Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Happiness Index - 7th Day of Pesah, 5772

A member of the congregation forwarded me a video from The Daily Show this week, wherein the host, Jon Stewart (a Member of the Tribe), compared Passover and Easter, and concluded that, at least for kids, Easter seems much more fun.  After all, chocolate eggs and bunnies win out over matzah and maror, hands down.  Of course, we’re not in competition, but he has a point.  Somehow, the Easter basket seems much more, well, joyful than the seder plate.

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Nevertheless, Pesah is the most popular Jewish holiday by far.  It is a time of gathering, of bringing families and friends together for good times.  Sitting around the Passover table, telling the Jewish story of freedom, dining on traditional foods is time well-spent, and continues to draw most American Jews.  So even without the bunnies and chocolate, it works somehow.

Today we read Shirat HaYam, the song that expresses the joy of the Israelites upon crossing the Sea of Reeds and escaping their Egyptian taskmasters.  They have attained freedom, they are on the way to their own land, and they will soon receive the Torah.  This is the first moment of redemption, the initial achievement of geulah  for which our enslaved ancestors yearned, but it is also symbolic of the redemption that (at least, traditionally speaking) as Jews we continue to seek, as we look toward the messianic age.  It is this joy of prior redemption and anticipated salvation that Judaism invokes throughout our rituals and liturgy, not only on Pesah, but throughout the year.  (e.g. Friday night qiddush, the third paragraph of the Shema, etc.).

But rabbi, you might ask, from what are we seeking to be redeemed now?  We are free people in a free land, with everything available to us 24/7 (even though some of us prefer to avail ourselves to it only 24/6).  What could be better than this?

Without getting into messy, messianic theory, let’s just say that we are enslaved to an imperfect world.  The life that God has given us is perfect; the world in which we live is not.  Redemption, we hope, will bring perfection to this world - no more slavery, no more oppression, no more war, and so forth.

Shirat HaYam is a lovely and unique piece of Torah that captures the elation that the Israelites must have felt after escaping Egypt.  Its Hebrew is poetic and luscious, its tale of the Israelites singing and dancing together with Moshe and a reprise by Miriam HaNevi’ah, Miriam the Prophetess leading the women alone with timbrels and choreography, is inspiring.  And when we chanted it this morning, we included the call-and-response melody that incorporates congregational participation, lending to our own excitement at re-enacting this holy moment in our national story.

However, I wonder how many of us can actually connect this joy with our own, living as free people in a wealthy, open society.  Although one of the goals of Pesah is to contrast the value of freedom with the pain and bitterness of oppression, I wonder whether talking about this for one or two nights per year can really get the point across.  

Are we happy with what we have?  Are we too comfortable to appreciate our gifts?  Do we take too much for granted?  Are we truly capable of outright joy, or have we been jaded by the monotony of abundance?

In a moment, I’m going to open up the floor.  What are the things that make you happy?

Before that, however, I would like to point out a fascinating initiative in the United Nations from the smallish, mountainous nation of Bhutan.  Bhutan is in the Himalayas, sandwiched between India and China, not far from Nepal and Bangladesh.  It’s about twice the size of Israel (without the territories), and with one-tenth the population (about 800,000 people), who are primarily Buddhist and Hindu.  It became a constitutional monarchy just five years ago, having been an absolute monarchy.

Why am I telling you about Bhutan?  Because in 2005, Bhutan made the pioneering decision tomeasure the happiness of its citizens, and created a new indicator to describe the Bhutanese state of joy.  Following the model of the standard economic metric, gross national product (GNP), Bhutan dubbed their new emotional indicator the Gross National Happiness, or GNH.

Two weeks ago, the UN held a special “High-Level Meeting,” organized by Bhutan’s UN delegation.  The meeting was attended by Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and other key diplomats, and addressed raising the worldwide happiness quotient.  The chair of the meeting, former PM of New Zealand and current Administrator of the UN Development Programme Helen Clark described the concept as, “a new economic paradigm, which places sustainability and the well-being of people at the very center of development.”

Last week on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer show, I heard Bhutan’s Secretary of the Gross National Happiness Commission, Karma Tshiteem (that sounds vaguely Hebrew, doesn’t it?) speak about what this indicator measures.  He pointed to the economy, of course, but also that sustainable growth is a greater contributor to happiness than growth alone.  Mr. Tshiteem also mentioned the things that give joy and meaning to life: community vitality, cultural diversity (Bhutan is apparently quite a diverse place), and psychological well-being.  But he emphasized that the most important factor is our use of time: time is life.  Time is decidedly NOT money.  How well we spend our time, how we balance work, family, recreation and so forth, that is where real personal happiness is found.

“Aha!” I thought.  This is where Judaism enters the picture.  Our tradition sanctifies time, far more than space or material.  One of the essential things that differentiates us from other religious traditions is our obsession with time.  Holidays, rituals, eating, study -- these are all tied to time.  The whole of the Talmud opens with the question, “From what time may one recite the evening Shema?”  

It is the sanctification of time that made Judaism portable in the wake of the Second Temple’s destruction, 1941.7 years ago.  Without a permanent dwelling place for the Shekhinah, God’s presence on Earth, we brought that emotional mishkan / tabernacle with us, opening space in our lives and hearts wherever we were around the world, welcoming the Sabbath Queen each Friday evening at sunset in Baghdad and Rome and marking the Exodus from Egypt on the night of the 14th of Nissan in Barcelona and Mumbai and afflicting our souls for the entirety of the 10th of Tishrei in Warsaw and Johannesberg.  The Shekhinah travels with us wherever we go, residing in our sanctuary of time.

The goal of Bhutan’s GNH is that ultimately it will replace the GNP as the primary economic indicator of a nation.  Happiness, after all, is not measured in how many widgets one produces or owns or sells.  But it is measured in how we spend our time.  Great Britain, Costa Rica, New Zealand and Australia are looking into their own happiness measures.  And that is also the benchmark that Judaism strives for.

Says the second-century Palestinian sage Ben Zoma in Pirqei Avot (4:1):
איזהו עשיר? השמח בחלקו
Who is rich? He who is content with his portion.
The key to happiness, suggests Ben Zoma, is to want what you have.  Once we are finished with wanting what we do not have, we can get on with the business of balancing our time such that our metaphysical needs are met.  Karma Tshiteem said on the radio that the greater the alignment between how we spend our time and what we truly value, the happier we are.  Judaism enthusiastically promotes the value of time spent in spiritual pursuit. Sanctification of time, says the collective body of Jewish tradition, makes for happier Jews. Being mindful of that temporal balance leads to greater spiritual satisfaction, and even true joy.

And guess what?  Ben Zoma and the Bhutanese happiness gurus are right on.  According to one recent poll, Bhutan is the 8th-happiest nation in the world.  Over the last few years, the Gallup polling people developed a “statistical composite for the happiest person in America, based on the characteristics that most closely correlated with happiness...”   They found that men are happier than women, older people happier than middle-aged, and so forth.  As it turns out, the statistically happiest person in America is a 5’11” 66-year-old, married, Chinese-American, observant Jewish man living in Hawaii (the happiest state).  His name is Alvin Wong, and he was profiled by a number of news outlets when Gallup came out with the results last year, and Mr. Wong happened to have all of the top characteristics of people who are happy.  Go figure!

In all seriousness, the lesson that both Pirqei Avot and the Bhutanese government teach us is that we all have it within our power to be happy.  Just as the Israelites were besieged miminam umisemolam, on the right and the left during their hasty departure from Egypt, and just as the bold Nahshon ben Aminadav plunged into the water of the Sea of Reeds (as the midrash tells us) and waded in until the water was up to his neck before the sea parted, we too can fend off the attacking forces of disappointment and disillusionment that come with misalignment of our time and values.  Happiness is within our grasp.

OK, Jon Stewart, so no bunnies and chocolate eggs (unless they are kosher for Passover).  But we have something much deeper: time.

I’ll say it once again, and please note that I really mean this: Hag sameah!  Happy holiday.

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Friday morning, April 13, 2012.)

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