Rabbi Mark Joel Mahler
Ten Steps to Happiness
The Talmud tells the tale of Choni the Circle Maker in Tractate Ta’anit. Ta’anit deals with Jewish fast days, six all told, Yom Kippur foremost of all. Additional fast days and prayers were invoked in the event of drought. In the Middle East, then and now, the prospect of drought is as fearsome as the prospect of hurricanes here. The tale of Choni the Circle Maker begins in the midst of a drought.
The people turned to Choni the Circle Maker and asked him to pray for rain. He prayed, but no rain fell. He then drew a circle on the parched ground and stood within it and called out, “Ruler of the universe, Your children have turned to me because I am like a member of Your household. I swear by your great name that I will not move from here until You have mercy upon Your children.” A light rain began to fall. Choni said, “It is not for this light rain that I have asked, but for rain to fill cisterns, ditches and pools.” Torrents of rain began to fall. Choni said, “It is not for torrents that I have asked, but for rain of favor, blessing and bounty.” The rain then fell in the normal way. However, it had already rained so much that everybody in Jerusalem fled to the Temple Mount to escape the flooding. They entreated Choni, “Just as you prayed for rain, pray for the rain to stop.” Shimone ben Shetach, the leader of the Great Assembly sent a message to Choni, saying, “Were it not that you are Choni, I would have decreed upon you nidui, “excommunication,” because of your insolence to the Eternal One. But I shall not. You were like a whining child nagging your parent who finally acceded to your request.” The rain stopped, but enough had fallen to end the drought. It became a day of rejoicing.
If you heard shades of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, remember that Choni’s tale predates Walt Disney’s Fantasia starring Mickey Mouse by a good two millennia. And now that Choni’s tale has been told in full, it serves as an ideal guide for the pursuit of happiness, particularly because the tale also warns us of potential dangers and dead ends along the path.
So without further ado, let us proceed. We have made it this far, in part by homophones. Now we continue our pursuit of happiness by synonyms.
Linguists and sociologists agree that the more a language has synonyms to express a single concept, the more these synonyms are central to that people. The Eskimos have many words for “snow,” and the Chinese have many words for “silk.” So what does it say about Judaism and the Jewish people that Hebrew has ten synonyms for “happiness?”
Simcha is the one most common from the Bible to our contemporary Jewish culture. Simcha just concluded Choni’s tale when the people celebrated the drought’s end. In our modern lexicon, Simcha describes a celebration, typically of a happy life-cycle event; a wedding, a bar or bat mitzvah, a baby naming or a brit, a milestone birthday or a wedding anniversary. Our culture employs Simcha as if it means “celebration,” but Simcha simply and truly means “happiness.” Next time you’re at a Simcha, breathe in its “happiness.”
An important clarification…. A Penguin’s Stanley Cup or a Steeler’s Super Bowl may bring joy to our fair community, but they are not Simchas. Simcha always and only is a Jewish happiness. Yet as such, Simcha is not confined to a joyful religious or spiritual moment. According to I Kings, Chapter 1, Simcha also applies to a happy political moment. When Solomon was crowned king, the people were s’mechim simcha g’dolah, “greatly happily happy.” If only, dear God, we might be as happy with the inauguration of our new president next January 20.
The mitzvah of Simchat Ishto is Judaism’s prescription for tenderness in marriage. Literally giving “happiness to his wife” is the rabbinic euphemism for satisfying your spouse sexually, but never, it must be said, on Yom Kippur or any solemn Jewish fast day.
Perhaps someone has said to you at a wedding or more likely after a funeral, “May we meet oif Simchas,” meaning “May we meet only at Simchas.” This wish is well intended, but it also infers life’s other side of the coin, the sad side. Judaism recognizes that Simchas are ephemeral and evanescent. They come and go. They may leave a trail of happy memories in their wake, but the memory of happiness is never as sweet as the experience. Moreover, bitter experience can curdle even the sweetest memory. Solomon’s reign began with the people rejoicing, but it ended with the kingdom painfully severed in two.
Simchas come and go, but nine more Hebrew synonyms for happiness remain on our path for the pursuit of happiness.
Two synonyms are directly connected to Simcha. Compared with Simcha, both are precious and rare, one more so than the other. These two synonyms stand on either side of Simcha in the Scroll of Esther, when at last the Jews of Shushan were saved from Haman’s genocidal hands. LaYehudim hayta Orah, v’Simcha, v’Sasson. “For the Jews, there was happiness as Orah, happiness as Simcha, and happiness as Sasson,” a triple measure of happiness.
When Sasson occurs in the Bible, it is often entwined with Simcha, to elevate the degree of happiness. Sasson is a surge of happiness bringing hope to the heretofore hopeless. Isaiah chapter 12 describes the Jewish people, exiled and despondent in Babylon, when suddenly the prophet proclaims, “Behold the God of my salvation, I will trust and will not fear, for God is my strength and my song, God will be my salvation.” Isaiah then rouses the people from their despair, “You will draw water, B’sasson, in happiness, from the wells of salvation.”
You and I are blessed to live at a time when the Jewish people experienced happiness in the form of Sasson, at least twice. The first was the emergence of the modern state of Israel out of the ashes of the Holocaust, in heart-pounding strokes: the UN partition vote in November, 1947, and the ensuing War of Independence when the nascent Jewish state withstood the onslaught by five Arab nations. The second surge of Sasson came in the late Spring of 1967. The Jewish people faced another Holocaust as the armies of Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Jordan besieged Israel. The first victim seemingly was hope. The next victim seemingly was Israel’s 3-million Jews. The Six-Day War turned hopelessness to an exultant happiness, precious and rare: Sasson.
Orah is a happiness even more precious and rare. It is found only twice in the Bible, in the Scroll of Esther and in Psalm 139. Orah derives from Or, as we considered last night, God’s first creation, “light.” This primordial act that began the universe physically equally embedded the universe in morality. So began the pursuit of happiness, a path we continue, mitzvah by mitzvah.
In the Scroll of Esther, God is absent by name. Generations of commentators and scholars contend that this conspicuous absence lends greater merit to Esther’s courage and Mordecai’s wisdom. However the commentators and scholars overlooked that letter Heh at the end of that precious and rare word, Orah. Heh is a common abbreviation for HaShem, God’s Name, YHWH. This letter Heh transformed Or, “light” into God’s primordial light, Orah. The Jews across ancient Persia trembled under the darkest cloud: genocide. Esther and Mordecai were both brave and wise, but the letter Heh, as small as it was, affirmed God’s presence, God’s deliverance of the people from the depths of despair. Orah is the primordial happiness that shines directly from God.
The happiness of Orah in Psalm 139 teaches us that no darkness can obscure God’s presence. “And if I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall envelop me, And the light around me shall be night, Even the darkness is not too dark for Thee, But the light shineth as the day, The darkness is even as the Orah, the primordial happiness shining directly from God.”
Orah has now led us to a fork in the path for the pursuit of happiness. Happiness can be pursued by taking either path. One side leads to the East where Nirvana in Buddhism and Samadhi in Hinduism promise individual happiness. The other side is a more Jewish happiness, a happiness that should embrace the entire world. In Hebrew, this happiness begins with Chedvah. You know it’s cognate well from Psalm 133, Hinei mah tov u’mah naim shevet achim, “How good and how pleasant when people dwell,” gam yachad, not merely “together,” but as bride and groom leave the chupah to be alone together to observe Yihud, so too gam yachad means “absolute unity.” Chedvah is happiness achieved only by sharing, the happiness of togetherness. Chedvah therefore requires that we retrace our steps on the path of the pursuit of happiness.
Simcha, Sasson and Orah all engage others in happiness. A Simcha with no one else there is the sound of one hand clapping. Orah shines the light of God’s presence upon us and uniting us even in darkness. And in our day, the land of Israel connects us to Sasson as nowhere else. There is too much right about Israel and too much wrong about American Jewry, and there is too much right about American Jewry and too much wrong about Israel to think that we can pursue happiness without one another. For us in particular, as the predominant stream of American Jewry, our Reform Movement can and should play a major role in the pursuit of this Jewish path of happiness, Chedva. Our new Reform prayer books offer sign posts along this path as we pray Or Chadash al Tzion ta’ir, “Shine a new light upon Zion, and may we together merit its light.”
Chedva also requires that we revisit Choni. He is not remembered as Choni the Miracle Maker, despite how hard he tried. His first mistake was when the people asked him to pray for rain. He should have asked them to pray together with him; that’s Chedva. When he prayed by himself, naturally nothing happened. Then Choni drew a circle around himself. He alone would bring the rain. He hectored God like a petulant child. He couldn’t begin to grasp God’s gentle remonstrations, first with too little rain and then too much rain. Only when Shimone ben Shetach rebuked Choni and threatened him with excommunication did Choni stop. And the rain stopped. And the people rejoiced.
There is something irksome about people like Choni who think they’ve got it right when you know they’ve got it wrong. It’s not a matter of arrogance. Nor is it a matter of seeing them get their comeuppance. On Rosh HaShana we learned that Choni’s interpretations of mitzvot were still respected and followed even after his seventy year snooze. It is a matter of right and wrong, truth and falsehood, justice and injustice. Integrity, honesty and justice are more of the bricks in the mortar of the path for the pursuit of happiness. On this day of Atonement, I will confess that when I see an official blow a call against the Penguins or the Steelers, my blood starts to boil. Tell me if that sounds familiar. So how much the more so for all of us when we see the wrongs, the lies, and the injustices in this world and in this nation? Here we could use a good strong dose of Chedva.
But happiness in every form can never be its own goal. One synonym for happiness in Hebrew, Gila, emerges when least expected. On the morning of December 12, 2012, before 6-year-old Jesse Lewis left for school, he wrote on his home chalkboard, “Nurturing Healing Love.” Later that morning, Jesse was one of twenty children and six adults who were shot and killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Jesse’s chalkboard message, “Nurturing Healing Love,” offered his mother Scarlett happiness when least expected. Scarlett founded the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Foundation whose stated mission is, “To create awareness in our children and our communities that we can choose love over anger, gratitude over entitlement, and forgiveness and compassion over bitterness.” Scarlett finding happiness when least expected is an example of Gila.
Rina is a different kind of happiness, happiness that comes from discovering something in a new light. You see the ceiling above us? It was designed exactly backwards acoustically. It should have been designed going up from the bima and up from the stage at the other end. But in a recent moment of Rina, it occurred to me that above the ceiling is a roof whose butterfly design is perfect for solar panels. Temple’s Capital Campaign is almost two-thirds of the way to its goal, with a new and needed boiler the biggest nut yet to crack among many other capital needs. But let’s put solar panels on the table thereafter, when fiscally possible, because of the environmental responsibility that it conveys not only to our congregation and community, but to the generations to come. Thank you Choni and the story of the Carob tree.
Happiness cannot be sought merely for the sake of happiness, but happiness can be commanded. Reb Nachman of Bratzlov taught, “It is a great mitzvah to always be in a state of happiness. When people are happy they are much more capable of serving God and going about their daily activities than if they are depressed or upset.” The mitzvah to be happy is called Ditza. Because it is a mitzvah commanded by God, Ditza is a happiness most sublime. Ditza is here for the taking all over Temple Emanuel. It’s a fact, extensively studied and well documented.
Duke University recently reviewed over 600 of these research studies and concluded that people who have spiritual beliefs fare significantly better in mental health and adapt more quickly to health problems than those who are less spiritual. These benefits accrue to emotional health and physical well-being. Spiritual patients exhibit significantly better indicators of immune functions and lower levels of adrenal stress hormones than non-spiritual patients. Choose your Temple elixir: give or take. Give your time and energy to our committees and auxiliaries, take spirit and inspiration from our services, education, social action, support and social programs. When you feel lost on the path of the pursuit of happiness, Ditza recommends you take two mitzvot and call God in the morning.
You may even find Tzahala, the happiness of bliss so powerful that you dance as Miriam and all the people did when they were saved at the Red Sea, as King David did when he entered Jerusalem with the Ark of the Covenant, as the people of Jerusalem did when Choni stopped playing his childish, ego-driven game with God and the rain stopped, as the hearts of the Paratroopers did while standing before the Kotel at the end of the Six-Day War, as brides and grooms do when they are lifted up on chairs and circled by loved ones all dancing the Hora celebrating their love. Tzahala leads us dancing up the path of the pursuit of happiness, and we begin to approach the ultimate expression of happiness.
Osher leads us ever closer. On Rosh HaShana, we learned that Osher is the happiness conceived by God from the beginning, the happiness of the homophone that makes happiness a priceless possession. Surely God had Osher in mind as an antidote especially for our time.
We have been living in a Darwinian world since Charles Darwin wrote The Origin of Species: By Means of Natural Selection, Or, the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. Darwin wrote of an inexorable “struggle for life,” and that evolution was driven “the war of nature.” This Darwinian world has been characterized by “survival of the fittest.” It bred many heirs, among them some 160-million fatalities in wars of the 20th century alone, not to mention the barbarians worldwide today. Toward the end of his life, Darwin had second thoughts about his overall theory. He wrote, “In my opinion, the greatest error which I have committed has been not allowing sufficient weight to the direct action of the environments, i.e., food, climate, etc.,” as we pondered last night, everyone and everything on this planet and in the universe. Darwin then hewed much closer to his predecessor Jean Baptiste Lamark who proposed that survival is a matter not of struggle but adaptation, not of conquest of our environment but cooperation with our environment. Twenty-first century Genetics and the new science of Epigenetics call this “survival of the most loving.”
Which brings us full circle to the pursuit of unhappiness known as the presidential election….
I recently researched inscriptions on the tombstones of American presidents. The most famous is the inscription on Lincoln’s tomb, “Now he belongs to the ages.” In particular, I was curious how each president wished to be remembered, etched in stone. Two such inscriptions will guide us to our ultimate destination in the pursuit of happiness.
The first inscription reads, “I know in my heart that man is good, that what is right will always eventually triumph, and there is purpose and worth to each and every life.”
There is not a scintilla of politics, let alone partisan politics, nor an iota of American patriotism, let alone jingoism. But there is a beautiful encapsulation of what God had in mind with Osher, “happiness” from the beginning of creation. Anyone want to guess whose tombstone this is? Ronald Reagan’s.
The second tombstone inscription leads us to Judaism’s highest happiness and the ultimate destination for the path of the pursuit of happiness. It reads, “The greatest honor history can bestow is the title of peacemaker.”
Shalom: peace. Shalom: wholeness completeness and fulfillment. Shalom: happiness for every person on earth created equally yet uniquely in the image of God. You may never guess whose tombstone this is. Richard Nixon’s.
Every step on the path of the pursuit of happiness must lead to peace. This includes walking into and out of the voting both on November 8. And every step until then, and every step thereafter.