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The Language of Kindness

One trifling exception

In the presence of eternity

Color my sunset sky

The Happiness Quotient

These are the conclusions of the World Values Survey (WVS), published this past July [2008] in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science. “Researchers measured happiness [in 97 nations] by simply asking people how happy they were, and how satisfied they were with their lives as a whole.”

Based upon survey results, researchers concluded that happiness derives from increased personal freedom, prosperity, and social tolerance. Evidently, it is the acquisition of wealth and the opportunity to use it as one wants without social criticism that makes us happy.

Upon reading these results, Anton Kaiser wondered if something was not rotten in the state of Denmark. The retired career army officer did some research and reported his findings in the Dakota Voice: “Denmark, Puerto Rico, and Colombia are highly literate democracies (98%, 94%, and 93% literacy, respectively), whose people speak primarily one language (Danish, Spanish, and Spanish, respectively), and who are overwhelmingly Christian (Lutheran 90%, Catholic 85%, and Catholic 85%, respectively).”

Kaiser wondered why these statistics did not lead researchers to conclude that opportunity, education, common culture, and religious commitment might have been the relevant criteria for producing happiness. But he didn’t wonder for very long.

THE CITY OF HAPPINESS IS FOUND IN THE STATE OF MIND

Denmark has topped the WVS list of happiest countries for years. The salient characteristics of Danish culture include legalized abortion, legalized prostitution, legalized drug use, legalized same-sex unions. The majority of Scandinavian countries — namely Norway, Sweden, and Iceland — have similarly “relaxed” social mores, and all rank high on the happiness scale. Of course, it may be mere coincidence that the WVS Association has its headquarters in Stockholm, Sweden.

Kaiser began searching for other factors common to the three highest-ranking countries. He also wondered why Puerto Rico — a province of the United States — had been ranked as a country at all.

“I discovered that Colombia began legalizing abortion in 2006, and in 2007 extended social security and health insurance benefits to same-sex couples, and on April 17, 2008, extended pension benefits to same-sex partners … I then analyzed Puerto Rico and, sure enough, its legislature had just rejected a gay marriage ban in June 2008.” It may simply be another coincidence that the WVS rankings came out the following month.

Then again, it may be that the WVS Association is pushing an aggressive social agenda by asserting that happiness is proportional to social permissiveness and inversely proportional to traditional values. One might easily imagine that any addict visiting a den of drugs and prostitution with no fear of legal, social, or economic consequences would rate his own happiness quotient off the charts.

DEBUNKING THE MYTH OF SATISFACTION

The sages of the Talmud address the question of happiness with pithy insightfulness: Who is wealthy? The one who is happy with his portion. In contrast to the researchers who concluded that wealth produces happiness, the sages observe that happiness is the source of true wealth. One need not look far to discover that many wealthy people endure miserable lives, where many who barely scrape by enjoy lives of joy and fulfillment.

Furthermore, the sages consider a person wealthy because he is happy with his portion — not because he is satisfied. Satisfaction results from the attainment of a goal and is usually fleeting; often, we experience sharp pangs of melancholy after the initial rush that accompanies success. Conversely, happiness results from striving toward a goal that is both attainable and worthwhile. It is this struggle that makes us truly happy, and a life spent striving for goals of intrinsic value is a life of immeasurable happiness.

Indulging every whim and impulse may prove pleasurable, but such pleasure-seeking will merely distract one from the lack of purpose that would otherwise make life intolerable. One who anesthetizes himself with chemical substances and sensory stimulation may deaden his receptors to the paralyzing pain of futility, but he knows nothing of real happiness.

THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS

The holiday of Sukkos, which follows Rosh HaShonah and Yom Kippur, has been described by the sages as zman simchaseinu — the season of our happiness. A curious appellation for a holiday characterized by exposure to the cool winds of approaching winter beneath a roof of palm branches and bamboo, without either the comforts of the living room or the amusement of electronic entertainment.

Strictly speaking, there is no prohibition against DVDs, video games, or web-surfing in the sukkah, but the spirit of the holiday clearly discourages such distractions. The sukkah — even when elaborately decorated — is essentially a structure of austerity, evoking the distant collective memory of our ancestors wandering through the desert with only simple huts for shelter.

Even by the standards of way back then, the thatched roofs of those Jewish dwellings provided little security. Rather, it was the Clouds of Glory, the manifestation of the Divine Presence, that protected the Jews in that foreboding wilderness and kept them safe from the inimical creatures and hostile elements that threatened them on every side. In the absence of material comfort, with only the manna from heaven to sustain them, the Jews experienced the most profound spiritual joy of divine intimacy with their Creator.

For what purpose did the Almighty engineer the miraculous exodus from Egyptian slavery, hand down His law at Sinai, and lead the Jews toward the land He had promised their forefathers? To light up the world with the glory of heaven, to radiate divine wisdom and justice throughout the world, to inspire all nations  to accept the yoke of morality and virtue.

The sukkah is a microcosm of the world — unfinished and incomplete. It is here, sitting in his humble sukkah, that a Jew today can experience true happiness by rediscovering the unique sense of meaning that comes from being a partner in Creation. After the judgment of Rosh HaShonah and the atonement of Yom Kippur, after struggling to touch the heights of true spiritual awareness, the holiday of Sukkos brings us back down to earth, reminding us that freedom and wealth become the source of genuine happiness when we see them not as ends in themselves but as tools to use in pursuit of a higher purpose.

Originally published in 2008 by Jewish World Review

Rosh Hashanah, Tailor-Made

The Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, begins this Wednesday evening.  Our New Year’s resolutions are not optional.  We have an obligation to reflect on how we are living our lives as we celebrate the anniversary of the creation of the universe.  So I’m taking the opportunity to revisit these thoughts which, I believe, have relevance to all of us.

Best wishes for the coming year.

Nobody likes fundraising dinners. The speeches are dry, the menu is dull, and the seating arrangements seem to have been drawn up by the Marquis de Sade. No one looks forward to these affairs, and we attend them only out of a sense of obligation.

Since one dinner I attended last year, however, I have become more wary than ever of this kind of event.

The evening began unremarkably and proceeded unremarkably — up to a point. The food was better than usual, the speeches ran longer than usual, the company was as good as could be hoped for, and I never saw the dinner plate that slipped from the tray of the passing waiter and struck me squarely on the forehead.

icepack“I didn’t hit you, did I?” asked the waiter in response to the alarmed gasps and cries from the people who shared my table, several of whom assured him that he had, indeed, scored a direct hit.

“Are you all right?” he asked, inevitably. A silly question, really.

A pound-and-a-half of glazed ceramic packs quite a wallop after accelerating at thirty-two feet-per-second-squared from a height of six feet in the air.

At least I was still conscious, still sitting upright, and I didn’t think I was bleeding.

“Get a doctor,” someone said.

“He doesn’t need a doctor,” said someone else. “Get him a lawyer.”

The manager arrived with an ice pack. “Here, take this.”

“I was hoping for scotch with my ice,” I said.

He laughed, but didn’t bring me any scotch. “I’ll need your name and address, sir,” he said, handing me a pen and paper.

“Don’t sign anything,” yelled someone from the next table.

I scribbled my vital statistics. “I’m really very sorry, sir,” he said.

“Is there anything else I can do for you?”

“Just the scotch.” He laughed again and went away. I had figured the manager would offer me vouchers for a complimentary night’s stay. He hadn’t. (I never even got a letter of apology.) I hadn’t gotten my whisky, either.

I began regaining my bearings to a medley of more lawsuit jokes. From across the table, however, my next door neighbor offered the only profound comment of the evening: “What were you thinking about before you got hit?”

I knew exactly what he meant. According to Talmudic philosophy, there are no accidents, no coincidences, no random events. Everything comes about through the guiding hand of Divine Providence, the spiritual imperative that governs how the external world acts upon each and every one of us. In other words, if I got smacked on the head, I must have had it coming to me.

This is a far cry from the popular notion that whatever I want, I have coming to me. As much as contemporary culture may insist that privileges and entitlements are birthrights, the Talmud recognizes only our responsibilities, both to other individuals and to society. When we live up to our obligations, we may expect certain rewards to come our way. But if we do receive an apparently undeserved blow, great or small, we should assume that the equilibrium of the cosmic scales of justice somehow needed to be set back in balance, and we should reflect upon the message that has just been sent us from on high.

Sometimes we can easily identify a concrete lesson to glean from such mishaps. Other times not. But the principle holds, even when we can’t perceive any clear cause and effect: this was necessary; now we need to brush ourselves off and get on with life.

The traditional Yom Kippur liturgy provides a poignant example in its narrative concerning Rabbi Ishmael, the High Priest, who was cruelly tortured to death at the whim of the Roman governor’s daughter.

The heavenly court protested in outrage before the throne of G-d: “Is this the reward for living a life committed to holiness?” they demanded.

“Be silent!” commanded the Almighty, “or I will return the world to void and nothingness.”

180px-tailor-fit_800The incomparable 18th century genius, Rabbi Elijah of Vilna, explains G-d’s reply with this allegory:

A king once received a gift of fine Turkish wool, the most luxurious fabric in the world. It was so beautiful, in fact, that the king could not bear to think that even a tiny piece of it should end up as scrap on the cutting floor. He went to every tailor in his kingdom and asked each to make him a suit without letting even one thread of the wool go to waste. But every tailor claimed that such a feat was beyond his ability.

Finally, the king found a tailor who agreed to do the job. When the king returned to the tailor’s shop on the appointed date, he discovered that the tailor had indeed produced an exceptional suit of clothes. The king was elated.

“But have you fulfilled your promise?” asked the king. “Did you use every thread?”

“You really don’t know,” answered the tailor. “And the only way you will ever will find out is if you tear your beautiful suit apart and lay out all the pieces in the original shape of the fabric.”

Similarly, we often think that life is full of unfair knocks or is missing essential pieces. But to know for sure, we would have to see all of human history undone before our eyes. Only then would we have the right to assert that there were flaws in the slow sculpture of creation.

The days from Rosh HaShonnah to Yom Kippur — the traditional season of judgment — afford us the opportunity to strengthen our trust that the Master Tailor has done His job well, that He has stitched together the fabric of eternity according to a plan He understands far better than we do — even when bricks, or china plates, fall out of the sky upon our heads.

Should I have sued the hotel? the waiter? the school holding the event? the principal, who was speaking when I got hit? No doubt, I could have found any number of lawyers eager to take the case. If a woman could receive 4 million dollars for spilling a cup of coffee in her own lap, this should be worth at least as much.

But life is full of honest accidents resulting in superficial scrapes and bruises. It’s better for us (and better instruction for our children) to look for what we can learn from life’s bumps and knocks, not to look for whom we can blame and how much we can squeeze out of them.

b312248a90eac5da6778e184074f4ea9The waiter returned, contrite and apologetic, perhaps more shaken than I was. “In twelve years this has never happened to me,” he said. Evidently, he also had a date with Providence. “Is there anything else I can do for you, sir?”

“I wouldn’t mind a scotch on the rocks.”

“I’ll see what I can do.”

He did. It wasn’t four million dollars, but it was better than a knock on the head.

Originally published in 2000 by Jewish World Review.