Today the average person is wealthier by far than at any other time in human history.Inventions have made life easier and more convenient than ever before. People have more options in life than previous generations ever dreamed of and we enjoy more leisure time than in the past. And yet, many peple, if not most, do not perceive themselves as happy.
Seminars to teach unhappy people how to be happy proliferate and a whole industry of self-help books are available about attaining happiness. Why then are people not happy? What is happiness - can it be defined and once defined, is it obtainable?
People usually associate happiness with "fun" and "having a good time". But these particular concepts are rather alien to Jewish thought. There is no word for fun in modern Hebrew, except the loan word kef, from the Arabic. And Israelis often use the expresion laasot chaim - literally to make life. to express the idea of enjoying oneself.
The Hebrew word that most approximates happiness is not even simcha , which really is closer to satisfaction or contentment. The word that most approximates happiness is osher. As we celebrate the end days of Sukkot, the "time of our happiness, we contemplate how does one achieve happiness?
The Bible actually gives us several clues througoh sources - Those who hold onto the Tree of Life, that is, the Torah, are called "happy". The first verse in Psalms says that he who does not follow the advice of evildoers and does not go down the path of sinners will be happy. One who keeps the Sabbath is called happy. A person who sits in the House of God - either to study or to pray - will be happy. And lastly, a person who exhibits righteousness and justice will achieve happiness.
Apparently Judaism believes that happiness is achieved through spiritual actions and not through accumulation of wealth. All the physical desires of man, wealth, pleasure and power cannot ever be totally satisfying. It is man's nature that once these are achieved and these needs are met for a person to want more - a bigger car, a larger house, another vacation. There will always be someone with more money, with more status. All physical pleasure is transitory, ephemeral. A commitment to Torah can give a personal an inner feeling of wellbeing. A warm, lovely Shabbat brings feelings that last well beyond the one day. By following the path of righteous people, an individual can experience the feeling of doing the "right and the good". Helping others helps one attain a sense of perfecting the world.
For the parents of a newborn child happiness is knowing the baby is healthy; the pleasure of nursing; the joy of watching a sleeping child; the deliciousness of the wet, openmouthed kisses; the first words. For the grandparents of a newborn child, the sense that your own child is happy is almost more happiness that one can express and the privilege to see your children's children must be life's greatest happiness indeed.
All of us in the Federation community are engaged in holding onto the Tree of Life and making the world better.There are 700,000 Jews in the United States living in nearly impoverished conditions; there are 600,000 children in Israel who live in difficult economic circumstances. Helping to address issues of poverty, of homelessness, is our sacred work.
Next Saturday evening we will join together in COMMUNITY ONE at the Shubert Theater. Involving community members in important endeavors and spending time together will make all of us happy to know that we are supporting each other, our agencies in their critically important work, and enjoying a great evening of cameraderie.
I just finished a lunch in my sukkah with many of the community's rabbis. We are so very fortunate to have spiritual leaders who define their lives in service to the Jewish people and find joy and satisfaction in their work. We can be grateful for their wisdom, their counsel, and their warmth.
May there be many occasions of happiness to share!