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.” 

An Uber Miracle

Much has been written about #uberfails. But how about an Uber miracle?

uber miracle

The New York Times recently featured a story about a young woman who called for an Uber to take her out to a cemetery. She was visiting the grave of her grandfather. He had been a devout Jew.

No one from her family had visited the grave since 1959. She happened to be visiting during the ten-day period between the Jewish New Year and the Day of Atonement—known as the ten Days of Awe.

This is a time when we visit the grave of loved ones. Something propelled this young woman to visit her grandfather.

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.” 

Do Jews Need a Pope?

5 Reasons It Can't Happen

According to an old joke, when two Jews argue you have at least three opinions. Former British Chief Rabbi recently echoed this joke when he pointed out that Jews have solved many world problems but still have not quite figured out “conflict management.”


We are a people who argue. We are a people who debate. I cherish this part of our character. But I can’t help feeling a little envy for Catholics as the celebrated Pope Francis arrives in the United States.

Whether one agrees with him or not, one cannot deny that he has spurred a new energy and enthusiasm in the Church. He has gotten people excited and engaged, so much so that the entire city of Philadelphia has to cordon itself off for the few days he is in town.

Alas, neither history nor culture suggest we can expect a Jewish pope anytime soon. Here’s why: 

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.

heschel and king

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.” 

How Heroes Think

3 Ways to Overcome Fear

In a pivotal scene in the book of Exodus, Moses and Israelites have a problem. They are standing at the shores of the Red Sea. Pharaoh’s army is closing in. They freeze.

how heroes think

Then Moses turns to God and pleads. “What should we do?” he asks.
God then says, “Don’t ask me. Why are you stopping? Go forward!  March!” According to Jewish tradition, Moses had turned to God expecting God to intervene and stop Pharaoh’s army or split open the sea right away.
God does no such thing. God simply says, “Don’t stop. Keep going. Take the next step forward.” Even with their fear and trembling, the Israelites do so. Soon the sea parts and they march to freedom.
Reliving the Exodus
I thought of this story when I read the remarkable account of the three Americans in France who stopped a deadly terrorist attack aboard a passenger train. When they heard screams and gunshots, they did not freeze. They did not put their heads down and expect someone else to act. They stepped forward.

Why You Should Never Work on Your Marriage

Occasionally I meet with couples determined to work on their marriage. My first response is to tell them not to.

work on marriage

I don’t say this because because their marriage is particularly strong. I say it because “work” is a terrible way to think about how we grow closer to the person we love.

I happen to love my “work,” but words matter, and the term “work” is, for better or worse, associated with a burden, with drudgery, with arduous effort. We work during the day so we can enjoy the evening. We work all week so we can savor the weekend. Who wants to add more “work?”

Less Work, More Play

To think of a marriage as needing work is to think about it as a burden. This view rooted in traditional imagery—just think of the ball and chains metaphor for marriage popularized in the nineteenth century. But it is not productive or helpful. 

Why You Should Cry Your Eyes Out

At a recent funeral where I officiated, a family member spoke. As he began, tears started to flow.

cry our eyes out

Then he started apologizing. His eulogy alternated between sobs, beautiful words, and apologies.

What he did is not uncommon. At a funeral and in my study, people begin to cry and then apologize for doing so. They see tears as a sign of weakness or vulnerability.

In truth, however, tears are a sign of strength. They are a sign of life. They are a sign of real feeling. We cry because we are alive. We cry because we care.

The Secret to Amazing Sermons

Looking for Wisdom in All the Right Places

A few years ago I was putting my oldest daughter to sleep. She asked me what a rabbi does.

amazing sermons

Before I had the chance to answer fully, she told me she thought the answer was. “Here’s what you do, daddy,” she said. “Blah Blah Blah…God…Blah Blah Blah.”

After I finished laughing, I told her about some other parts of the work–teaching, pastoring, counseling, and so on. But listening to her words crystallized the essential task: I search for God everywhere, and I listen to voices of wisdom.

She is one of those voices, but there are many more.