partly. It means that we are struggling for something, and often that something is beautiful and precious. Braving the wilderness gives our lives meaning, and meaning is key to happiness.

Tal Ben-Shahar, a Harvard professor focusing on positive psychology, notes in his book “Happier,” that we have words like “pleasure, bliss, ecstasy, and contentment” which “are often used interchangeably with the word happiness, but none of them describes [it] precisely (4)”.

In our service we note that there are many words in Hebrew for joy; these are part of the seven wedding blessings: gila, rina, ditza v’chedva.

All these words... but identifying a true definition for happiness still seems so elusive. I generally see myself as a happy person, but I’m so often not *aware* of being happy. Mostly we all just feel sort of regular. People who are generally unhappy are likely much more aware of it, but even they might sometimes experience pleasure, bliss, gila, rina, etc and not take stock of those feelings or how those feelings are aiding in increasing their overall happiness.

Ben-Shahar says that rituals help aid happiness (8), which is part of why it’s so important to mark holidays like this one, including all of the attendant rituals we experience here and at home — reading Torah, lighting candles, apples and honey. These are all part of what is happy-making about holidays. The specific experiences bring us joy and meaning, and the rhythm of the ritual happening annually also increases our happiness because it offers both the comfort of regularity and the excitement of the special — we do it every year but only once a year. For Ben-Shahar the real ticket to a happy life, or at least a happier life, is when our lives are filled with both pleasure and meaning. We need a mix of both pleasure and meaning for our lives to feel happy because either one alone is not enough. All pleasure all the time might sound good, sometimes it might sound really good!, but ultimately we get bored, feel unfulfilled, and cannot serve others if we are only about our own immediate pleasure. All meaning all the time feels a little weighty. We need time to let go, recharge, enjoy the fruits of our labour. Where pleasure meets meaning is where we can start to find real happiness.

When I ask you what your goals are for this year, maybe some are about pleasure: vacations you want to take, experiences you want to have with special people, etc. And maybe some are about meaning: social justice work you will pursue, career goals and milestones, working on developing or sustaining close relationships. All of these are worthwhile things to focus on this year. Sometimes we feel our dreams or goals to do with pleasure are too frivolous, unserious, undeserving of our attention, our money, or the sacrifice of others. “What right do I have to take off for the weekend with my girlfriends when I have a full house and a full inbox?” But what happens if we don’t focus on our own pleasure? We resent the people in our homes and those at the other end of the emails.

You may have heard me say before that I try not to tell people that I’m “busy,” but rather that my life feels “full.” It really does! I feel so grateful for meaningful work, meaningful family, meaningful friendships, meaningful ideas I get to read, discuss, and contemplate. I really do have a full house and a full inbox. Does this fullness leave me feeling fulfilled? Sometimes yes and sometimes no. The fullness of it all can certainly lead to overwhelm, which I know is something many of you experience.

To be happy, we need the meaning and the pleasure. My best moments are ones like this when we are together, enjoying, truly enjoying our holiday, our community, our time to focus inward. There is a lot of pleasure here (at least I hope there is!). We even have honey cake afterwards! There is also, I like to think, some real meaning. I often feel happier after having attended a service or celebrated a holiday. The meeting of pleasure and meaning is why.

So, my challenge to you is finding out ways to bring pleasure and meaning together more often. I’m not saying that because I like you and so I want you to be happy. I do like you. I do want you to be happy. But it’s not just for you. I want you to be happy because I know that a lot of hurt is happening in our world right now. I know that when we are happy, when we are moving through the world like we love ourselves, we are more likely to bring happiness to others. We are certainly less likely to cause harm to others.

The happiest people I know are also the most generous, most giving, most caring. They can afford to be this way because they operate from a place of abundance and not scarcity. I want you to be happy because I know that if we could harness the power and potential of everyone here today when we are at our happiest and strongest, we could achieve incredible things in this world. And this world certainly needs us now.

As I look around, I see wilderness. I see pain, fear, hurt, anger. Lots of searching. Lots of frustrated wandering. The story of our people is this story. And we know what to do with it. The Chasidim know, the wedding couple filled with gila, rina, ditza knows, when we think of what we wish for our children and grandchildren, we know. Our lives must be purposeful. To achieve self-fulfillment, the highest level for Maslow, and to reach a happy life, a high value in and of itself: we need all of it: joy, anger, righteous indignation, struggle, meaning, purpose, pleasure, wilderness. I wish you all that and more this coming year. Shana tova u’metukah. May it be a very good, very sweet, and very happy year for you and yours.

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