In 1997, a man by the name Martin Seligman was trying to do some gardening work. The only problem was that he had a five-year-old daughter, Nikki, and she had different plans. Every time he’d pull out some weeds, she’d pick them up and gleefully throw them all over the place. He asked her to stop and started plucking weeds again. She playfully picked them up and threw them all over. Finally, Martin lost his cool. He yelled at Nikki.
But Nikki was no ordinary five-year-old. She looked at her father, and said, “Dad, I used to whine all the time. And one day I decided to stop. I don’t whine anymore. Why can’t you just stop being such a grouch?”
Now I’m not sure how I would respond if my five-yar-old would say that to me, but to Martin’s credit, he not only listened, he used his five-year-old daughter’s feedback to redefine the field of psychology.
You see, Martin Seligman had just been elected as the president of the American Psychological Association. He had written extensively on depression, and that’s what catapulted him to fame and to his new and prestigious role. But something was gnawing on him. His daughter’s comment – “Stop yelling at me, stop trying to fix me,” made him realize that instead of focusing on fixing negative behaviors, psychology should instead focus on wellbeing, not human brokenness but on human flourishing. And with that, the field of positive psychology was born.
Positive psychology in the early part of this century was all the rage. Affirmations – you are great, you got this, believe in yourself, were everywhere. Gratitude journals and meditation were being encouraged in otherwise cut-throat office spaces. Even the US Army employed Seligman to train soldiers in positive psychology.
The only problem is it didn’t work. Since the turn of the century, American happiness has continuously declined. According to some studies, we are the country that smiles the most and we are also the country that uses the most drugs to boost our mood. The entire field or as some cynically called it, the happiness industry, was predicated on a goal of becoming happy. But like the title of a popular Canadian band’s album, apparently, happiness is a fish you cannot catch.
Despite the immense investment of energy and resources into making us happies, our happiness levels kept dipping. Seemingly, the pursuit of happiness is futile. Some would argue that the pursuit of making myself happy is not only futile, it’s counterproductive.
There’s a story of someone who wrote a letter to the Lubavitcher Rebbe. The letter real like this: “I would like the Rebbe’s help. I wake up each day sad and apprehensive. I can’t concentrate. I find it hard to pray. I keep the commandments, but I find no spiritual satisfaction. I go to the synagogue but I feel alone. I begin to wonder what life is about. I need help.”
The Rebbe sent back a reply that did not use a single word. All he did was circle the first word of every sentence in the letter and sent it back. The circled word was the letter, ‘I.’
Perhaps it’s our fixation on making ourselves happy that is actually contributing to the problem. Positive psychology focused our attention on ourselves, and that is a recipe not for happiness, but for the opposite.
When the Torah does talk about happiness, it’s never about us, it’s always about others. The word appears twice in our parsha. One time in the tochacha, the string of curses that we read today, of all the evil that will befall the Jewish People if they misbehave, The Torah tells us why these bad things are happening – tachas asher lo avad’ta es Hashem Elokecha b’simcha, because you didn’t serve G-d with happiness. In a chapter of Tehillim we say every day, we read, ivdu es Hashem b’simcha, serve G-d with happiness. Each time happiness is associated with service of Hashem.
We experience joy when we accomplish something that we’ve worked hard to achieve. A big project for work, childbirth – or so I am told, running a marathon. Every time we toil and get to the finish line of something we find meaningful, we experience simcha, or joy. We know that. But what the Torah is teaching us is that true joy can be found not just in any accomplishments, but most specifically in the service of G-d.
Two years ago, I started teaching a class known as Semichas Chaver. It’s part of an international program that teaches Jewish law from the original sources to modern day applications. The founder of the program has a number of restrictions on how the program can be taught and one of the rules is that it is only for men. So not too long after I started teaching Semichas Chaver, a number of women approached me and said, lama nigari? What about us? Why can’t we learn in-depth text-based Jewish law? And they were absolutely right.
So I started a class at 8:30 AM on Sunday mornings for women. I assumed no one would come at that hour, but I was wrong. Over the past year and a half, we’ve had crowds as large as 35 people coming to learn. This year, I decided, we weren’t only going to learn together, but there would be an exam when we concluded the book we were studying.
In the days leading up to the exam, I received numerous calls, texts, and emails, from some of the women describing the intensity of their preparation. It’s a lot of work to memorize the laws of meat and milk, of kashering a kitchen, and how to keep it kosher. But despite the difficulty, nine very brave women took that exam and I’m happy to announce that they all passed.
I’d venture to say that they all feel pretty good about themselves. Because you worked hard on a goal, and more specifically, you worked hard on a spiritual goal, on doing something for G-d.
I know I feel happy. A year ago, right before Rosh Hashana I described to all of you my goals for the shul and one of them was high level Torah learning for women. This class and that test is a spiritual goal of mine and I know that it brings me great joy.
Let’s take a moment to acknowledge those women:
Shayndee Lasson, Yael Friedman, Channah Rothchild, Lisa Friedman, Faige Bauman, Dina Cotton, Adriene Kozlovsky, Karyn Toso, and Shelley List.
We start a new topic after Sukkos; I invite all the women here to join us.
There’s another place in this week’s parsha that the word simcha, happiness, appears, and that is in sharing our food with others; inviting those who do not have food or do have family to partake in our blessings. Once again, contrary to the notion of running after our own happiness, the Torah encourages us to make others happy.
And wouldn’t you know, giving to others is actually one of the greatest keys to happiness. In a series of studies that took place in Northwestern and the University of Chicago, participants were given five dollars daily. Half the group was asked to spend the money on themselves, and half the group was asked to spend the money on others. Those in the first group, the group that spent the money on themselves, described their happiness level decreasing with every consecutive day. Those who gave the money to others described the opposite – an increase in happiness.
Did you know that there are fourteen Yom Tov and Shabbos meals over the course of a few weeks? That’s a lot of time to be eating alone. Or, it’s a lot of time for all of us to be experiencing genuine joy. The choice is ours.
Simcha, in Judaism, is the loftiest of emotions. It is, as I spoke about two weeks ago, one of the prime themes of this holy month of Elul. We attain true simcha, true joy, not sunbathing on the beach drinking a pina colada – though that’s important from time to time, but in service, in service of others and in service of G-d.
We are two weeks away from Rosh Hashana. What spiritual goals do you have for the year ahead? How will you share what you have with others? In what way will your spiritual accomplishments bring you joy in the year 5884?