Today is June 15, 2024 /

Remarks for Kol Nidre (2023): How Jews Pursue Happiness

By Rabbi Arnowitz

Happiness is a concept that pervades our lives. It often defines our goals for ourselves and our children. It is the subject of international studies, personal journeys, podcasts, TV shows and even denotes the ethos of this nation – the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

For all the space happiness takes up in our culture, you would think it would be easy to define, and yet, it is one of the most difficult things to pin down. As I wrote about in our High Holiday Supplement Booklet, there are many words for happiness in Hebrew each with its own nuance. And there are plenty of them in English for that matter: happiness, joy, delight, contentedness, cheer, accomplishment, elation, ecstasy, jubilation, bliss – to name a few. When we dream for our children, when we desire for ourselves, when we envy others, what exactly is the happiness we have in mind? If we cannot define it, how can we achieve it?

As we begin this holiday of reflection and accounting of the year that has passed, I want to offer a definition of happiness gleaned from the wisdom of our faith. The Jewish people have learned to find the tiniest spark of joy even under the most difficult of times. What are the principles that have enabled us to do so?

The first and most important is that “Pursuit of Happiness” is not a Jewish value. In our faith, happiness isn’t a pursuit; it is a byproduct, a consequence, of a life well-lived. So how do we define a life well-lived? Shimon ben Zoma, a sage of the first and second century and contemporary of Rabbi Akiva said:

Who is wise? One who learns from every person…

Who is mighty? One who subdues the [evil] inclination…

Who is rich? One who rejoices in his portion…

Who is honored? One who honors fellow human beings…

Isn’t there something missing? Isn’t there something besides wise, mighty, rich or honored that someone would want to be? There is no, “Who is happy?” In this list of valuable things to be, shouldn’t ‘happy’ make the list, if not be at the top of it? If someone from our culture were making this list, no doubt it would be a top priority. Don’t the rabbis think that happiness is something people will want to be? Of course they do! So what’s going on here? Let’s take a closer look at each of these for the answer:

Who is wise? The one who learns from every person…

Wisdom is a worthy pursuit. But it’s not enough to learn by oneself, say with a book in ben Zoma’s time or with a computer today. It is not enough to collect wisdom and keep it to yourself. Wisdom is to be found in learning from many people, perhaps a diverse group with differing opinions. It is a thing to be collected, but also shared.

Think about where there’s a place you can be challenged and that provides opportunities to grow in wisdom with others who may not always agree with you.

Who is mighty? The one who subdues his [evil] inclination…

Might is a worthy pursuit. But not the kind that allows you to rule over other people. That kind of pursuit can never bring peace to you. For if your interest is collecting power, there is never enough to be satisfied. No, according to this teaching the only might worth having is the one that helps you be master of your own person, to guide your life in the best direction, to ennoble ourselves rather than fall victim to our basest instincts.

Where is a place that we learn to journey inward and become the best version of ourselves? Where is a place where we are ennobled?

Who is rich? One who rejoices in one’s lot..

Wealth is a worthy pursuit. But not the kind of pursuit that attempts to collect more and more, for, like power, there will always be more to get and no amount can ever be enough. The most pure feeling of being rich is to be found in rejoicing in satisfaction with what you have already acquired and with that fulfillment to feel open to focusing on other pursuits.

Where is a place that you come to deemphasize materiality and concentrate on less corporeal, say spiritual, pursuits?

And Who is honored? One who honors fellow human beings…

Honor is a worthy pursuit, but the only way to get it is to lavish honor on others. To concentrate on that which is divine in every human being and honor them as the reflection of God that they are, regardless of who they are or the identity they carry.

Where is a place that raises up people more for what they are than who they are? Where can anyone come to be treated like they bear the image of the Divine upon their person?

Ben Zoma doesn’t ask who is happy, because for him happiness isn’t the pursuit. Happiness is the result of a life lived in the way ben Zoma describes – growing in wisdom by interaction with others in deep pursuit of truth; becoming mighty in self-awareness and self-control; experiencing the wealth of deemphasizing possessions and raising up intellectual and spiritual pursuits; and gaining honor by seeing the imprint of the Sacred on everyone you encounter. When you do all of these things you will be happy.

And what kind of happiness is this? Not the quick thrill of delight or even the fleeting high of ecstasy that disappears and leaves you empty, hungering for the next fix. This is deep, embedded contentment, lingering satisfaction, the thrill of accomplishment that cannot be taken away. Pursue these four things and happiness is the result – pursue them and you truly pursue happiness – the resilient happiness we wish for our children, the protective joy we desire for ourselves, the self-satisfied contentment that allows us to rejoice in the good fortune of others and mourn their losses with them.

So what is the place to find such happiness – Where is a community seeking wisdom together? Where do people gather to find ways to lift themselves up above their basest animal desires and find the angelic nature within? Where do we deemphasize the material and raise up the spiritual? Where do we seek to honor all people as the children of the sovereign of sovereigns?

Hopefully by now you’ve guessed the answer. You’re here right now. WJC, our happy, spiritual home. This is the place where this counter-cultural, deep pursuit of happiness can be undertaken. I hope you have happy moments here, of course, delightful moments. But I hope even more deeply that together we can journey in pursuit of the contentment, connection and cheer that our faith teaches us is the true formula for an enduring happiness.

As we begin recounting the deeds of the past year, as we reflect on the happy moments and the sad ones, the times we were at our best and the times we came up short, may we chart a path together to a truly joyous next year.

And, after a day of reflection on our lives, on our priorities, on whether or not we are seeking happiness in the Jewish way – as a result of our well-lived lives, and accessing that deeper, abiding happiness, I hope you will remember to come here to this House of Happiness and Community where we pursue the joyful journey together so we can chart the journey ahead together in joy.

Gmar Hatimah Tovah.


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