I wish to talk with you about happiness. Now I know that happiness seems like a rather odd topic for such a solemn holy day as Yom Kippur. It is not a subject that one would readily identify with the classical themes of Yom Kippur, they being sin, repentance, and atonement. One would think that it is hard to talk about happiness in a room full of fasting people. Yet, after giving it some thought I have come to the conclusion that at the end of the day – and by that I do not mean the Neilah service, the Concluding service, the end of this day – but at the end of the day, Yom Kippur is actually very much about happiness.
Several years ago, one of the members of our congregation, in the midst of a conversation we were having, remarked to me that whenever someone asks him, what was the best period in his life, when was he the happiest, he would respond that now is the best time of his life. He has never been happier than he is now. That was quite an amazing statement. How many of us, in all honesty, could say the same thing about our lives? That these days are the best days of our lives? There may be some among us, but most people tend to wax nostalgic. For some reason or other we find it comforting to think back to what we like to call “the good old days,” that time in our lives when we imagined ourselves to be at our happiest.
That is not to say that most of us are terribly unhappy. Some are, but most are probably not. Though we may not be terribly unhappy, we tend to capture our happiness in fits and spurts. We take it when and where we can find it. Much of the rest of the time, we seem to hover in a realm between happiness and unhappiness, feeling not much of one or the other. Just existing. Often are the times we ponder dreamily about finding happiness; ultimate happiness. How great life would be if only this would happen or that would happen. For happiness can be an elusive prey. We spend so much of lives grasping at it, sometimes successfully and sometimes not.
All people are in search of happiness. No one really wants to be unhappy, no matter how grumpy they may appear on the outside. Indeed the grumpiest and dourest of people are usually those who have met with the greatest frustrations in their search for happiness; so much so that they appear to have given up the quest.
Unless we are among that privileged minority that can proclaim, as did the congregant I mentioned earlier, that these days are the happiest days of our lives and that we could not be happier, then we need to seriously re-evaluate where it is that we have been seeking our happiness. Perhaps we might be, just like in the words of country western song, “Lookin’ for love in all the wrong place” but in our case it has been looking for happiness.
Happiness is not monolithic. Not all happiness is equal. There is that experience of happiness that lasts for the moment, however long that moment might be, and then there is that experience of happiness that resides with us perpetually.
As we take this Yom Kippur opportunity to seriously examine the conduct of our lives, we must include in our introspection the manner and the means through which we have sought out happiness. For if we discover that our quest for happiness has in some ways been misdirected then we must consider the possibility that such a misdirected quest for happiness can also throw off our quest for personal self improvement; that perhaps some of the lack of lasting happiness that we find in our lives is directly or indirectly related to where we have fallen short so far in our Yom Kippur inspired attempts to lift ourselves up to a higher level of human existence; that in order to make of ourselves better people, we need to do a better job of sorting out in our search for happiness that which is momentary from that which is lasting.
In our search for true happiness it is all too easy to mistake the momentary for the lasting. After all, momentary happiness can be far more readily available and its rewards can be more immediate. It can offer us great pleasure and do so quickly. The trap is that before we know it, the pleasure has faded. It may not be gone, but it is greatly reduced often to the point where we take it for granted.
Consider vacation trips, for example. I love to travel. I know many of you do as well. For weeks, if not months, I look forward to those trips. Right now the Cantor and I are excited about the possibility of visiting the Garfields in their home in Ireland next summer. When it comes to such vacations, the departure date cannot arrive soon enough. Finally it does arrive, and I am off on my trip, a trip that seems to go by in a flash. Next thing I know, I am packing to go home. Then I am on the airplane. Then I am walking in the door of my apartment, weary, with luggage in hand. Next day, I am back at work; my long awaited vacation over too soon, as I re-enter the daily grind, almost as if I never left. Of course I have the memories and the pictures – whether or not I will look at those pictures in a year is another story – but while they are nice, they are not the same. The vacation was a pleasure of the moment.
I am not ashamed to admit it. I love my toys, especially the electronic ones like my big screen TV and my laptop and my cell phone. They give me a lot of pleasure. But the strange thing about it is that as much as I love them, they never seem to be enough. I love my big screen TV, but I wish I had a surround sound system and a blue ray player. I love my laptop, but I wish I had one that was faster and could do more things, yet not be as heavy for when I travel. I love my Samsung cell phone but I wish I had a phone with longer battery life and better voice recognition. Whatever I have, it just never seems to be enough. While they fill me with pleasure, in the end they still leave a void. That is momentary rather than lasting happiness.
Who doesn’t like a new car? There is something about that new car smell and the excitement of all that glitz and glitter and all those little extras. I knew someone who never really cared for a new car. It was my father. He and my mother drove clunkers. Growing up, all my friends’ parents periodically purchased shiny new cars, but not mine. It used to drive me crazy. “Why can’t we get a new car?” I would incessantly whine. “Why?” my father would retort. “A car is just something that takes you from one place to another and ours get us there just fine.” I think back on those conversations now and realize how true were the words attributed to Mark Twain who reportedly said “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.” My father, in his wisdom, was quick to recognize that our love of new cars is yet another of those examples of momentary happiness.
Now don’t get me wrong. I am not against momentary happiness. I enjoy it. I wouldn’t give up my big screen TV for all the tea in china, even without the blue ray player and the surround sound. And I still look forward to vacation trips whenever I can take them. There is absolutely nothing wrong with momentary happiness. It is just that we have to understand it for what it is – a temporary high, if you will – and not confuse it or try to substitute it for true and lasting happiness. We should not get so lost in our acquisition of these temporary pleasures that we sideline our search for the sources of happiness which will not fade with the passage of time but rather will stay with us and lift us up; lift up our spirits, lift up our sense of self esteem, and lift us up as decent human beings. While the happiness of the moment can be fun – and that’s OK because everyone deserves some fun in their lives – still our search needs to focus on the happiness that stays with us.
Where can this lasting happiness be found? The answer to this question is really where happiness and Yom Kippur substantially intersect. For what is the ultimate purpose of Yom Kippur? Not just to examine the dark side of our character and our actions, our sins and our failings, but rather to do so in order to help us in the task of re-inventing ourselves as better people, kinder people, more loving people, people who seek to make a positive difference in the lives of others; both those whom we personally know and with whom we share our lives as well as those whose faces and names are unknown to us but with whom we share this planet.
Where is lasting happiness to be found? Well, it is not in objects and possessions. It is not in nicer houses and newer cars, in fashionable clothing and the latest electronics. In the final analysis, it is to be found in people and relationships, and within ourselves. It is to be found in love, in its many manifestations.
My son Joshua was born 30 years ago in California, in Silicon Valley, birthplace of the computer revolution. In those days it was a land of hopeful start-ups and massive material success. Soon after his birth, I rushed out of the hospital to put the finishing touches on the invitations that the Cantor and I had designed for his brit milah ceremony and then I rushed the proof to the printer. After all, having only an 8-day window, we needed to get them printed and mailed as soon as possible, so great was our desire to share our joy with others.
Upon my return to the Cantor’s hospital room, a nurse took me to the window in order to show me something. Just about the same time that Joshua was born another boy was born as well. Like me, no sooner was that baby born than his father also rushed out of the hospital. Upon his return, he took his wife to the window and proudly pointed to what the nurse was now showing me – a brand new Mercedes parked in front of the hospital, wrapped in an enormous ribbon and bow. Pointing to it, he announced to his wife, “This is for you! My way of saying thank you for giving me a son!” That guy just did not get it. He could not even tell his wife that he loved her and that he was full of joy at the prospect of them building a family together. He could not do it without the aid of money and material possessions.
It not the things in our lives that make us the happiest, and keep us the happiest. It is the people in our lives that do so. It is our relationships – including our relationship with God – which grant us the gift of enduring joy. That is, if those relationships are positive and healthy. Yom Kippur calls upon us to strengthen our relationship; to build upon the relationships we currently share, to heal the relationships we once enjoyed but for whatever reasons now are broken, and to seek to create new relationships with people we barely know and even with people we have never met. In order to do so, we need to make of ourselves people worthy of relationships; people with whom others wish to relate. Decent people. Honorable people. Sensitive people. Self-sacrificing people. Virtuous people. Loving people. Such people also happen to be happy people, really happy people, not just happy for the moment but happy for the lifetime. Happy because they are rightfully proud of the people they are and the life they have chosen to lead. Happy because they have earned the respect and love of others. Happy because they have come to share their lives in so many ways with so many people.
If we take the messages of Yom Kippur to heart and sincerely act upon them, we will discover that they carry us down the path to happiness, real happiness, lasting happiness.
“Lookin’ for Love,” by Wanda Mallette, Bob Morrison, & Patti Ryan, performed by Johnny Lee.
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