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Home From the Rabbi From the Rabbi - November 2019
From the Rabbi - November 2019 PDF Print E-mail

Bulletin Article November 2019 Edited from 
Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon 2019 

One of my favorite musicals is, unsurprisingly perhaps, Fiddler on the Roof.  In the song “Matchmaker” Tzeitel, the oldest daughter of the family, teases her sisters with the inevitable gap between the dreamy image they have for their future partner and the rather imperfect matches they can realistically expect as daughters of a poor milkman.  Taking on the tone of Yenta, the matchmaker, Tzeitel sings: ”I promise you'll be happy, and even if you're not, there's more to life than that---Don't ask me what.”

Being happy is what most of us want to be, what most of us expect to be if life is working out as it should.  And it is a central Jewish value and goal of Jewish life.  But while we can all agree that happiness is important it’s hard to define, and for many, even harder to achieve.  When we think about it happiness involves balancing lots of things which pull us in different directions.  We must balance what makes us happy now with what makes us happy in the long term, what gives us physical pleasure vs what gives us spiritual or emotional joy, the things that bring us an immediate rush and those things that bring more long lasting contentment.  

One important answer for how to balance these different aspects of happiness is suggested by Victor Frankl, for whom the real secret to genuine happiness is living a life of meaning.  Frankl was a prisoner in a Nazi death camp where he observed how people could maintain the will to live even in such a horrific situation by having a sense of purpose and meaning.  He said: “Those who have a 'why' to live, can bear with almost any 'how'.” He argued therefore that:  “Life is not primarily a quest for pleasure…  or a quest for power… but a quest for meaning.”  Most importantly when we have meaning everything else falls into place.  “Happiness” he explained “cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to 'be happy.”  

By this he meant that searching after happiness as a goal would be unlikely to result in lasting happiness in and of itself.  But if we search for meaning and find it, then happiness will flow from that.  When we have a higher purpose we enjoy the immediate pleasures more.  They are more vibrant and significant because we experience them in the midst of a life of purpose and meaning.  And at the same time when we feel that we are living for something beyond the moment things that are not immediately pleasurable can still bring us lasting joy because we know they will lead to something greater. 

Frankl  therefore had an odd answer to the question asked by Tzeitel – What’s more important in life than happiness? The answer is… happiness!  Not the happiness of pursuing fleeting and momentary pleasures but the lasting joy of living a life of meaning, committed to the purpose of helping others and making the world a better place because you were in it. 

And our prayerbook tells us how best as Jews to do so.  It declares in the Torah service “[The Torah] is a tree of life to all who hold fast to it and all of its supporters are happy” When we live our lives in a way that is inspired by the values of our tradition – doing justice, loving mercy, being humble in the face of G-d and our fellow human beings, seeking opportunities to take action for the benefit of others, acting with kindness and compassion, generosity and honesty in all that we do, we will increase happiness for ourselves and for others. And happiness will ensue.

Rabbi Ilan Emanuel



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