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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What to do between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur?

 

Here we are! The Days of Awe, as they are known. I hope you are having a wonderful and meaningful Rosh Hashanah!

The Jewish New Year offers so many opportunities for reflection, growth, and betterment. I love the fresh-start-feeling I get at this time of year! Here are a few things you can do to set yourself up for a great year!

 Purge, clear, clean

Do you notice when you have a clean and clear space it makes for a clean and clear headspace? Take the time to do a little fall fix up of your home. This will also come in handy if you're having guests over!

Do you 10Q?

I love this website that sends you a question to answer each day of the High Holiday period and then sends you back your answers the following year! Check it out here.
Set some goals Set aside some time to write down some things you’re happy about from the last year, some things you’d like to change for this year, and some things that would make this the best time ever.

Make amends

Many Jews use this time of the year to ask for forgiveness. Write that letter/email or, better yet, make that phone call. Reach out and see if you can mend an old wound or reconnect with someone.
Get Outside!I always practice tashlich, casting away, on Rosh Hashanah. Visit a natural body of water and use something to symbolically cast away that which is no longer serving you. Note: the tradition is breadcrumbs but there are ecological concerns with that and so I've begun using sticks and leaves and pebbles I find near the river. Being in nature grounds us, connects us with the world, and is the perfect place to be inspired.

Focus on what matters

Did you get to spend Rosh Hashanah with family or friends? Did you taste the sweetness of apples with honey and/or pomegranates? Did you get to mark the holiday meaningfully? If so, you’re pretty lucky. Remind yourself to be grateful for all the good in your life.

Shana Tova!

Rabbi Denise

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