Tag Archives: Rosh Hashanah

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.

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Memory is Not About the Past — Memory is About the Future

This is the Rosh Hashanah sermon that I gave on Wednesday, September 28 at Temple Beth El. Wishing you all a shanah tovah u’metukah — a good and sweet new year!

Joshua Foer, who happens to be the brother of the best-selling novelist Jonathan Safran Foer, spent most of 2006 trying to memorize all sorts of things: the exact order of a deck of shuffled playing cards, hundreds of random numbers, and as many names as he could to put with unfamiliar faces. He was doing this because he was in training for the 2006 USA Memory Championship, and he chronicles his journey in the book Moonwalking with Einstein – The Art and Science of Remembering Everything. He tells us that he started off his training with an average memory, at best. As he says:

Among the things I regularly forgot: where I put my car keys (where I put my car, for that matter); my girlfriend’s birthday, our anniversary and Valentine’s Day; why I just opened the fridge; the year the Redskins last won the Superbowl; and to plug in my cell phone. (adapted from Foer, 6)

Foer’s lament is certainly one that many of us share, this wish that we had a better memory. And we often tend to think about memory in terms of how: how we can get a better memory, through learning some tricks or systems that may help. But in fact, the more important question – and one we don’t really think about – is why. Why do we want to have a better memory? What really is the purpose of memory?

That’s an appropriate question for Rosh Hashanah, because our liturgy for today is filled with language about remembering. Part of tomorrow morning’s Shofar service, for example, is called Zichronot, “Remembrances,” and in fact, another name for Rosh Hashanah itself is Yom HaZikaron, “The Day of Remembrance.” As Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman explains, “Rosh Hashanah posits a connection between past and present. What we did once has repercussions later, just as what we do now will unfold in all its fullness only in years to come. On Rosh Hashanah, the past catches up to the present.” (Hoffman, Gates of Understanding, 94).So certainly, part of the message of Rosh Hashanah is for us to reflect on the past.

But in fact, reflecting on the past is not the real purpose of memory. Instead, as Professor Steve Joordens says, memory is “any time when a past experience has an effect on current or future behavior.” (“Memory and the Human Lifespan,” The Teaching Company Coursebook, 6) In other words, memory is not about the past – memory is really about the present and the future.

In truth, that idea is actually not all that surprising. When we, like Foer did so frequently, forget things like where we put our car keys, it’s not that the past disappeared. It’s that we couldn’t access that information when we needed it at that moment. Indeed, that’s the reason why Foer spent so much time trying to enhance his memory. He knew there would be no practical reason for him to try to memorize the order of a deck of shuffled playing cards – that in and of itself would not a useful skill. But, he says, “To the extent that experience is the sum of our memories and wisdom the sum of experience, having a better memory would mean knowing not only more about the world, but also more about myself.” (Foer, 7) So in its way, the question of Rosh Hashanah is, “how do we improve our memory?” Not to be able to store more information, but to strengthen that link between past, present and future.

After all, we know that, quite often, that link is rather weak. When we forget someone’s name, or an important appointment, or why we opened the refrigerator, we realize that what’s important to remember isn’t necessarily what we actually remember. But why is that? Why do we remember some things and not others? While there are several factors involved, there is one that is particularly crucial. Quite simply, we tend to remember the things we think about most frequently. As cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham explains:

Your memory lays its bets this way: if you think about something carefully, you’ll probably have to think about it again, so it should be stored. Thus your memory is not a product of what you want to remember or what you try to remember; it’s a product of what you think about. (Willingham, 53)

Or, to put it another way: “Memory is the residue of thought.” (ibid, 54)

And that’s why we Jews are commanded to remember things. We can’t just rely on our memory, because we know how faulty it can be. Instead, in order to remember the things that are most important, we need to be reminded to think about them. That’s why we constantly talk about “never forgetting” the Holocaust, why the Torah continually tells us to “remember the Exodus from Egypt,” and why we say Kaddish for our loved ones each year. As Steve Joordens says, “Every time we remember an event or a person, it is like we are breathing a little life into them.” We keep the past alive when we think about what has happened, and the more frequently we think about something, the more likely we are to remember it.

But the flip side is true, as well. We tend to forget the things that we don’t think about. So perhaps that’s why these High Holy Days tend to remind us all the ways we missed the mark this past year. After all, it is human nature to “conveniently forget” all the ways we hurt others, or stretched the truth or acted unjustly. In the book Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me), authors Carol Tavris and Elliott Aronson note that our intense desire to protect our self-image often keeps us from remembering all the actions we took that we now regret:

Confabulation, distortion and plain forgetting are the foot soldiers of memory, and they are summoned to the front lines when the totalitarian ego wants to protect us from the pain and embarrassment of actions we took that are dissonant with our core self-image. “I did that?” That is why memory researchers love to quote Nietzsche: “‘I have done that,’ says my memory. ‘I cannot have done that,’ says my pride, and remains inexorable. Eventually – memory yields.” (Tavris and Aronson, 71)

It is painful – and at times, even difficult to impossible – for us to truly remember the ways we have sinned this past year. And so that is why it is essential to keep in mind that the reason we reflect on our mistakes is not to dwell on them. Remember – the purpose of memory is not simply to recall the past. It’s to use the past to create an effect on our present and on our future.

And what’s fascinating is that the mental faculties we use to recall the past are the exact same ones we use to imagine our future. Try a little experiment here with me. And I want you to think about what’s going on in your head during this time. Ready?

First I want you to remember a Yom Kippur break fast from when you were a kid, or maybe even just last year’s. What food was served? Where was it? Who was there?

Now, I want you to imagine yourself ten days from now, at your break fast this year. What food will be served? Where will it be? Who will be there?

You might have noticed a similarity between those two experiences. On some level, they “felt” the same – both times, it probably felt like there was a little movie going on in your head. And the reason those experiences felt the same was because on a mental level, they were the same. Researchers talk about how we construct our autobiography from a series of “episodic memories” – all those snapshots and vignettes that have occurred in our lives. And yet episodic memory has not only a “rewind” button to give us a window into our past, but a “fast forward” one, as well, that gives us a glimpse into our possible future.

But the key word there is “possible.” There is one significant difference between the past and the future – the past is gone, but the future is ours to shape. And unlike memory – which we don’t always have control over – imagination is a conscious act. We get to decide how we want to imagine ourselves. So what kind of parent do we want to be in 5772? What kind of child? What kind of spouse? What kind of friend? What kind of person? Since the future has not yet been written, as important as it is to reflect on 5771, it is that much more important for us to envision our best selves in 5772.

Now, if we think rationally, we’ll realize we probably won’t live up to our best selves in 5772. But imagining ourselves at our best gives us something to work towards. It gives us hope. And when it comes to hope, a little irrationality is a good thing. Author Tali Sharot tells us that

[h]ope, whether internally generated or coming from an outside source, enables people to embrace their goals and stay committed to moving towards them. This behavior will eventually make the goal more likely to become a reality…[And w]hen our hopeful predictions turn out to be wrong, well, then we…simply learn from our errors and try again. As the old saying goes, all’s well that ends well; if it is not yet well, then it is not quite the end. (Sharot, The Optimism Bias, 58)

So what is our goal for this year? How do we want to imagine ourselves? If we keep that vision in mind, then when we miss the mark, “we simply learn from our errors and try again.” And if we can remember to orient ourselves towards the future, and not the past, then our memories can become the raw materials that we use to create the life and the world we want. As Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf once said, “Uniquely Jewish is the idea of memory as will. Memory is not seen as something that befalls a passive consciousness. It is something purposefully appropriated in awe and love.” (Unfinished Rabbi, 33) The question isn’t what has happened in the past – the question is how we decide to use the past to shape our future.

Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins tells us that “[t]he Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hasidism…[made] a remarkable and profound statement about remembering that captures the essence of Judaism’s emphasis on memory…: ‘Redemption lies in remembering.’ We remember the good and the bad of what happened before us, so that we can make tomorrow better than today and yesterday.” (Elkins, Rosh Hashanah Readings, 280). So while it’s true that Judaism is a religion that honors tradition and the past, on a deeper level, Judaism is really a religion that focuses on the future, emphasizing the hope that, despite our setbacks and missteps, we can move towards the person we want to be and the world that we wish to build.

Adonai Eloheinu v’Elohei avoteinu v’imoteinu, Adonai our God and God of our ancestors – on this Yom HaZikaron, this Day of Remembrance, help us to improve our memory. Not to help us put more information in our heads, but to help us see the connection between past, present and future. Help us to look back in order to look forward. Help us to imagine our best selves and a world redeemed. And most of all, help us to find the strength and the will to transform that vision into reality.

Amen and Shanah Tovah.


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