I was blessed with the opportunity to deliver the Shabbat sermon at the Aspen Jewish Congregation last week on the night before my son Sam and his bride Suzanne were married atop Aspen Mountain.
It gave me a unique opportunity to share my heartfelt advice regarding how to achieve a successful marriage and as well as a shanah tova to a captive audience that included my children, my family, my rabbi, and many of my closest friends. It was truly a dream come true.
The obvious topic for such a message would be happiness. After all, we all want our children, family, and friends to be happy–both in marriage and all year long. My inbox is thankfully bursting with emails from people wishing me a happy new year at this very moment.
But to be truly useful, a sermon on happiness would have to include advice on how to achieve it. I was a pitcher on my high school baseball team and once walked three batters in a row to fill the bases for the other team. My coach strode to the mound and told me to “throw strikes” then walked back to the bench. I was already trying to throw strikes. What I needed was expert advice on how to do it.
I didn’t want to waste my one sermon on that kind of encouraging but unproductive exhortation.
Some people assume that financial success leads to happiness. But each of us know many very wealthy people who are miserable. I have actually had clients and friends who tried to explain away their unhappiness by assuming that if they only had more money then things would be better. And when they did become wealthy, they went crazy because they were still unhappy and their excuse had been taken away.
And as we grow older, many assume that good health is the key to happiness. After all we are told that if you have your health you have everything. But again, we all know people who are in great shape and enjoy excellent health and are still miserable. Again, being in constant pain or suffering from disease can be a real cause of unhappiness. But as with prosperity, good health in and of itself is no guarantee of happiness.
Fortunately, my friend and long-time teacher Dennis Prager has devoted much of his life to studying what makes people happy. In his book “Happiness is a Serious Problem” he identifies one–and only one–quality that is common to all happy people.
Happy people are grateful people. It is the ability to be grateful that is the true key to happiness. As Prager put it:
All happy people are grateful. Ungrateful people cannot be happy. We tend to think that being unhappy leads people to complain, but it’s truer to say that complaining leads to people becoming unhappy.”
And as Jewish sage Ben Zoma stated in Pirkei Avot (Saying of our Fathers):
Who is rich? He who is satisfied with what he has.
As I gave my sermon and looked into the eyes of my wife and children and my friends in the audience, I saw people who had much to be grateful for. People who have been blessed with amazing good fortune and wonderful friends and life partners and the ability to live and visit a paradise like Aspen and be part of nurturing and amazing communities.
And in the large majority of those in the room who are Jewish are blessed to live at a time and in places where Jews have never been safer, more prosperous, more widely respected and loved, and more sought after as friends, spouses, neighbors, and co-workers by others than at any time in history.
One might expect that the speeches heard at Jewish events or articles we read in the Jewish press or emails we receive from our Jewish friends would be full of gratitude for our unprecedented good fortune as well as praise and gratitude for those who have made it possible.
And yet, I can’t remember the last email I have received from a Jewish contemporary that has expressed even a hint of gratitude at all. Instead, they are all full of anger and fear and demonization of other religious groups, politicians they don’t agree with, and most of all of fellow Jews who have different beliefs about how to best support Israel or what it means to be Jewish in the first place.
And most damaging of all is that many of my older Jewish friends–despite their incredible good fortune, continue to regard themselves and all Jews as victims of others.
Many of those friends admire and respect the words and ideas of Dennis Prager. But here’s how Prager describes them–those who complain that Israel and those who support it are the ultimate victims of bias and unfair treatment:
The Joy of Victimhood. There are some clear rules about happiness. One is that you cannot be happy if your primary identity is that of a victim, even if you really are one. There are a number of reasons: People who regard themselves as victims do not see themselves as in control of their lives. Whatever happens in their lives happens to them, not by them. People who primarily regard themselves as victims see the world as unfair to them in particular.
So as I head off to Rosh Hashanah services tonight, I will be offering apologies to God and others for those aspects of my behavior that have been hurtful or unhelpful. And I will be praying for the wisdom, insight, and character to improve myself in as many ways as I can and to treat others with the respect and kindness and compassion that Rabbi Hillel wisely said in his elevator speech about what being Jewish is all about.
But most of all I will be giving thanks for my incredible good fortune, my amazing friends and family, and praying that the coming year will be a time when expressions of gratitude will be filling my inbox instead of angry, uncivil, demonizing rants that target good people with slanderous lies and distortions.
Our community faces numerous challenges–some the result of external threats but most of them self-inflicted. During the coming year, may God grant us the insight to treat those with whom we disagree as people who, like ourselves, are created in the image of God as the Torah we claim to revere tells us.
And for God’s sake let us appreciate that most Jews live in times and places (almost 90 percent of us live in the U.S. and Israel where we are secure, powerful, prosperous and loved by most of our neighbors) that no other generation ever believed could be possible. And that is BECAUSE we are Jewish, not in spite of that fact.
May you have a year blessed with prosperity, good health, and the ability to be grateful for all that we have and enjoy.