We’re told when to sit, and when to stand. We wade through pages of text that many of us don’t understand. We’re reminded that our destiny is controlled by someone, something, else, that we are almost powerless, that we are being judged on high.
It’s no coincidence, then, that these past few years I have spent time exploring lessons learned from children’s stories. I’ve spoken from this pulpit about cancer and death, and loss and fear and loss anew. I’ve spoken about love, and giving, and gratitude. We’ve explored the essence of unfairness, of life gone askew, of bewilderment and the very tragedies that have befallen so many of us in the past year, or last year, or the one before that, through the simple magnificence of children’s stories.
Today, as we stand on the precipice of a new year, I want to follow my old trope once more; because I believe that through the simple naiveté found in the lessons that we teach our children we find ourselves most-open to the most demanding, the most soul-wrenching of lessons.
Children bring to life a curiosity and imagination so real that they see a world filled with possibilities and miracles, where fantasies can become real, and that vantage point opens them to lessons big and small taught through the most dream-like of stories and poems. As we grow, we find ourselves much more cognizant of what is not, versus what might become. But the holidays are a time for dreaming – dreaming of our future, dreaming of who we can become, dreaming like the optimistic child inside each of us of the ways to route out our greatest challenges and troubles lest they multiply into deeper issues in our lives.
And on this Rosh Hashanah, in this period of teshuva, of reflection and return, I worry a great deal about something I fear is so pernicious and pervasive in our adult selves, a trajectory and impulse that I fear is leading us from one Rosh Hashanah to the next without a moment left to pause and seriously reflect. This is a reality which is running us dry, letting days turn to months turn to years, stealing from us the opportunity for true return to a better path – because we are so busy chasing after a false God that we don’t even realize we left the path behind long ago.
You see, I have been thinking a lot about something of late.
Seven weeks from this Sunday, I will marry the woman I love, a beautiful blonde Texan who has changed my life, who you all were kind enough to connect with me as perhaps the greatest job perk in all of human history, a woman who has made me happier than I have ever been before.
I met Danielle on my first Shabbat here at Shearith (in this very room). There is, in fact, a video recording of that very moment – every service in our sanctuaries is video recorded, so, Jewish mothers, pay attention: if you want a record of your child meeting his or her partner, set them up on Shabbat! I have known for some time now, almost two years, that Danielle is the woman who would be my life partner.
But a cloud has cast its shadow over my joy since our day one. Looming thunderously is the memory of my mom’s illness, of my mom’s tragic, painful, untimely death, and, specifically, the fact that the one and only moment when she and Danielle occupied the same space on earth was at her funeral. The magnitude of my joy has felt tempered by the pain of longing for something else, a world in which my mom and the woman I love met.
How is it fair, I’ve wondered, that my mom got sick then, of all times, days before I moved to another state, and took a new job, and met my beshert?
And over and over and over again in my head, I’ve replayed the images of my mom’s last days on this earth, wishing I could rewrite the script, have Danielle there, and let them meet. I try as hard as I can to forge a new reality in which they spoke, or even texted, or touched hands.
But I can’t.
Every time, I end up empty-handed, unresolved, standing on a grave of nothingness and regret.
This is the messy space where the sidewalk ends, where dandelions grow over our greatest hopes and wishes. We’ve all been here, wanting to go back and change decisions we’ve made, rewrite the past, move forward and find a place free of the pain we now feel. So we think through the “if onlys”, and yearn for a different way, wishing we could undo what is, or find a way to cure it.
But we can’t. Though that does not stop us from trying.
We have been primed to pursue happiness. It is in our blood, it is as American as apple pie. Our Declaration of Independence enumerates three God-given unalienable rights: Life; Liberty; and the Pursuit of Happiness; three self-evident truths that make up the very fabric of who we are.
Life and liberty seem obvious. But the pursuit of happiness?
Is that a worthwhile pillar upon which to build our society, an appropriate compass for our life’s direction?
You see, on this Rosh Hashanah, I worry that the pursuit is a dangerous trek, one which leaves us ever empty-handed, disappointed, and yearning for more, one which consumes our lives with perpetual wandering, like an Israelite tribe that never reached the Promised Land.
Because, so often, the pursuit of happiness manifests itself in an unending attempt to free our lives of pain and of trouble. It manifests itself in an insatiable search for the best. It manifests itself in a blind disregard for the blessings that fill our lives.
There is a book, one perhaps obscure to most, which was brought to my attention over, and over and over anew this past year, and which has much to say on this futile search.
I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew is a story Dr. Seuss tells in the first person by a young man in pursuit of happiness. That magician of words offers us, in Solla Sollew, the very gift of perspective which we so need these holy days.
Once there was a boy… Who lived a carefree life in the Valley of Vung. And suddenly, this boy finds his life overridden with troubles. He was happy. Life was good. And then it was not.
He stubs his left nail;
and he’s stung by a Skrink.
On his neck,
and his toe,
and he cries a big stink!
How many of us have found ourselves in his position before? Maybe you stand there today!? How many of us have found ourselves in that valley just this year? Suddenly, without warning, life seems to go wrong. The good turns to bad. We feel helpless, or confused, or angry.
And what do we do?
So often we go looking, searching for something better, off on a metaphorical journey in pursuit of happiness, believing we can find a place that will numb the pain, a place where things will be easier, where life will no longer be like this.
Dr. Seuss writes:
There I was,
All completely surrounded by trouble,
When a chap rumbled up in a One-Wheeler Wubble.
“Young fellow,” he said, “what has happened to you
Has happened to me and to other folks, too.
So I’ll tell you what I decided to do…
I’m off to the City of Solla Sollew
On the banks of the beautiful River Wah-Hoo
Where they never have troubles! At least, very few.
“It’s not very far.
And my camel is strong.
He’ll get us there fast.
So hop on! Come along!”
Solla Sollew, a place free of worry, free of pain and anxiety and mishap. A place without troubles, at least, very few. It is an Emerald City, we need but follow the Yellow Brick Road and find ourselves safe, and care-free, no witches to worry about, no want, nothing missing.
We are inundated in life with the lie that Solla Sollew exists, that there are pacifiers for all of our problems, and that if only we do something, or go somewhere, we’ll solve them, and then we’ll be happy.
How many of you already bought an iPhone 6? But wasn’t the iPhone 5 supposed to cure all our terrible cellular troubles 2 years ago? I took time away from writing this sermon to buy the iPhone 6 on the day it came out. And you know what, I think the 5 was better, so I returned it. But, I promise you, in another year or two the iPhone 7 will finally rid the world of mobile phone evil. And we’ll buy it up.
We are primed to believe that the pursuit of happiness can lead us to a happy place, so we perpetually search. But what happens when we get there?
Seuss’s boy finds Solla Sollew eventually, and he boasts:
There it was! With its glittering towers in the air!
I’d made it! I’d done it! At last I was there!
And I knew that I’d left all my troubles behind
When a chap at a doorway that shimmered and shined
Waved me a wave that was friendly and kind.
“Welcome!” he said as he gave me his hand.
“Welcome, my son, to this beautiful land.
Welcome to sweet, sunny Solla Sollew,
Where we never have troubles.
At least very few. As a matter of fact, we have only just one.
Imagine! Just one little trouble, my son.
And this one little trouble,
As you will now see,
Is this one little trouble I have with this key…
“There is only one door into Solla Sollew
And we have a Key-Slapping Slippard. We do!
This troublesome Slippard moved into my door
Two weeks ago Tuesday at quarter to four.
Since then, I can’t open this door any more!”
And I can’t kill the Slippard. It’s very bad luck
To kill any Slippard, and that’s why we’re stuck
And why no one gets in and the town’s gone to pot.
It’s a terrible state of affairs, is it not!
After all his journey, there is no entry into Solla Sollew. The pursuit of happiness took our boy on a long trek, only to lead him to a facade built by a Key-Slapping Slippard, a lie staring him in the face. Yet, the journey continues.
“And so,” said the Doorman of Solla Sollew,
“My job at the door here is finished. I’m through!
And I’ll tell you what I have decided to do…
“I’m leaving,” he said, “leaving Solla Sollew
On the banks of the beautiful River Wah-Hoo,
Where we never have troubles, at least very few.
And I’m off to the city of Boola Boo Ball
On the banks of the beautiful River Woo-Wall,
Where they never have troubles! No troubles at all!
Come along with me,” he said as he ran,
“And you’ll never have any more troubles, young man!”
How many of us spend our lives searching for that magical place free of troubles? How many of us thought that we would find it in 5774, but now it’s 5775, and we’re sitting back here, in the same seat, living the same life. The pursuit of happiness is dangerous, because it can lead us to believe that happiness demands the escape from trouble, that there is a garden-like place, somewhere, if only we can reach it.
We may look out at our community, and feel surrounded by a room full of others who don’t have it nearly as bad as we do, wishing that our life could be as care-free as someone else’s, wishing that things could be easier, things could be better, things could be different, and if only they were then we’d be as happy as we want to be.
If only I were as skinny as she;
If only I were as wealthy as he.
If only I’d done that, then how great I would be!
Solla Sollew does not exist. Nor does Boola Boo Ball. Nor does the Garden of Eden. The problem with journeying towards Solla Sollew is that the quest is unending; a search for El Dorado that cannot succeed. These places appear as an oasis in the distance, but as soon as we near them, they fade away into nothingness.
And the happiness that we’ve sought with them does not materialize.
Let me not be misunderstood – Judaism values happiness.
Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav teaches that one should strive to be happy at all times. We work tirelessly to fill our lives with joy, our holidays with glee, our Shabbats with enjoyment.
But Judaism’s understanding of happiness is rather different than what we may have come to expect. Judaism begs us to see happiness as the symptom of a life filled with meaning, filled with purpose, and filled with devotion, rather than an item we can obtain by accomplishing specific tasks, reaching certain places, or undoing past errors.
Ours is tradition that asks of us to see the world as it is and dream of the world as it should be and then agitate in the messy dissonance between those two conflicting realities to make change in this world. Our texts push us to imagine a world free of slavery, and war, and bloodshed, but never do they give us a simple path to ending any of these maladies. We are left to be the change we want to see in this world, something which we can accomplish by embodying the best of our tradition, its ideals and its values, and manifesting them in our lives.
That is what it means to live a life of Torah.
The first Psalm begins:
אַשְׁרֵי־הָאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר לֹא הָלַךְ בַּעֲצַת רְשָׁעִים וּבְדֶרֶךְ חַטָּאִים לֹא עָמָד וּבְמוֹשַׁב לֵצִים לֹא יָשָׁב
Happy is the person who has not followed the counsel of the wicked, or taken the path of sinners or joined the company of the insolent. Rather, the teaching of God is her delight, she studies that teaching day and night. She is like a tree planted beside streams of water, which yields its fruit in season, whose foliage never fades.
This happiness, the happiness derived, gleaned from a life filled with meaning, a life committed to Torah, is a happiness of balance – one rooted in our tradition, a happiness that allows for introspection, and perspective. Our tradition teaches us that happiness is the result of our actions and the way we choose to view the world, not an abstract ideal that we should pursue.
These holy days are a time for us to seize the opportunity before us to return to a path of perspective, to realize that the only changes we need in life are ones that we can accomplish, today – if we choose to repair our relationships, if we choose to atone to God, if we choose to see the blessings in our lives and be grateful, rather than bemoan those curses that plague us.
Let 5775 be the year in which we stop pursuing happiness elsewhere and, instead, find happiness in ourselves, in the place we already are. Yes, each of us lives life walking down a broken, messy path, filled with sharp edges and pits and cracks that hurt us deeply, that disappoint us, crush our spirits and question our faith. Life is hard. Life can be unfair.
But today the Book of Life is opened; let us choose how to read the story found within its pages.
This is a lesson that I learned only recently. You see, I’ve been telling my story wrong these past years. Three weeks ago, standing at the foot of my mother’s grave, I learned another way to write my story. With proper perspective and a change in focus, I found a new way to understand the absurdity and irony of this thing we call life.
So let me tell you my story again:
Two years ago, my mom got sick, I left my home and family and my friends and came to this great state. And five months later my mom passed. I said goodbye to the world that I knew.
And it just so happens, and I thank God for the beauty of this fact, that at the very moment in my life when I was most abandoned by the world, when everything that I knew to be real and secure fell apart, when I was most in need, felt most alone, I met the woman of my dreams, a girl who has held me up and pushed me to build anew, the cute blonde Texan who I will marry seven weeks from this Sunday.
And on that November afternoon, when the glass shatters beneath my foot, I’ll remember the pain, I’ll remember the sadness. But I won’t let it keep me from feeling good, from feeling lucky, from feeling happy.
I stood at the place where the sidewalk ends, that nebulous crack of pits and faults. And there I found a giving tree that held me afloat, that shaded me from the hot summer’s sun. For the last two years, I’ve wandered toward Solla Sollew, wishing to rewrite the pain of the past, to find a way out of troubles, find a way for my mom and my fiancé to meet. They can’t.
But I won’t let that keep me from being happy.
Happy because at the moment that my mom’s life began to fade, when she could no longer be there for me, I met the one other person on this planet who most can.
It took me two years to learn that. It will take introspection, perspective, and constant teshuva in order to remember the story this way.
All it takes for any of us to achieve the happiness we pursue is to choose a new lens through which to look at our lives in order to write our stories in the Book of Life differently.
Each of us, at one point or another in our lives, will be hurt, will meet sadness, will be dealt unfair hands. We cannot inoculate ourselves to troubles any more than we can choose to stop breathing. We do not have the free-will to author the books of our lives – our world is filled with too many characters, protagonists and antagonists, to narrate by ourselves.
But we can choose how to tell our stories. We can focus on the positive, on the good, on the funny and meaningful and holy.
On this Rosh Hashanah of 5775, two roads lie before us:
We can live our lives in the constant pursuit of something better, something less troublesome, something external, we can live our lives in the constant pursuit of happiness out there, or we pursue the happiness we deserve in here, internally, through a steady dose of reflection, commitment, and teshuva.
The distinction between those two paths is nuanced, but crucial. One path leads us to the doors of Solla Sollew, ever in pursuit of something better, something else, something that does not exist. The other leads us to the Gates of Teshuva, up the path of focussed attention to deliberate appreciation for what is; gratitude for what we do have.
This is the day when our names are written in the Book of Life. This is the moment, that we are included in that fateful tome. But the content of the page’s story, the narration of the epic that is our life, its highs and lows, is ours to write.
Happiness is ours if we want it, we merely need realize that we already posses the tools to find it. Shanah tovah, umetukah. May your new year be sweet, and good, and happy.
Rosh Hashanah 5775
Rabbi David Singer