Sermon for Erev Shabbat 5777, June 23, 2017

Be Happy! It’s Iyar!

June 23, 2017

Tonight is Rosh Chodesh, the first evening of the month of Iyar.  Summer has formerly begun and we are thinking of upcoming barbecues, vacations, and beach days.  We have bought a few books for light reading and are trying to take it easy for a little while.  Gardens are beginning to bloom and summer flowers radiate their beauty.  My garden has yielded its first delicious cucumbers with lots more on the way.  While we are enjoying the summer respite, we at Oheb Shalom and probably at every synagogue in the world, are planning for the High Holydays.  After all, Rosh Hashanah is just three months away.  Who will chant Torah?  Who will read Haftarah?  What recent b’nei mitzvah should we honor with a reading?  Have they registered for rHouse in order to be included?  That is what we are dealing with over the next couple of weeks.

If we didn’t watch the news or read the newspapers, all would be lovely.  Our country is in crisis, the homicide rate in Baltimore is reaching new highs, and from Afghanistan to Syria to London, there is just bad news.  People we love get sick, others die.  We go to funerals at least weekly.  How can we possibly be happy when there is so much suffering around us?  Our Tradition tells us that it is important for us not to look just at the darkness but at the light. Our world “contains an abundance of goodness. Most human beings are decent and law-abiding individuals. Millions of people arrive home safely every night. Hundreds of thousands of planes land every day without the slightest problem. Most children are born healthy. The sun comes up every morning, without exception. There is always enough air for everyone to breathe. Millions enjoy higher economic standards than ever experienced by their ancestors. Pain prevention has improved dramatically over time. International communication systems have brought us in touch with each other under all circumstances, wherever we live. Luxurious senior citizens homes have replaced the tragic scenes of the elderly languishing in the streets. Clearly, marriage is still seen as sacred, and helping each other is still seen as virtuous.” [i]

There is much goodness and happiness in our world.  Fortunately, our Tradition teaches us how to achieve happiness in our lives.

The famous Chasidic Rabbi, Nachman of Bratslav, taught that “It is a great mitzvah to always be happy.”  The prophet Nehemiah wrote (8:-10) almost 2,500 years ago, “Do not mourn or weep.  Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks and send some to those who have nothing prepared.  This day is sacred to our God.  Do not grieve, for the Lord is your strength.”  Kohelet, or Ecclesiastes, perhaps the most depressing author in the Tanach, tells us to find something meaningful to do, to find a person to love, and to enjoy our food and drink.  In other words, the world may be in a terrible state, but we should try to grab whatever happiness we can when we can.

The Psalmist wrote, “Zeh Hayom Asa Adonai, Nagila v’Nismicha Vo– This is the day that God has made.  Come and let us rejoice in it!” (Psalm 118:24).   Every day we awake to new possibilities and new challenges.  We are enjoined to serve God with all our hearts and all our strength and strive to be happy.  So- you are thinking it’s easier said than done.  Allow me to share with you several ways we can ensure our own personal happiness.

The sages ask the question (Pirke Avot 4:1), “Who is rich? One who is happy with his portion.”  Contentedness, which may very well be the definition of happiness, comes from the recognition that we have all we need, that we are not envious of others and that we are thankful for what we have.  This leads us to the next point, which is gratitude.  Our Tradition urges us to cultivate an attitude of gratitude.  We are not promised anything when we are born, so everything we have, from the moment when we open our eyes in the morning to the ability to take our first step, is a gift from God.  That is why we say daily blessings- to thank God for literally every gift we receive.  Anyone who has had any kind of surgery knows that recovery is difficult but the end result is worthwhile.  We should be grateful that those of us still here have issues that can be medically or surgically corrected.  The rabbis tell us that we should recite one hundred blessings a day (Menachot 42b) to express our gratitude for the gifts we receive every minute of every day.

Professor Tal Ben-Shacher, in his book “Happier,” wrote, “We are so constituted that we actually need our lives to have meaning.  Without a higher purpose, a calling, an ideal, we cannot attain our full potential for happiness…for us to be happy it is not enough to experience our life as meaningful on the general level of the big picture.  We need to find meaning on the specific level of our daily existence as well.”[ii]  The well-known Dr. Victor Frankl explains (Man’s Search for Meaning), “What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him.  What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost, but the call of a potential meaningful waiting to be fulfilled by him.”  To be happy, we need to give back, to make our community and our world a little better.  Whether it is by packing backpacks here once a month, tutoring a child, making a hospital visit, or delivering Meals on Wheels, to be happy we need to find something meaningful to contribute to our society.  Regardless of how old or infirm, we can still give back.  For many years, the women of our Sisterhood, in a group affectionately known as “Knit wits,” made blankets for a homeless shelter and the Baltimore Child Abuse Center.  Everyone can find some contentment by giving back.

So we see, dear friends, that there is a formula for attaining personal happiness.  Now all we have to do is apply it to ourselves.


Amen and Shabbat shalom

[i] Nathan Lopes Cardozo, The Algemeiner, June 15, 2017


[ii] Rabbi Shmuly Yankelowitz, Judaism’s Value of Happiness, March 9, 2012.

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