Sermon: Happiness is a Serious Problem
Rabbi Jonathan Miller
October 21, 2016/Shabbat Sukkot
Sukkot is a serious problem for us. Actually, there are many serious problems when it comes to Sukkot. It is a problem putting the Sukkah up. It is more of a problem taking it down. It is a problem to keep the energy going after the major production of the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur holy days. It is a problem to shift our spiritual attentions away from the awesome themes of judgment, forgiveness, life and death, sin, repentance and the weighty themes of the passage of time and some of the misspent focus of our lives. And what do we get now? We have a little booth to eat our meals outside. We have a Lulav and Etrog, some ancient symbols that we wave around in the air for reasons that really elude us. I mean, after all, we live in either a city or a suburb. We sit in our cars as we get to work 8 days a week. We are not farmers in the fields. We are not harvesting our crops. We sit behind a computer screen most of our days and communicate with the world on our cell phones. The Temple in Jerusalem is long gone. What are we doing this for?
The Torah teaches us about Sukkot, “On the first day you shall take the product of hadar trees (Etrog), branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook, u’smachtem lifnei Adonai Eloheichem shivat yamim, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days.” Seven days of happiness. Wow, that is hard. Here is the spiritual life as ordained in the Torah. One day of fasting, seven days of beauty. One day of afflicting our souls. Seven days of food and guests and celebrations. One day of confession and repentance. Seven days of happiness.
And now I am going to share with you a little secret. The synagogue is full on Yom Kippur. And on Sukkot we are not quite as full. Our hearts are turned to God and each other on Yom Kippur. On Sukkot, well, not quite so much. It turns out that the themes of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur get our attention. Sukkot, is our afterthought. This season is called z’man simhateinu, the season of our rejoicing. And it seems to me that happiness is a serious problem for us.
When I was a young rabbi, I read Dennis Prager’s book (a mostly conservative political and religious commentator) entitled Happiness is a Serious Problem. It is hard for us to find happiness. A couple of years ago, I delivered a High Holiday sermon on the issue of happiness, and why it is life’s most important mandate and so hard for so many of us. I think I received more compliments on that message than any I have given during the 27 years I have been your rabbi. So tonight, after so much study and thought and reflection and maybe even some wisdom, I am going to tell you how to be happy. I will give you a shortcut to the ways of eternal happiness and contentment and peace. And it all surrounds the holiday of Sukkot.
Here are the answers for how to find happiness, straight up:
First things first. Surround yourselves with things of beauty. Second, enjoy good food and drink, in moderation of course. Third, be with people you love. These are all obvious. Here is the fourth thing you can do to be happy. And this fourth thing is way counterintuitive. You would never think that this is an ingredient for your happiness today. Beauty is number one. Pleasure is number two. Love is number three. Number four? Think about your death.
Our rabbis associated the book of Ecclesiastes with the holiday of Sukkot. Of all the books in the Bible, Ecclesiastes is certainly the most sobering. I will sum it up. The book is attributed to King Solomon, although scholars say that it was written six hundred years after Solomon’s reign. Here is the King of Jerusalem. He has acquired wealth beyond imagination. But as his years pile up, he finds that he no longer has pleasure in the wealth and in the gardens and in the palaces he has accumulated. After a while, even the view from the penthouse becomes wearisome. And he comes to the realization that when he dies, all that he has accumulated will be enjoyed by other people who did not work for it or achieve any measure of success on their own. Essentially, the realization that he can’t take it with him plagued him and had him wish for a simpler, more modest life.
“A lover of money never has his fill of money, nor a lover of wealth his fill of income. … As his
substance increases, so do those who consume it … A worker’s sleep is sweet, whether he
has much or little to eat, but the rich man’s abundance does not let him sleep.”
He acquired servants by the binderfull, and wives and concubines galore. He had his fill of the pleasures of the flesh. According to tradition, King Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines. What puzzles me is this: Why with seven hundred wives does a guy need even one concubine? Maybe that was just locker room banter, but it did make it into scripture! And then, as he aged, this too grew wearisome. As he aged, all the young women around him reminded him of his own mortality.
Ecclesiastes gained wisdom. He was the smartest man in the world. But his wisdom did not make him happy. Instead, it brought him anxiety and consternation. He envied the fool for the fool’s simple life. He noted that the fate of the fool and the fate of the wise man were the same. And both were soon forgotten. So for what purpose is wisdom since it cannot make you happy?
What permeates the book of Ecclesiastes, the subtext of all of this philosophical speculation, is the knowledge that death is the ending experience of life, and it puts a cap on all of his pleasures. Ecclesiastes tries to get a grip on the fact that his life is brief and his days are getting shorter. Everything changes, and still life remains essentially the same. We grow older, we mature if we are lucky, we become infirm, and we die. Still, the sun rises every morning in the east and sets every evening in the west. “All streams flow into the sea, and the sea is never full,” reports Ecclesiastes.
But Ecclesiastes is read on Sukkot because he has unlocked the secret to happiness. The secret to happiness is precisely the knowledge that our lives have a limited number of years.
Let me change the frame of reference from our little booths to the mountain county of Bhutan, nestled in the Himalayas, which prides itself on the happiness of its citizens. In 1972, the King of Bhutan put forward a proposition that his country should pursue happiness for all of its citizens. He developed a four pillar program of increasing the country’s GNH, its Gross National Happiness. The pillars are sustainable development, preservation and promotion of cultural values, conservation of the natural environment, and the establishment of good governance. But permeating these values is the Buddhist teaching that all of life is transitory and that we as human beings go through an endless cycle of death and rebirth. This idea is not Jewish. We Jews do not cycle ourselves through life for eons of lifetimes. This life, your life, my life, matters today and is of ultimate importance. Don’t wait around for the next life to get it right. Do it now.
Still, the secret for our happiness is the awareness of our finite years.
The director today of the Centre of Bhutan Studies and Gross National Happiness Research is a Buddhist teacher, Karma Ura. I read an article this summer written by Eric Weiner. I will quote from it liberally:
On a visit to Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan, I found myself sitting across from a man named
Karma Ura, spilling my guts. Maybe it was the fact that he was named Karma, or the thin air,
or the way travel melts my defenses, but I decided to confess something very personal. Not
that long before, seemingly out of the blue, I had experienced some disturbing symptoms:
shortness of breath, dizziness, numbness in my hands and feet. At first, I feared I was having a
heart attack, or going crazy. Maybe both. So I went to the doctor, who ran a series of
tests and found…
“Nothing,” said Ura. Even before I could complete my sentence, he knew that my fears were
unfounded. I was not dying, at least not as quickly as I feared. I was having a panic attack.
What I wanted to know was: why now – my life was going uncharacteristically well –
and what could I do about it?
“You need to think about death for five minutes every day,” Ura replied. “It will cure you.”
“How?” I said, dumbfounded.
“It is this thing, this fear of death, this fear of dying before we have accomplished what we
want or seen our children grow. This is what is troubling you.”
“But why would I want to think about something so depressing?”
“Rich people in the West, they have not touched dead bodies, fresh wounds, rotten things.
This is a problem. This is the human condition. We have to be ready for the
moment we cease to exist.”
Actually, by suggesting I think about death once a day, Ura was going easy on me. In
Bhutanese culture, one is expected to think about death five times a day. That would be
remarkable for any nation, but especially for one so closely equated with happiness as Bhutan.
Is this secretly a land of darkness and despair?
None of this, I’m sure, would surprise Ura, or any other Bhutanese. They know that death is a
part of life, whether we like it or not, and ignoring this essential truth comes with a
heavy psychological cost.
Linda Leaming, author of the wonderful book A Field Guide to Happiness: What I Learned in
Bhutan About Living, Loving and Waking Up¸ knows this too. “I realized thinking about
death doesn’t depress me. It makes me seize the moment and see things I might not ordinarily
see,” she wrote. “My best advice: go there. Think the unthinkable, the thing that
scares you to think about several times a day.”
Unlike many of us in the West, the Bhutanese don’t sequester death. Death – and images of
death – are everywhere, especially in Buddhist iconography where you’ll find colorful, gruesome
illustrations. No one, not even children, is sheltered from these images, or from ritual
dances re-enacting death.
Why such a different attitude toward death? One reason the Bhutanese think about death
so often is that it is all around them. For a small nation, it offers many ways to die. You can meet
your demise on the winding, treacherous roads. You can be mauled by a bear; eat poisonous
mushrooms; or die of exposure.
Ura’s lesson, meanwhile, stuck with me. I make it a point to think about death once a day.
Unless I find myself especially stressed, or engulfed in an unexplained funk.
Then I think about it twice a day.
Let me share with you the primer I have learned from Sukkot, Ecclesiastes, and the Kingdom of Bhutan. Life is beautiful. The world is wonderful. Nature is glorious. The simple things in life offer us our greatest pleasure. We will not enjoy these gifts of life forever. Our faith will bring us comfort and meaning that last beyond our lifetimes. These are the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur gifts to the soul. These are very important, and we dare not underestimate their value. But the knowledge of our own mortality make living urgent and happiness something we ought not to put off today. We derive our happiness from living our lives in the present, simply, with awe and grandeur and gratitude for this day, this moment. These moments are finite. So now is the time to be happy.
Sukkot is called z’man simchateinu because it focuses us away from the deeper meaning behind life to the command to enjoy life now, while we can, to the best of our ability. Enjoy! Be happy! Life is not forever, but because it is not forever, it is so beautiful and so precious. Waiting for happiness just will not do. We have to bring happiness into our lives by enjoying the simplest of pleasures which brings the greatest measures of joy.
As this is the special holiday of Sukkot, I will share words from King Solomon and the book of Ecclesiastes. He was a wise man. Listen to his words:
Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for God has
already approved what you do. Always be clothed in white, and always anoint your
head with oil. Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life
that God has given you under the sun—all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in
life and in your toilsome labor under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with
all your might, for in the realm of the dead, where you are going, there is neither working
nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.
The Tibetan monks have a tradition of producing elaborate sand paintings, mandalahs they are called. They work on them for weeks or months, enhancing the beauty of these ritual paintings. And then when they are complete, they stand back to admire their handiwork. Then the paintings are destroyed, bit by bit, until nothing is left of their beauty. The sand is collected and brought to the banks of a flowing stream and tossed into the river. The symbolism is rich. Life extends beyond the boundaries of our years. But within the boundaries of our years, we are urged on to enjoy the beauty in the world in which we live and the beauty that we can create in our own lives, and the pleasures and the love that life will bring. And in that urgency to live fully now is the source of our greatest happiness.
Now is the time for happiness. You are alive now. Celebrate your life now. Appreciate all that God has given you, and do it now. Now. Now is the time. Live life now. That is the message of this joyous holiday of Sukkot.
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Sukkot