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September 14, 2015

The Jewish Secret of Happiness (Rosh HaShanah 5776)

Maurice A. Salth

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Dedicated to SER

Our Founding Fathers took a bold stance in the Declaration of Independence when they wrote that each person has the “unalienable right…to the pursuit of happiness”—a remarkable and radical statement.  How does each of us pursue happiness?  How can each of us increase our satisfaction with our life? 

Popular culture’s obsession with finding the secret of happiness is ubiquitous and intriguing.  We are inundated with happiness advice on the subway, on T-shirts, in restaurants, and on television.  There are 53 TED talks and more than 500,000 books on happiness alone.  I’ve tried some of this happiness advice: I make my bed every day. I attempt to keep only belongings that “spark joy.”  And I verbally thanked my old bicycle helmet before donating it—I did.  It was lovely.

Our faith shows us the way.

Judaism can be fairly described as one of the largest and oldest “happiness projects” in the history of civilization.  Our ancient texts define happiness as a state of personal contentment, in Hebrew sasson and m’ushar.  It is different from joy, simchah in Hebrew, because joy is fleeting.  Happiness is what the esteemed commentator Rashi described as a feeling of fulfillment that can last throughout one’s lifetime1

How does each of us define happiness?  Today, let us look at what Judaism has to say on the matter with the hope and prayer that, however we might explain happiness and however happy each of us feels, we can mine and expand it further in this new year. 

Each time we return the Torah to the ark we sing “Eitz chayim hi lamachazikim bah, v’tom’cheha m’ushar—It is a tree of life to those that hold fast to it and all of its supporters are happy.” 2 This tree of life text from the Hebrew Bible recognizes that from the Jewish perspective, happiness is a byproduct of our actions. It cannot be found instantaneously in a place or a one-time event.  Happiness is a consequence of us embracing and engaging in our tradition’s core teachings and values.

Count our Blessings

It is remarkable that our three-thousand-year-old book, our Torah, reflects the reality of much of our lives today.  Life in the Torah is not lived happily ever after; instead it is beautiful and meaningful, and often very hard. 

Look at the biblical characters within our tree of life.  With God at their side, our early ancestors should have had the easiest lives recorded in Jewish time; and yet, they too experienced today’s problems. Abraham’s father died young, Isaac and Rebecca’s marriage was riddled with conflict, infertility ravaged Jacob’s relationship with his beloved Rachel, Joseph’s brothers harbored deep grudges, and the Israelites wandered the desert often paralyzed by anxiety. 

Here within our Central community, we know of those who are suffering—they might be us, due to illness, loss, family strain, loneliness, or financial stress.  Some of us are contending with the weight of our world: migrant deaths in Europe, senseless murders in Virginia and around our nation, economic uncertainty, and the polarizing Iran deal.  We may have the urge to keep all this unpleasantness around us out of our consciousness. 

This summer, our four-year old son wandered into our room as were watching the morning news. It was the day when the report broke of Cecil the lion being hunted and killed.  When I tried to turn the television off, Caleb vehemently objected, so I found myself standing in front of it, arms spread, trying to distract him from hearing about the world outside.  Keeping such horrid news from a child is appropriate, but Judaism teaches we cannot ignore it. 

We must engage in our world.  We must face our problems be they personal or global. 

Every Shabbat evening at services, we recite a prayer for healing, our Mi Shebeirach, and the clergy often introduce this prayer noting specific events that are troubling our world.  Where we can, we strive to be comforting and a part of the solution.  Facing our crises head on might result in us Jews living life through a lens of fear.  Yet, this is not the Jewish way. 

Despite of our awareness of life’s onerous nature, the Torah and the Talmud’s words urge us to appreciate our blessings and choose life.  These are the exact words we chant each Yom Kippur morning from the book of Deuteronomy.  Yes, even in the shadow of difficulty, pain, or loss, we can consciously reflect upon the good in our world and embrace our precious life.

Viktor Frankl was an Austrian neurologist who was the only member of his family to survive the Nazi concentration camps.  He framed our tradition’s ancient charge brilliantly using modern words.  Frankl wrote: “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.  Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response.  In our response lies our growth and our freedom.3

Sheryl Sandberg, the author of the bestseller Lean In and the chief operating officer of Facebook, knows this as well.  This spring, a month after her husband, Dave, died suddenly at age 47, she wrote: “When tragedy occurs, it presents a choice. You can give in to the void, the emptiness that fills your heart… or you can try to find meaning.  These past thirty days, I have spent many of my moments lost in that void.  And I know that many future moments will be consumed by the vast emptiness as well. But when I can, I want to choose life and meaning.” 4

The Torah’s words compel us to put one foot in front of the other.  It literally says “choose life—vacharta bachaim,” 5 and charges each of us to make life-affirming decisions each day.  This is why we have a custom of verbalizing blessings—we bless our breath when we awake at the start of each new day and bless bread before we eat.  There is a blessing for seeing a beautiful tree, for surviving an accident, and we say a Shehecheyanu for arriving at a special moment in time—for our child’s first day of kindergarten… or college, for the chance to have lunch with an old friend and even for the opportunity to be with mom at a Mets game.  Maybe even a playoff game?!

Sheryl Sandberg notes: “I have learned gratitude, real gratitude for the things I took for granted before—like life.  As heartbroken as I am, I look at my children each day and rejoice that they are alive.  I appreciate every smile, every hug. I no longer take each day for granted. 6

We know some of us are hard wired to be happier than others.  If we don’t see much goodness in our lives, if we wake up with the weight of what’s wrong instead of the buoyancy of what’s right, what can we do?  How do we change our default mindset?

Judaism teaches that taking just a small step can result in positive change.  We can cultivate more happiness, more contentment.  In an effort to recognize my own blessings, I’ve begun to write each day, on my smartphone, one thing for which I am grateful.  It’s made a difference for me. 

Our tradition encourages us to reflect and focus upon the good in our lives: in doing so, we can increase our satisfaction with our lot. 

Care for the Stranger

Eitz Chayim Hi, It is a tree of life… and all of its supporters are happy.  Thirty-six times the Torah repeats the commandment to care for the stranger, reminding us that we, too, were strangers in the land of Egypt.  Thirty-six times!  No other commandment is repeated as much or comes close, not even those commandments regarding God, Shabbat, or keeping kosher.  Integrating this commandment into our regular routine can make us happier.  Our life is more fulfilling when we improve someone else’s.

Some of the happiest people I know here at Central wake up at 5:30 in the morning.  They are volunteers, young and old, in our weekly Thursday and Friday Breakfast Program. I see many of you here today.  For 32 years, we at Central have served breakfast to anyone who is hungry in our lobby.  Member Alan Herman calls it one of the best parts of his week and he told me, “It’s incredibly fulfilling and rewarding to be doing this with our community.”  Pam Heller volunteers often side by side with her husband Erik, her mother Amy, and her daughters twelve-year-old Maddie and nine-year-old Charlotte.  Pam told me, “I feel fantastic because I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that we have made a difference in the life of every person we served that day.”

One spring day, back in 1945, a little three-year-old boy named Marvin Goldstein climbed out of one of the windows in his fifth-floor Brooklyn apartment.  Window guards didn’t exist then. He released his hold of the windowsill and began to fall.  At that very moment, Sal Moriello, a barber, was leaving work early and crossing the street.  He heard a woman scream and saw her point up to the window.  Sal ran towards the building with his arms outstretched and caught the little boy in his hands.  The boy’s nose was fractured but he had no other injuries. 

Every Passover holiday following that fateful day, Sal would ask his family, “I wonder what happened to little Marvin Goldstein?”  Forty-three years after the catch, Sal’s daughter helped him track Marvin down.  Here’s Marvin’s account of their meeting: “It was absolutely thrilling to see Sal. We hugged, we kissed, and it was a glorious reunion. We went to the building where I fell out from the window and he caught me, and he told me that he kept the jacket with the blood from my nose.  He never cleaned it, and he kept it in his closet.  His wife said that this was one of the most important days in his life.  And, I said, well, his being there for me, of course, was one of the most important days in my life.  And he was just so, so happy that we were together again. 7

We may not get the chance to catch a child falling from a window, but we can catch people who are falling: our Breakfast Program volunteers are “catching” people, every single week.  The Talmud teaches: never underestimate the power of a regular person.8  When we give back, our lives find additional purpose and perspective and our hearts are filled.

Be Kind

It is a tree of life to those who hold fast to it and all its supporters are happy.  Two thousand years ago, the remarkable Rabbi Hillel was approached by an impatient gentile man who was seeking instantaneous contentment from Judaism.  The young man told Rabbi Hillel that he would convert if Hillel could summarize all of our tradition’s teachings while standing on one foot.  Hillel, a patient and gentle sage, raised his right foot and answered, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary—go and study it!” 9  The man, struck by Hillel’s genuine moving response, immediately began his conversion studies!

“What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.” This—Rabbi Hillel tells us—is the whole Torah. 

Don’t be hateful.

Be loving.

Be kind. 

The sages of the Talmud phrased it this way: the greatest wisdom is kindness.10

The Torah challenges us to be kind even when we fulfilling another commandment—to rebuke one’s family member or neighbor.11  No matter the setting, at work, home, or in the neighborhood, even when delivering critical feedback, we are to find a way to be nice.  It’s not always easy, but it is always Jewish.

When I moved from New York to Denver, Colorado, I immediately noticed no one honked his horn.  It was odd.  When someone wasn’t moving on the road they would just… wait.  I remember thinking “What is wrong with these people!” as I blared my horn.  It took me a while to realize my question should have been reversed.  Over time, I changed my behavior.  Don’t get me wrong, I am still genetically a New Yorker—I want to honk, but I do so only if there is an emergency. 

As with gratitude, kindness can be nurtured and cultivated.  It takes work for most of us.  My honking practice is an exercise I use to remind me of how I want to treat people whether or not I’m in a car.

Some of you may recall the story of our member Shelia Rosenblatt and her friend Barbara Margolis, both of blessed memory.  In the 1970s, they drove Barbara’s car each week to Riker’s Island where they tutored inmates in skills they would need when they left prison.  The inmates adored them for their kindness and dedication.  One night, Barbara’s car was stolen from right in front of her building at 72nd Street and Park Avenue.  Two days later, she found it, parked in the same spot with a note attached.  It turns out her car had been stolen by one of her former students, an inmate who had recently been released from prison.  When he discovered he had stolen his beloved teacher’s car, he returned it with this note: “Dear Mrs. Margolis, I am so sorry.  I didn’t realize this was your car.” 

What strikes me about this story is not the returned automobile, but the remorseful letter.  The force of a teacher’s kindness was so powerful, it softened even the hardest heart.

Being kind might result, in rare cases, in our stolen car being returned. 

Being kind might help our hearts from being stolen right out from under us. 

Where harshness over time empties us of our best qualities, being kind refills and re-energizes our souls and can expand and even revive the hearts of others.

The Sages were right: the greatest wisdom is kindness. 

A Prayer for Us

What is it that fulfills us? 

It is important that each of us explores our own answer to this question—to discover our own secret of happiness.  This is a good time to do it.  Judaism has significant wisdom to help us navigate our lives and be more content with our lot. 

Today is Rosh HaShanah, the first day of our New Year, and I am praying for our beautiful community.  Take a look around at our beautiful congregation filling this magnificent hall.  I’m praying for you and your family, and for me and my family. 

We know not what lies ahead… and no matter what we face, greater happiness is possible for each of us. 

It is a byproduct of our choices, what we focus upon, how we spend our time, and how we treat ourselves and others. 

Dear God, help each of us go forth with gratitude, help us catch each other, help us to be kind, and help us do our best with this precious life we have been given. 

Shanah Tovah.


1. Rashi commenting on the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat, page 130a (back to text)

2. Proverbs Chapter 3, verse 18 (back to text)

3. Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1959), p. 116. (back to text)

4. Sheryl Sandberg’s June 3, 2015, Facebook Post: (back to text)

5. Deuteronomy chapter 30, verse 19 (back to text)

6. Sheryl Sandberg’s June 3, 2015 Facebook Post: (back to text)

7.  Marvin and Eric Goldstein on StoryCorps: (back to text)

8. Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Brachot, page 7a (back to text)

9. Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat, page 31a (back to text)

10. BabylonianTalmud, Tractate Brachot, page 17a (back to text)

11. Leviticus chapter 19, verse 17 (back to text)