Rabbi Mark Joel Mahler
From the Beginning
Alice and I had been dating all of two weeks. Young and newly in love, we were sharing our hopes and dreams for the future when Alice said to me, “I can hardly wait to be a grandmother and have big flabby arms like my grandmothers had.” For me at age twenty-five, the vision of a grandmother’s big flabby arms did not exactly entice me. As for my being a grandfather, it stirred only vague images in my mind. Where grandfathers comprise beautiful chapters in so many people’s biographies, grandfathers were all but a blank page in mine. One of my grandfathers died when I was six and the other died when my father was four.
Now well into my fourth decade here at Temple Emanuel, I’ve watched as many of you exulted when you became grandparents. I listened as you extolled the marvels of grandparenthood to me. Now that Alice and I are three years and two grandchildren into that marvelous stage of life, I heartily confirm all that I had been told.
One such sweet moment of grandparenthood occurred recently when I smiled at my grandson Euan, then ten weeks old, and for the first time Euan smiled back at me. This moment of sharing happiness across the generations brings us to the theme of my High Holy Day sermons: The Pursuit of Happiness.
The Declaration of Independence declared the pursuit of happiness our unalienable right. But this 2016 election year has been more like the pursuit of unhappiness. As this campaign plunges to unprecedented depths in the American political process, public opinion polls indicate that th11e winner on November 8th simply may be less disliked than the loser. Is this what Alexis de Tocqueville had in mind when he said, “In a democracy, people get the leaders they deserve?”
Over recent months, rabbis have challenged one another with soul searching questions such as “What are we going to tell our grandchildren about our role in this election?” Searching my soul, I now submit that this question is not for rabbis alone. This election teeters upon so many precarious tipping points. Perhaps the least of them is the fate of this country for the next four years. The greatest of them is the fate of this planet. I submit, this question is for all of you to search your soul and answer. What are you going to tell your grandchildren, or your children, or whoever the next generation of your loved ones will be, about what you did to ensure the smile on their faces, ten, twenty and fifty years from now?
This is not a political question. This as a moral question. And given that the new president will be sworn in with one hand upon the Bible, it is not merely a moral question; it is fundamentally a Jewish question. As such, it is a question made for Rosh HaShana.
A story is told of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe and his beloved Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka. In response to a question raised about some physical pain that the Rebbe had endured, Chaya Mushka said “My husband is not afraid of pain. My husband is afraid of Rosh HaShana.” Consider what Chaya Mushka meant.
Rosh HaShana begins our ten days of T’shuva, “Repentance” and “Return.” Rosh HaShana confronts us with all our faults and foibles. Rosh HaShana asks that we face our individual human frailties together in the presence of our community. Rosh HaShana requires that our community stands together before the presence of God. Rosh HaShana offers us forgiveness for all that we did that was spiritually and morally impoverished, so long as we do not hide from the truth. If the great Rebbe feared Rosh HaShana, how much the more so should we?
In addition to the prayers and meditations of Mishkan HaNefesh that convey this theme, contemplate the prospects for this new year of 5777.
Let’s assume that you vote for the winner on November 8th. Do you think that it will be morning in America come November 9th? Do you think that the presidential inauguration next January heralds the end of global warming or racism, the defeat of ISIS and Al Qaeda, peace for Syria and homecoming for four-million refugees, or the elimination of lone-wolf domestic terrorism? Or let’s assume that you cast your vote for the loser. You may now be thinking, God forbid. But this election is not in God’s hands. It is in the hands of an embittered American electorate deeply divided along socio-economic, educational, racial and generational lines. Neither can we say “God forbid” to the prospect that this election may end up in the hands of suspected Russian cyber-espionage. This election has made for a worrisome Rosh HaShana, with little opportunity to turn lemons into lemonade.
Thank God for at least a teaspoon of sweetness. For the first time in American history, a Jew was a serious candidate for president. But did American Jews vote for Bernie because he is Jewish? Jill Stein is on the ballot for president; will Jews vote for her because she is Jewish? Will Jews vote for one candidate because of his Jewish daughter or for the other candidate because of her Jewish son-in-law? The answer to these questions is “no, no, no and no.” And here we taste the real sweetness. We Jews vote our conscience. We Jews vote our morals. For the Jewish people, morality is the mortar paving the path for the pursuit happiness.
Voting is an American mitzvah, a sacred responsibility. That said, have no doubt: Your vote for your candidate will not be nearly enough in and of itself to pursue true happiness for yourself, let alone for your children and grandchildren. This election highlights Chaya Mushka’s lesson about the deeper nature and meaning of Rosh HaShana.
Rosh, as you know, means “head” in Hebrew. HaShana, of course, means “the year.” HaShana comes from the Hebrew infinitive L’shanot, meaning “to change.” Change is intrinsic to each and every year. Today is not Shana Chadasha, literally in Hebrew, “The New Year.” Today is Rosh HaShana, “Head of the Year.” As change is intrinsic to each and every year, the head should be essential to each and every change. This is the Yiddishe Kop, the “Jewish Head” at work. Change for the sake of change is both mindless and careless. Rather, change should be guided by intelligence, common sense and wisdom, what we Jews call in a word Seichel. For the Jewish people, intelligence, common sense, wisdom and Seichel are some of the bricks we place in the mortar of morality paving the path for the pursuit of happiness.
We now delve deeper into this path with Rosh, “Head.” Rosh is spelled Resh-Alef-Shin. These three letters also form the root of the first word of the Torah, B’reshit, “In the beginning,” or more literally “In the head.” Now, we take those same three Hebrew letters, Resh-Alef-Shin, and using our head in an exercise that Jews have practiced for centuries, we shuffle them so that the first letter becomes the last. Now we have the word Alef-Shin-Resh, spelling Osher. Osher means “happiness.” How happy we should be that from the very beginning, “happiness” was the thought, the plan, the foundation in God’s head for all creation! From the beginning, Judaism is the religion of the pursuit of happiness.
But this is only the beginning. Homophones are so rare in Hebrew that when they exist, they demand our attention. Osher is a homophone. Osher spelled with an Alef is “happiness.” Osher spelled with an Ayin is “wealth.”
The second century sage Ben Zoma asked Azehu ashir, “Who is wealthy?” He answered, “One who is happy with his or her portion.”
What a priceless lesson Ben Zoma could teach a nation divided into haves and have nots according to money and material possessions. When will America learn its own object lessons? Do you remember when last winter’s Powerball lottery reached $1.5 billion? Time magazine then had an article about “the curse of the lottery, with some winners squandering their fortunes and others meeting tragic ends.” In fact “70% of all people who suddenly receive a windfall in cash lose it in a few years.” If Dr. King would permit me, I dream of the day when people will not judge themselves by the color of their money but by the content of their contentment.
Wouldn’t a happier society be rid of the corrosive emotions of jealousy and envy? Wouldn’t a happier society be far less judgmental of others, less suspicious of others, less wary of the differences between all human beings, and more aware that each one of us is created in God’s image? Wouldn’t a happier society be far more helpful to the needy, to the hurting and unhappy? Wouldn’t a happier society be far less violent?
Our pursuit of happiness has now taken us from God’s head to our own head and heart and soul. Look at all we now understand from merely the first word of Torah. Imagine all we might learn from the 79,847 words that comprise the totality of Torah, in sum forming the bedrock beneath the mortar of morality on which we build the path for the pursuit of happiness.
Of course, there are other paths to happiness. For example, consider the State University of New York at Buffalo’s findings on happiness. Researchers asked a group of people to complete the sentence, I’m glad that I’m not ….” After completing this phrase five times, the participants found that they were feeling happier. Another group was asked to complete the sentence, “I wish I were …” Five completed sentences later, these participants felt more dissatisfied with their lives, unhappier. The next time you feel down you might try completing the first phrase, “I’m glad I’m not …” five times.
For today, there’s a better way, a more permanent way, and a more Jewish way to pursue happiness. Complete the phrase “I’m sorry that I …” however many times the truth requires. Then complete the phrase “My regret now compels me to …” the same number of times. Still more, complete the phrase “I will now do ….” and then follow through on each one. These questions and their answers befit these days of T’shuva. They also show how the pursuit of happiness is a meandering path. It is easy to get lost along the way. So we must keep our eyes open for the signposts on this difficult path. Here is one.
The talmudic parable of Choni the Circle Maker is a tale told every Tu B’Shvat, the Jewish new year for trees. In the pursuit of happiness, the tale is even more appropriate for Rosh HaShana.
Choni the Circle Maker was walking along the road when he saw a man planting a carob tree. Choni asked the man, “How long will it take for this tree to bear fruit?” The man replied, “Seventy years.” Choni then asked the man, “And do you think that you will live those seventy years to eat the tree’s fruit?” “Perhaps not,” said the man, “but my life is filled with the fruit of carob trees; as my forebears planted trees for me, so I plant this tree for my children.”
The parable of Choni the Circle Maker will be told in full on Yom Kippur. But the message thus far is clear enough. The pursuit of happiness may meander and the path may be difficult, but sign posts along the way point us to our obligations to the future, our moral and sacred obligations to the future. To stay on the path of the pursuit of happiness we need to keep our eyes open to all such signs.
In this light, I conclude with homophone, this time in English where homonyms and homophones are common, for example, arm and arm, back and back, where, ware and wear. Write, right and rite and to, too and two are not two too many to prove the point. But one English homophone is as remarkable and revelatory as a Hebrew homophone. I and eye.
No doubt, the English word “eye” comes from the Hebrew word for eye, Ayin. Ayin is also the Hebrew letter, and as it is written in Hebrew script, the letter looks like an eye.
Through our eyes, more than any sense, we behold the world. And more quickly and deeply than anywhere else, the world beholds us through our eyes. Some say that you can see who a person really is by looking into his or her eyes for a mere seven seconds. Others say that when a couple first meet and think they are falling in love, looking into each other’s eyes for two to four minutes will make or break the relationship. I know that shortly after Alice and I first met, the prospect of a grandmother’s flabby arms did not diminish the enchantment I had found in Alice’s eyes. And you know what made Euan smile at me the first time? When I looked in his eyes and he looked back in mine. The eyes indeed are the window of the soul.
Just as we have two eyes to see better, I alone am not enough to travel the often challenging path of the pursuit of happiness. I see the path better when I have another I to see with me. That I is you. The same holds true for you, and for your I and for your eyes. The pursuit of happiness is not a solitary path. The only way to pursue happiness is with you and I together.
Our pursuit of happiness began today, as it always must, with every you and every I. We will continue the pursuit of happiness on Yom Kippur.