What Truly is a “Miracle”?

(This post was written for Huffington Post’s “TEDWeekends” series)

Do we still experience miracles today? It all depends on what we think a “miracle” truly is.

Often, when we think of miracles, we envision the events that form the basis for many religious traditions — the parting of the Red Sea, Jesus healing the lepers, Mohammed rising up to heaven.

But we also use the word “miracle” in more everyday situations. When a family member recovers from an illness, we call it a “miracle.” When we narrowly avert a disaster, we call it a “miracle.” When we think, “If I had missed that dinner party, I never would have met my spouse,” we call it a “miracle.”

And perhaps the most common way we use the word miracle is in “the miracle of birth,” which Alexander Tsiaris’ TEDTalk, “Conception to Birth — visualized” shows us quite concretely.

Tsiaris’ work helps us see all the miracles that occur as each of us comes into this world, and he gives us several examples. As our body develops in the womb, our cells somehow “know” what to do: collagen, which is usually opaque, becomes transparent in the only part of our body that needs to be — our eyes. In only weeks, two parallel strands fold over each other like origami, and we develop our heart. During one phase of pregnancy, our cells grow so quickly that if that pace were maintained for the full nine months, we would weigh 3000 pounds at delivery.

All of the elements in pregnancy, the whole process, truly seems “miraculous,” and yet it happens thousands of times each and every day. So if it is so common, how could it be “miraculous”?

Tsiaris says it well at the beginning of the talk — when you see the journey from conception to birth, “you just have to marvel.” And that’s what a “miracle” truly is, at least in Judaism: something that makes us go “wow.”

Indeed, the Hebrew word for miracle, “nes,” really means a “sign.” It’s not necessarily a voice from the heavens, or even a deviation from the natural order, although those would certainly astound us. Instead, a nes is something that engenders a sense of awe and mystery.

In fact, there’s even a section in the morning liturgy called the “nisim b’chol yom,” “the miracles of the every day.” Each morning when we wake up, we are supposed to offer thanks to God for the most mundane realities — for being able to see. For having clothes to wear. For being able to walk. For having awoken from our sleep.

There are at least two purposes to the nisim b’chol yom. First, it is to remind us that many people don’t have a place to sleep, clothes to wear, or food to eat, and so we have a responsibility help fix that. But even more importantly, it’s to remind us just how likely we are to take our daily blessings for granted. The nisim b’chol yom, the miracles of the eeryday, are designed to create a daily sense of wonder. It’s less about thanking God than it is about giving thanks for the mystery

And that’s how I interpret Tsiaris’ line that there is “divinity” in the way we come into existence. I don’t think he means it in the sense of the “God of the gaps,” implying that if there’s something we don’t understand, “God did it.” Scientific knowledge will continue to move forward, giving us a clearer and deeper comprehension of how things work. Instead, I think he means “divinity” in the way Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel talked about the goal of religious living: “to experience commonplace deeds as spiritual adventures, to feel the hidden love and wisdom of all things.” (God in Search of Man, 49)

So even as we develop a deeper understanding of the way the world works, even as we understand the nuances of the complex world we live in, we can always reclaim our sense of wonder.

As Tsiaris’ video so powerfully shows, life truly is a miracle — and that’s a fact we should never forget.

Advertisements

3 Comments

Filed under General

How Many Unread Books Do You Own?

bookshelf-hillThere are definitely times when I feel like I am single-handedly keeping Barnes and Noble in business. It was very dangerous when I lived walking distance from a store, because I’d go there several times a week, and almost always came away with at least one book in my hand.

I realized that as much as I love reading books, what I truly love is owning books. When I look at my overflowing bookshelves in my house and my office, I smile.

I had always wondered why that was the case, until Rabbi David Wolpe shared this thought from A.E. Newton a few weeks ago: “The buying of more books than one can read is nothing less than the soul reaching towards infinity.” So perhaps the many, many unread books on my shelves are not simply gathering dust. Perhaps all those unread books are there to help me to nourish my soul.

How so? First, unread books remind me that even if I gain some modicum of knowledge and insight, there will always be more to learn. In fact, Jewish learning even intentionally makes it impossible for us to learn everything — every tractate of the Talmud, the great collection of law and learning, begins on page two, never on page one. Why? To teach us that we should never assume that we have found all the answers.

Similarly, owning dozens (or hundreds!) of unread books is a very physical reminder that there is always more wisdom being added to the world. It is both inspiring and humbling to know that whatever we learn, there will always be new facts, new interpretations, and new ideas to discover.

Second, a library filled with unread books gives us the freedom to go browsing in the comfort of our own home or office — and we often overlook the value of browsing. As author Leon Wiseletier wrote beautifully in a piece in the New Republic:

When you search, you find what you were looking for; when you browse, you find what you were not looking for. Search corrects your knowledge, browsing corrects your ignorance. Search narrows, browsing enlarges. It does so by means of accidents, of unexpected adjacencies and improbable associations…[and] serendipity is how the spirit is renewed…

Too often, we search only for the information we need. We type in a Google search, and are very happy when we find the answer we’ve been looking for. But searching is limiting — we have to know in advance what we’re looking for. Browsing, in contrast, opens up our horizons, and helps us develop connections or inspirations that we may have otherwise missed.

So if you, too, have books that are now laying horizontally on top of other books because your shelves are too full, that’s a good thing. They are reminding you that wisdom and knowledge are an ever-expanding enterprise, and they are giving you the opportunity to come across insights you may have otherwise missed.

Unread books do not add to our store of information; to do that, we do actually need to read them. But unread books do add to our store of humility and the broadening of our worldview — and so even if they are never opened, they help our soul reach to infinity.

8 Comments

Filed under General

Dreaming About the Powerball Jackpot

Yes, I caught Powerball fever these last few days. And yes, I knew my odds were small (my favorite example: if you took the distance from New York to Los Angeles and chose one specific inch on that journey, those would be your odds). And so even as I knew intellectually that my odds were infinitesimal, I still plunked down a few bucks to play.

In response, one of my colleagues came up with an excellent rationalization: “It is cheaper than seeing a movie and provides many more hours of entertainment in the daydreaming department.”

On some level, she was right. In a Q&A session with psychologist Daniel Gilbert, one person noted that the value of the lotto ticket isn’t the winning — it’s the good feeling that the anticipation creates. “To put it another way,” this man argues, “for the dollar investment, you can have a much better feeling than flushing it down the toilet, which you cannot have a good feeling from.”

Having hopes and dreams are crucial to our well-being. We have to fantasize about the way our lives and our world might be, because they impel us forward. That sense of a better future is inherent in Judaism — we talk about the “day when God’s name shall be one” and look towards the day when we live in a world of peace and justice. The State of Israel came into existence because one journalist who said “If you will it, it is no dream.” And even the Israeli national anthem is entitled “The Hope.”

But it’s not enough simply to dream — we have to put in the work to make those dreams happen. And when we forget that, things like lotto fever can become dangerous. It’s fine to spend $10 to release the chemicals that allow us to enjoy our fantasy of a big house and fancy cars. But at least one person spent $450 dollars on Powerball tickets. Almost certainly, that was an amount of money that impacted her life — and not in a good way.

So it’s great to dream…but not at the expense of reality. Instead, we should be asking “Where am I now? Where do I want to be? And how do I work to get from where we are to where we want to be?”

Because the other factor that many people forget about in lotto fever is that as long as we are not in poverty, money doesn’t really make us happy. Instead, as a lot of significant research shows, it’s not what we have but what we do that brings us joy: Connecting with friends. Making a difference in people’s lives. Developing a sense of gratitude for what we already have. And those are things that require their own investment of time and energy.

And as Scott Bea, a clinical psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic reminds us, people who “who aren’t careful to cultivate happiness skills such as optimism, a charitable attitude and savvy money management habits often wind up in more wretched circumstances than where they started.”

Those skills, too, are ones that need to be honed and developed. So even if you win the lottery, there would still be work to be done.

In other words, yes, it feels good to dream. But in truth, it’s doing meaningful and important work that makes you feel great.

1 Comment

Filed under General

Connecting in a Disaster

At about 3:30 pm on Monday, our house in White Plains, New York lost TV and Internet service. We still had lights, and just a few minutes later, they came back on. We were hopeful.

But then, at about 6:30, I got a call from our landlord — he lost power.

Then, at about 7 pm, I started seeing Facebook statuses from people nearby saying, “No power.” So I knew it would just be a matter of time.

And indeed, about half an hour later, our lights flickered, flickered, and then went totally kaput. We joined the millions upon millions of people who lost power during Hurricane Sandy.

By Tuesday, our cell phone was running low on power, and our service was spotty at best. And we wondered — while we could hear the news through our battery-powered radio, if we had no internet and no phone, how would we connect with others? I felt very isolated — I wanted both to hear what was going on, and I wanted to tell others I was all right.

During the storm, people were certainly following the news, but even more, they were following their friends’ news. As Clay Shirky notes in Cognitive Surplus, our definition of “media” has changed — it’s no longer the one-way monologue of TV and radio; it’s now the conversation (both online and offline) that connects us with others.

I, too, felt a need to not only hear what others were going through, but to share my experience, as well. And what was fascinating was that I seemed to use the exact same words that so many people used to describe what was happening to them.

Facebook even provided their top ten status updates during the storm, and they probably sound a lot like what you saw or wrote:

1. we are ok
2. power – lost power, have power, no power
3. damage
4. hope everyone is ok
5. trees
6. made it
7. safe
8. thankful
9. fine
10. affected

Those phrases convey not only information, but emotion, as well. As Rabbi Rebecca Schorr taught us, these words remind us that we share not only information but experiences with others — both joyous and scary. We have a need not only to know what is going on, but to share important events with others.

And what has inspired me the most (especially as someone who still has no power) is seeing neighbors, churches, synagogues, libraries and community organizations reaching out to others saying, “We have power — come to us.”

Indeed, while we hope that our life is easy, with few storms to toss us around, when disasters do happen, we truly see our ability and our need to connect with others. And even more striking, we see just how much it brings out the best in everyone.

Here’s hoping everyone is able to find a place of warmth, light and safety.

Leave a comment

Filed under General

The Expansiveness of Joy on Sukkot

Think about an activity you love to do that gives you a good challenge. Maybe it’s playing tennis. Maybe it’s sailing. Maybe you’re like me, and it’s working on the Saturday New York Times crossword.

Whatever it is, when you’re deeply involved in that activity, you’re in a state that’s known as “flow” — a state of pure enjoyment. Time seems to run at a different speed, you’re totally focused on your task, and afterwards, you feel a real sense of accomplishment.

“Flow” was first described by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and he argues that flow arises when we find challenges that are just ahead of our skills. And beyond the fact that being in flow just feels really good — it’s a state of pure enjoyment — there’s another very important aspect to it: flow pushes our skills to a new level.

If you are a tennis player, for example, you had to work your way up from getting the ball over the net (or not hitting it so hard so that it went over the fence) to improving your serve to nailing your backhand. Each new challenge was also an opportunity to improve your ability.

As Csikszentmihalyi phrased it:

Pleasure is an important component of the quality of life, but by itself it does not bring happiness. Sleep, rest, food, and sex provide restorative homeostatic experiences that return consciousness to order after the needs of body intrude and cause psychic entropy to occur. But they do not produce psychological growth. They do not add complexity to the self. Pleasure helps to maintain order, but by itself cannot create new order in consciousness…

[In contrast,] enjoyable events occur when a person has not only met some prior expectation or satisfied a need or a desire but also gone beyond what he or she has been programmed to do and achieved something unexpected, perhaps something even unimagined before.

Enjoyment is characterized by this forward movement: by a sense of novelty, of accomplishment. (Csikszentmihalyi, Flow46)

In other words, joy expands who we are. And that’s a message we need to remember for Sukkot.

Sukkot, along with Passover and Shavuot, are called the “three pilgrimage festivals” because they were the three holidays when all the Israelites were commanded to come to the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. Each of the holidays also has their own name in our liturgy. Passover, understandably, is called “the time of our freedom.” Shavuot, which marks the giving of the Torah, is naturally called “the time of the giving of our Torah.” Sukkot’s title, however, is a little more mystifying — it is called “the time of our joy.” Why is that?

There are any number of reasons, but one of the explanations recalls an ancient tradition from Temple times. On Sukkot, there was a ceremony called “the drawing of water,” and the Rabbis taught, “One who has not witnessed the celebration of the water-drawing ceremony has never seen real joy.” (Sukkah 51a)

What was that “real joy”? Well, according to the Mishnah, people danced and sang, and the wisest and most pious men would juggle torches. While that sight would certainly make people smile and be happy, I think there’s a deeper lesson.

Because Sukkot was one of the three pilgrimage festivals, the population of Jerusalem would increase dramatically, so before the holiday, the priests and Levites would make major renovations to the outer courtyard. They would add some extra balconies, and the courtyard ended up being a little bigger than about the size of a football field.

But lots of people were coming for the holiday. Lots of people. Probably more than what the courtyard could handle. If you want an image, think of MetLife Stadium, but instead of everyone being in the stands, everyone is on the field. But, the Rabbis said, “Miraculously, tens of thousands of people were able to crowd in.”

Now, since thousands of people were coming, they certainly may have been a little physically cramped. But these thousands of people were not coming at any time. Instead they were coming at a specific time — Sukkot, “the time of our joy.” And joy has a miraculous quality to it, because when we are feeling joy, we can somehow always find room for more.

Think about this way: if you have a child, when your child was born, you didn’t say, “Well, since I have only 100 points of love, let me now figure out who I’ll love less.” No! Instead, the joy you felt caused your heart to grow. Miraculously, that joy led you to find room for more holiness, more specialness and more love than you ever thought possible.

Indeed, as Csikszentmihalyi taught us about being in flow, when we are doing anything that gives us real joy, we are learning new things and we are pushing ourselves. We discover that joy helps us grow —  and that there is no limit to its expansiveness.

So on this Sukkot, may we strive to create a little more joy in this world. We’ll find the room.

Leave a comment

Filed under General

Teaching Our Tongue to Say “I Don’t Know”

These were the words I shared on Yom Kippur morning at Temple Beth El of Northern Westchester. G’mar chatimah tovah!

In the spring of 2006, Stuart Firestein, who is now the chair of the Columbia University biology department, had an idea for a new course he wanted to teach, and he wanted to invite a few guest lecturers to come and speak. But he was a little worried about how his colleagues might respond. Why? Because this course was going to be called “Ignorance,” and as he said, it was going to be a little dicey trying to recruit a colleague by saying, “Hello, Albert, I’m running a course on ignorance, and I think you’d be perfect.” (Firestein, Ignorance, 5)

What Firestein discovered, though, was that his colleagues actually found it very exciting to talk about everything they didn’t know and all the open questions in their fields, such as: do animals have self-awareness? Where does consciousness from? Why is there something instead of nothing? Firestein was reminded that “[while k]nowledge is a big subject, [i]gnorance is bigger [a]nd it is [also] more interesting…” (Firestein, 10-11) Indeed, we often don’t realize the full value of not knowing.

Instead, we tend to crave knowledge and certainty, and it’s easy to see why. It is a complicated world and we lead complicated lives, and as Rabbi Brad Hirschfield teaches: “We long to be certain of how to live, to know that we have found the right thing to which to commit ourselves…” But, as Hirschfield continues, we also see how certainty blinds us to other perspectives, and why we then see “fundamentalists…die-hard Democrats or Republicans, liberals and conservatives shouting back and forth at each other, ranting secularists, [and] raving holy rollers…” (Hirschfield, You Don’t Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right, 39-40) Ask any teacher who deals with students turning to the back of the book in order to pass a test, and they’ll tell you that “knowing” can be a big problem, because “knowing” prevents “learning.” And so perhaps that’s why the Rabbis urged us to do something very challenging – to “teach [our] tongue to say ‘I don’t know.’” (Berakhot 4a)

Why did the Rabbis urge us to embrace our ignorance? Because those three words can open up our souls, open up our hearts, and open up our minds. When we say “I don’t know” when it comes to our souls, we soon discover new ways to talk about and experience God, are reminded to have humility when we speak about the Infinite. When we say “I don’t know” when it comes to our hearts, we soon discover new ways to interact with others, meeting another person with a level of sincerity and depth that we hadn’t experienced before. And when we say “I don’t know” when it comes to our minds, we soon discover new insights and new wisdom, and we find the joy in expanding our horizons.

Let’s begin by seeing how the words “I don’t know” can nourish our souls, because the words “I don’t know” can help us find language to talk about God. One of my passions is examining the interaction of religion and science, and so I end up talking to a lot of atheists. They share with me how they see religious people ignoring science, and thus halting progress on issues such as climate change, gay rights, and reproductive freedom. Or they note that the Bible was a Bronze-Age text, and so we need to move beyond its creation myths and often-barbaric morality. Or they explain that while scientific knowledge can always potentially be overturned by new data, religion forces us to perform mental gymnastics in order to hold onto dogmatic beliefs.

These arguments in favor of science are absolutely valid, but their arguments against religion are less so, because they rail against a particular vision of religion. Religion is a human endeavor – it is a tool, and like any tool, it can be used or misused, depending on how it is applied. So the question becomes how use religion, and it arises from how talk about God. There is a difference between what I refer to as a “top-down theology” and a “bottom-up theology.” A “top-down” theology is an inherently arrogant one, because it begins with the premise, “I know with certainty what God is and what God wants.” This is the vision of religion that atheists – and probably most of us – resist, because it is the form of religion that holds back civil and human rights, ignores scientific fact, and tries desperately to maintain its own power.

But there is another way we can talk about God – one that has a recognition that we will never fully know what God may or may not be. It’s what I would call a “bottom-up” theology, because it begins with our own personal life experiences. The premise here is, “I can’t prove anything about God one way or another. But I do know that I am here on this earth, and that I have a responsibility to myself and to others. I have fears and I have hopes. And so maybe it’s not about ‘proving’ or ‘disproving’ God, but about experiencing God, which happens when I search for meaning and purpose, and make a positive impact on others.” We all hold beliefs – about the world, about how we should behave, about who we are. These beliefs may or may not be provable, but that is less important than exploring how they influence our actions. As Rabbi David Wolpe taught: “Faith is not an idea but a way to live, not a logical proposition but an outcome of encountering a noble soul….I [am] less concerned with what God might be than with what faith in God might make of me.” (Wolpe, Why Faith Matters, 18-20, italics mine)

Without a doubt, religion continues to cause problems in our world. But it causes problems when its certainty leads arrogance, when it claims to “know” for sure who or what God is and what God wants from us. But if, instead, we can teach our tongue to say “I don’t know” when we talk about God, we can focus on how we respond to the simple awe and mystery of living. We can talk about our search for connection and meaning, and how we will ensure that our lives will have value. We can realize that the process of grappling with these questions will strengthen our souls. And it will remind us, in the words of Rabbi Laura Geller, that “all theology is [really] autobiography,” and that we are all on our own personal journey.

And that leads to the way that teaching our tongue to say “I don’t know” can open our hearts, because it teaches us how to truly listen to one another’s life story. Too often, we make assumptions about other people. We hear that someone is a Democrat or a Republican, a liberal or a conservative, an evangelical Christian or an atheist, and we think that those labels tell us all we need to know about them. But one of the tenets of Judaism is that each individual person is created in the image of God, and each individual person is unique. “A human king stamps out many coins with one die, and they are all alike,” the Mishnah says, “but God stamped each person with the seal of Adam, and not one of them is like his or her fellow.” (Sanhedrin 4:5) Yes, we all experience hopes and fears, but what gives us hope and what frightens us will be different from person to person. And the only way to truly connect with others is to seek to understand what we don’t yet know about them.

One of my friends and colleagues, Joshua Stanton, is the founding co-editor of the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue, and he has had the opportunity to work closely with one of the giants in the interfaith world, a man named Eboo Patel. Patel is an Indian Muslim who believes that religion can do great things, but in order for that to happen, we all need to learn how to be both grounded in our own religious tradition and open to other perspectives. So Patel founded the Interfaith Youth Core, in the hopes of inspiring young people to strengthen their knowledge, attitudes and relationships among different faiths. Patel was on President Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, and has spoken about the need for stronger interfaith work at a TED conference, the Clinton Global Initiative, and even the Nobel Peace Prize Forum.

I asked my friend Josh what he has learned from Patel, and he shared with me this story:

About a year ago, Eboo decided to take a group of [us]…out to dinner. He chose a casual (but delicious!) pizza place on the Upper West Side… Just that month he had gone to meet with the President [and] shared the podium with countless national and international leaders…In all of these areas, he had been…speaking, sharing his ideas, and persuading others with words to engage in important deeds.

But that night, he was quiet. Very quiet, in fact. Sitting with [us], he asked “What are you doing that means most to you?”… Then, he went around listening to all of our responses…
It felt strange being in the presence of a world-class leader, who was more interested in hearing about our lives than in teaching us about his own…

So I ask[ed] him why it was that he was being so taciturn. He responded: “Every day, people ask me to talk. Every day, I have to express my ideas. But I learn most when listening…If we are to have real engagement of young people in the interfaith movement, then I first need to stop and listen.”

In essence, Eboo was saying that he needed to learn before he could teach; that we were the focus of his work, not merely another target audience for his words; that we were the experts of our own lives, and that he needed to stop and listen, because he didn’t know about our lives and the world in which we lived quite like we did. In order to foster the next generation of religious leaders, he first had to respond to his understanding that he didn’t know – at least not as well as he might, after listening to each of our stories. (personal correspondence with Joshua Stanton)

There is far too much talking and far too little listening in our world today. Whether that’s on 24-hour news shows, Facebook feeds, or even in our relationships with each other, we tend to be much more interested in sharing our own perspective than in hearing another’s. But real people are not caricatures – real people are complex, challenging, and multi-faceted. So if we can step back and say, “I don’t know you as well as I perhaps should,” then we open our hearts, and create deeper and more meaningful relationships.

There is a third and final way we can find value in teaching our tongue to say “I don’t know,” and that is how it opens our minds. When we do a Google search or peruse on Wikipedia and see just how much we don’t know, then our natural curiosity can drive us to learn something new. While we often think of education and learning as occurring when we’re young, the truth is, we are constantly learning – and we can never stop. Our world is changing so rapidly, and as Alvin Toffler, a man whose expertise is on what the future will bring, argues, “In the future, illiteracy will not be defined by those who cannot read and write, but by those who cannot learn and relearn.” (quoted in Thomas Friedman, “New Rules,” 9/9/12)

That outlook is actually a very Jewish one, because more than Judaism has celebrated knowledge, it has truly honored learning. As Rabbi Bradley Artson teaches:

Learning is not a possession, something to have. It is a process of growth and unfolding that is a permanent accompaniment to human life. Mistakenly viewing learning as a form of conquest leads to the gradual loss of competence in a given field – that is why so many professions require continuing education to be able to remain active…Knowledge and wisdom do not merely grow stale; they dissipate if not freshened every day. (The Bedside Torah, 238)

Judaism is not a religion that proclaims it has the answers. Instead, Judaism is a religion that strives to help us ask good questions, because it is questions and not answers that truly expand our learning.

And so this year, under the guidance of our adult education committee, chaired by Maxine Olson, we have sought to expand the learning here at Temple Beth El. Downstairs in the Great Hall, you will find our program book for our new Campus of Living Judaism, which has the details on all the ways we can learn together. If you want, you can learn with clergy over breakfast on Sunday mornings with our “Food for Thought” classes. In the fall, we will be asking, “Should Religion Influence Politics?”, in the winter we will be exploring, “Can You Be Jewish Without God?” and in the spring, we will be examining what it would mean to have “An Ethical Economy.” Or, if you’d like, you can have private dinners with several well-known and up-and-coming authors. Or, if you prefer, you can hear about the state of the world from experts like Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren through our 92nd St. Y simulcasts.

Additionally, on the right-hand panel of your service insert, you will see these and other adult learning opportunities. As we do on Rosh Hashanah, I’d ask you to notch off any topics that might spark your interest. Maybe it’s a subject that excites you, or maybe it’s an issue that you’d like to learn a new perspective on, or maybe it’s a refresher on something that didn’t totally stick from Hebrew school. You’ll be doing it anonymously, and so at the end of the service, I’d ask you to place your notched service inserts into the boxes at the back of the sanctuary. We hope you’ll find these opportunities inspiring and thought-provoking – and if there’s something we’re missing that you want to see, be sure to let us know!

Because ultimately, we are all simply struggling with the questions of life: how do we act? How do we strengthen our relationships? How do we find joy and fulfillment in our lives? How do we repair our world? We have to remember that we can’t be looking to “know the answer” to those questions, because those questions aren’t ones where we can simply look in the back of the textbook. Instead, if we can teach our tongue to say “I don’t know,” then we can find humility, and openness, and curiosity. We can remember that it’s not about “knowing the answers,” but about “creating our responses” – to God, to others, and to ourselves.

Adonai Eloheinu v’Elohei avoteinu v’imoteinu, Adonai our God and God of our ancestors – we live in a world with many unanswered questions. And while we may desire the ease of simple answers, of certainty, of knowing, remind us of the value of teaching our tongue to say those three crucial words: “I don’t know.” Because those words can open up our minds, leading us to strive to continue learning. Those words can up open our hearts, leading us to deeply connect with others. And most of all, those words can open up our souls, leading us to grow in goodness, in holiness and in wholeness and peace.

Amen and g’mar chatimah tovah.

Leave a comment

Filed under General

It’s Not About Being Happy — It’s About Doing Good

These the words I shared on Sunday evening for Rosh Hashanah. Shanah tovah all — may it be a good and sweet new year.

There are two Hebrew words that we say many, many times over these High Holy Days. They express a wonderful sentiment to use when we greet others – whether in the sanctuary, in the parking lot or with friends and family – because they reflect our hopes for this New Year.

Those two Hebrew words are, of course, shanah tovah. And yet we almost always mistranslate them.

Perhaps it’s because we Jews celebrate two “new years” – Rosh Hashanah and January 1st – that the English greeting we tend to use is “happy new year.” But that’s not what shanah tovah means. “Shanah tovah” has almost nothing to do with happiness. Instead, “Shanah tovah” really means “a good year,” and there is a difference between our year being a “happy” one and our year being a “good” one. And I would argue that we shouldn’t focusing on “being happy.” Instead, we should focus on “doing good.”

Now, I can already hear an objection: Don’t we want to be happy? Is there anyone here who would wish for less happiness this year? Well, of course, if we had the choice, we would obviously rather be happy than be sad. But it also depends on what we mean by the word “happy.” Generally, we define “happiness” as “a pleasurable feeling,” but here’s the thing – feelings come and feelings go. So yes, we all hope that this year will have many moments of pleasure. But we also know that this year will bring moments of sadness. Of anxiety. Of struggles. In fact, there is even significant research that shows that we have only a limited amount of control over how happy we actually are.

Sonya Lyubomirsky, professor of psychology and author of the book The How of Happiness, tells us that there are three main factors that determine our happiness level. The first part is genetic – our “happiness set point,” as it’s called. Just as some people’s genes make them taller or shorter than others, genetics play a role in our psychological make-up, as well, which naturally influence what our “baseline happiness” tends to be. According to the research, our genetic tendencies make up about half of our happiness level – and so half of our happiness is something we have no absolutely control over.

The second part of the happiness equation is life circumstances – are we partnered or single? How much money do we have? Are we healthy or ill? These are the areas where we tend to invest a lot of our time, energy, and resources. We try to put money into savings. We go to the gym. We try to eat better. Yet even a cursory reflection on last year shows us just how much luck is involved in our attempts to change our circumstances. We may have tried to save money – but found that landing a job was surprisingly difficult. We may have gone to the gym and eaten better – but were sideswiped by an illness we never saw coming. We can do our best to try to improve our circumstances, but we know that in this area, as well, we have only limited influence.

But what’s surprising is that it turns out that life circumstances make up about only 10% of our happiness level. While there is always an initial shock when our circumstances change dramatically – both for good and for ill – within a few months, their power generally lessens. Why is that? Because we humans have what’s called “hedonic adaptation,” which is just a fancy way of saying “whatever it is, we tend to get used to it.” Author and behavioral economist Dan Ariely explains it well:

If you’ve ever gone to a matinee and walked from the dark movie theater to the sunny parking lot, the first moment outside is one of stunning brightness, but then your eyes adjust relatively quickly…

[Similarly, w]hen we move into a new house, we may be delighted wiSth the gleaming hardwood floors or upset about the garish lime green kitchen cabinets. After a few weeks, those factors fade into the background. A few months later we aren’t as annoyed by the color of the cabinets, but at the same time, we don’t derive as much pleasure from the hardwood floors.

Just as our eyes adjust to changes in light and environment, we can adapt to changes in expectation and experience. (Ariely, The Upside of Irrationality, 158-159, 168-169)

So while we may try to change our circumstances in 5773 in order to “be happy,” we have to remember that not only do have only a finite amount of control, and not only would we need to invest significant time and effort in changing them, even if we do succeed, they will only minimally affect our level of happiness.

So if 50% is genetics and 10% is life circumstances, what’s the other 40%? It turns out that the remaining 40% of our happiness consists of simple actions that we choose to do. What are those actions? They’re ones you would probably expect to hear: Express gratitude. Practice acts of kindness. Be fully present in your actions and with those around you.

And what’s interesting is that through these behaviors, we re-orient how we perceive this year. While these actions do make up 40% of what makes us happy – what make us “feel good” – they are almost 100% of what it means for us to “do good.” Expressing gratitude, practicing acts of kindness, being fully present – these types of actions make both us and our world a little bit better. So as we look towards 5773, we shouldn’t be asking the question “will it be a happy new year?” Research suggests that a large part of that equation is outside of our direct control. So instead, we should be asking, “how will we do good this year?”

Now, if this sounds a little bit like “moral self-help”…it kind of is. And that may not such a bad thing. Earlier this week, Megan McArdle, a journalist for Newsweek and the Daily Beast, wrote a piece entitled “What’s Wrong With Self-Help Books?” She notes that people often denigrate them, because

[t]he lessons they offer are obvious – be nice to your spouse, save more, give constructive feedback to your team members, eat less and exercise more.  And of course this is true, not through any particular fault of the authors, but because there are very few revolutions in human affairs.  The basic facts of living, getting along with others, and dying haven’t actually changed all that much since they were first discussed in blockbuster self-help titles like The Bible.

But that doesn’t mean they don’t bear repeating…[And s]ome messages can only be heard when [we] are ready. (McArdle, “What’s Wrong with Self-Help Books?”, The Daily Beast, 9/13/12)

Similarly, the messages of the High Holy Days are ones we hear all the time: reflect on our actions from this past year. Be kind to others. Be kind to ourselves. Make restitution for the mistakes we made. Forgive. These are messages we hear each year because these are messages that bear repeating.

But perhaps even more important than the words we speak is the way that Rosh Hashanah forces us to do what’s called cheshbon hanefesh – an accounting of our soul. A joke among many people who work in the Jewish world is the hope that the holidays will be postponed or even cancelled because “we’re just not quite ready for them.” But that’s the point – whether we are ready for them or not, the purpose of the High Holy Days is to put ourselves in a particular mindset. They are designed to confront us with the question, “What are the messages that we truly need to hear, and are finally ready to heed?”

And centuries of Jewish wisdom have accumulated many messages about how we do good. Indeed, Judaism’s vision of “self-help” isn’t about “helping ourselves” – it’s about how we help others and make this world better. As Dr. Byron Sherwin and Dr. Seymour Cohen explain in their book Creating an Ethical Jewish Life:

Rather than demonstrating how to accumulate wealth for [ourselves], Jewish ethical literature deals with how wealth may be employed for the benefit of others. Rather than offering strategies about how to manipulate others to do [our] will, it focuses on how best to live a life correlative with the divine will. Rather than teaching [us] how to deliver a speech, it is preoccupied with how to speak without harming others… (Sherwin and Cohen, xi)

So we don’t judge this year on how we felt. We don’t judge it on whether we were “happy” or not. Instead, as our machzor tells us, “the Shofar’s sound [should] awaken the voice of conscience…” (Gates of Repentance, 64-65) We should judge this year on the “good” we can do; how we can build, maintain, and repair our relationships – to ourselves, to each other and to God.

If we can do that, if we focus on “doing good,” then we can also rethink what “being happy” might actually look like. While one definition of “happiness” is feeling good, Russ Harris, author of the book The Happiness Trap, reminds us that true, deep, lasting happiness isn’t about the fleeting moments of pleasure. As he says,

[w]hen we take action on the things that truly matter deep in our hearts, move in directions that we consider valuable and worthy, clarify what we stand for in life and act accordingly, then our lives become rich and full and meaningful, and we experience a powerful sense of vitality. This is not some fleeting feeling – it is a profound sense of a life well lived. (Harris, 5)

In the end, that’s what these High Holy Days are about. We are not looking for a happy new year, but a good new year – and that means “a year of goodness.” We need to concentrate our attention and actions on what “we consider valuable and worthy” and lead us to “clarify what we stand for in life, and act accordingly.” And because it is natural and easy for us to go through the days and months of the year without reflecting on our actions, Rosh Hashanah forces us to consider the kind of life we are building, and to ask ourselves not how we can “be happy,” but how we can “do good.”

Adonai Eloheinu v’elohei avoteinu v’imoteinu, Adonai our God and God of our ancestors, as we reflect on this past year and look towards the new one, remind us to be grateful for the joyous moments and simple pleasures we experience. Remind us of the kind of life we should be living, so that it is a life of compassion and of justice. And remind us that we should evaluate this year in terms not on how happy we felt, but on how we helped improve ourselves and our world. As our machzor says, “We look ahead with hope, giving thanks for the daily miracle of renewal. For the promise of good to come.” (Gates of Repentance, 52) May the promise of 5773 be that we bring a little more goodness into our selves, to others and our world.

Amen, and shanah tovah – may it be a good year for all of us.

Leave a comment

Filed under General