What Really Makes Us Happy?

3 Truths from 4000 Years of Judaism

This sermon was delivered the morning of Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year.

If we took a big white board and made a black dot, what would we focus on? The dot. That’s what we would notice. But the board would still be 99.99 percent white. But the dot would draw our attention.

happiness judaism

We often live our lives in a similar way. Things can be going well. We can have stable jobs, good food to eat, a nice house, yet something happens—maybe a stock goes down, or our child or grandchild does poorly on a test, and we get worked up. We focus on our energies on that.

It’s like when we get a report card from school, and it would have all A’s and then maybe a B, and your parents would focus on the B.

In fact, sometimes the better things are, the more we notice what may not be perfect. Have you ever stayed at a nice hotel, and then one little thing that you would normally tolerate somewhere else—say, the towels are not thick enough—and we get upset over that?

Okay, there are far worse problems in the world, but we have a tendency to focus on the negative in context. It seems sometimes we are wired for negativity. Or as Lily Tomlin once put it, “Man invented language to satisfy his deep need to complain.” 

The Waiting is the Hardest Part

Secrets from Torah to Tolstoy

This is the sermon I delivered on the eve of Yom Kippur, the Day of the Atonement, Judaism's holiest day of the year.

My youngest child recently went through a Dr. Seuss phase. Perhaps some of your kids or grandkids did so at some point as well.

One of the books she loved was that classic, often received as graduation gift—Oh, The Places You’ll Go. Her favorite two pages—I’m not kidding—were the following: “You can get so confused that you’ll start in to race/ down long wiggled roads at a break-necking pace/ and grind on for miles across weirdish wild space,/ headed, I fear, toward a most useless place.

The Waiting Place…for people just waiting.

Waiting for a train to go or a bus to come/ or a plane to go or the mail to come/ or the rain to go or the phone to ring/ or the snow to snow or waiting around for a Yes or No/ or waiting for their hair to grow. Everyone is just waiting.

Waiting for the fish to bite or waiting for wind to fly a kite/ or waiting around for Friday night/ or waiting, perhaps, for their Uncle Jake or a pot to boil/ or a Better Break or a string of pearls,/or a pair of pants or a wig with curls, or Another Chance. Everyone is just waiting.” 

Is There a Jewish Answer to Racism?

Asking Moses, Heschel and Ta-Nehisi Coates

This is the sermon I delivered on Rosh Hashanah morning, the first day of the Jewish New Year. To hear the full audio of this sermon, click here

The story we read this morning—the binding of Isaac—is about many things. It is about the meaning of faith. It is about blind obedience. It is about the replacement of child sacrifice with animal sacrifice.

It is also about the relationship between father and son. It is a difficult relationship. How could it not be, when Abraham was prepared to slaughter Isaac because God told him to do so?

Yet, it is also a loving one. Abraham and Isaac speak tenderly to one another as they climb the mountain. We hear repeatedly of Abraham’s deep love for Isaac. And Isaac does return to bury his father at his death.

Perhaps the most accurate adjective for their relationship is complicated. And it never is really resolved. The end of the story leaves us with more questions than answers.

Two Stories

I read two other stories this summer about fathers and children. Both were also complicated, difficult, tender, and challenging.

Will American Jews Self-Combust?

Surviving the Iran Debate With Firm Convictions and a Wide Embrace

What follows is the sermon delivered the first night of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. click here 

A couple of years ago I was asked to deliver a lecture over at Common Ground in Deerfield. It’s an interfaith learning center founded in the early 1970s. Some of it earliest supporters were members of our congregation. We set the date for the lecture. But as we approached, we did not have a title or a topic.

The director, Jim Kenney, needed to get an email and poster created to advertise the talk. He asked me what I was prepared to talk about. I didn’t know—hadn’t really thought about it. But he needed a title right that minute. I said, no problem. I’ve got a title that always works: “Judaism: At the Crossroads.” 

I actually feel that when it comes to the Days of Awe, I could come up with a perpetually useful sermon title—Israel: At the Crossroads. Just about every year, a different crisis, challenge or dilemma faces us.

Three years ago it was the Women of the Wall and the horrific violence shown to them by the Ultra-Orthodox. A year ago it was the War in Gaza. A few years before that, it was the Arab spring and accompanying convulsions in the Middle East. Sometimes I think a quip attributed to Milton Himmelfarb is extraordinarily true—“The entire population of the world’s Jews would be considered a small error in the Chinese census. Yet, great things constantly happen around us.”