HHD 5780/2019: Rosh Hashanah Evening Sermon

Shana Tovah. Shanah Tovah. Every Rosh HaShannah at Synagogue of the Summit we greet one another with these words. Shana Tovah. Every September, we send Holiday cards emblazoned with images of a shofar OR of apples and honey and the words:   Shana Tovah. 

But what does Shana Tovah actually mean? Does it mean Happy New Year? No, it does not. The Hebrew word Tovahmeans good. Not happy. Yes, Good. While at first glance, you might think, Rabbi Ruthie really there is not that much of a difference between happy and good. I would insist that good and happy are very different. The significance is real and has much to teach us about the theology and philosophy of Judaism. 

Don’t we all want to be happy? Is there anyone here who would wish for lesshappiness this year? Of course, if we had the choice, we would certainly 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 go. So yes, we all hope and I wish for you that this year will have many moments of pleasure. Yet, we also know that this year will bring moments of sadness. Of anxiety. Of struggles. Of fears. Of disappointments. Of frustration. The Unataneh Tokefprayer, which we recite tomorrow, is all about this.

 In fact, there is significant body of research that demonstrates that we have only a limited amount of control over how happy we actually are. In her book The How of Happiness, Sonya Lyubomirsky, a professor of tells us that there are three main factors that determine our happiness level. The first factor, the so called, “Happiness Set Point,” is genetic. Just as some people’s genes make them taller or shorter than others or predispose them to certain illnesses, our genetics also play a role in our psychological make-up. Our genes naturally influence what our “baseline happiness” tends to be. According to research, our genetic tendencies make up about half of our happiness level – and so half of our happiness is something we have absolutely no control over!

The second factor influencing the happiness equation is our life circumstances: Are we healthy or ill? Do we have enough money for our needs?  Do we have close friends or a partner?  These are the areas where we tend to invest a lot of our time, energy, and resources. We try to eat better. We go to the gym. We try to put money into savings. Yet even a cursory reflection on last year shows us just how much luck, yes luck, is involved in our efforts to change our circumstances. We may have tried to save money – but found that stock market had other ideas. We may have lost a job and found we needed to dip into our savings. We may have gone to the gym and eaten better – but were sideswiped by an illness or health condition or accident we never saw coming. We may have lost a partner through illness or divorce. We can do our best to try to improve our circumstances, but “life happens” and we have only limited influence.

What is really surprising is that that our life circumstances, like those I just mentioned, according to research, comprise only about 10 percent of our happiness level.  Just 10%! While there is always an initial shock when our circumstances change dramatically —either 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.”

Behavioral economist Dan Ariely (he’s Jewish by the way) 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…”

Just as our eyes adjust to changes in light and environment, we can adapt to changes in expectation and experience. Similarly, when we move into a new house, we may be delighted with 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.

 So while we may try to make changes to our circumstances in 5780 in order to “be happy,” we need to remember these two things: 1) we have a finite amount of control over our circumstances and 2) even when we successfully change our circumstances, these new conditions only minimally affect our level of happiness.

So if 50% of happiness is genetics and 10% is life circumstances, what accounts for the remining 40 percent? 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 our days, our year and our life.  While these actions do make up 40% of what makes us happy, they are almost 100 percent 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 5780, we should not be asking the question, “Will it be a happy new year?” Rather, we should be asking the Jewish question: “What good can & will we do 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. 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 (or your synagogue President), eat less and exercise more.  And of course this is true. 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 title, The Hebrew Bible.

But that doesn’t mean they don’t bear repeating. And some messages can only be heard when we are ready. 

Similarly, the messages and themes of the High Holy Days are ones we hear each year: reflect on our actions from this past year. Acknowledge where we missed the mark. 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?”

Jewish wisdom has 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. We have mitzvot, sacred responsibilities and obligations-visit the sick, take care of aging parents, welcome the stranger, give tzedakah. As Drs. Byron Sherwin and Dr. Seymour Cohen explain in their book Creating an Ethical Jewish Life:

 “[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.” 

Friends, 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,in a life enriched through rigorous reflection and action.

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. Remind us of the good we contributed, whatever we decide that means in our lives at this time. As our machzorsays, “We look ahead with hope, giving thanks for the daily miracle of renewal. For the promise of good to come.” May the promise of 5780 be that we bring a little more goodness into our selves, to others and our world.