What Really Makes Us Happy?

2 October 2015
19 Tishrei 5776

Shalom Chaverim,

Despite the rain and chilly weather, many in the Gann community this week found moments to sit, eat, learn, pray, and laugh in our new, large sukkah. On Thursday morning at our annual parent learning in the sukkah, a highly engaged group of parents explored the relationship between happiness (one of the essential themes of Sukkot), giving, and gratitude. We discussed what these ideas mean for our own lives and for preparing our children with the intellectual, moral, emotional, and spiritual capacities to succeed and thrive in a changing world.

Among the questions we asked was: How can it be that, at a time and in a place where we have as high a quality of life and as much success as any human beings have ever had, we seem to have even more anxiety, dissatisfaction, and unhappiness? Sukkot and our tradition teach us that happiness is not determined by what you have or even by what you achieve but rather is a state of mind and heart, determined to a great deal by how you see yourself and the world. When we raise children and educate students, we are helping to shape the lenses through which they see the world and how they understand themselves in relation to others.

To extend our parent learning and discussion, I want to share one of the sources we studied and reflection questions for our last days of Sukkot. One of the parents spontaneously shared a related quote from Henry David Thoreau, which I am also including. Juxtaposed with one another, these texts illustrate beautifully that our Jewish sources are part of a universal human conversation.

Source 1
In one of the classic Mussar texts, Michtav Me’Eliyau (translated as Strive for Truth), Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler (1892-1953) writes about the quality of giving and the connection between giving and happiness:

The quality of giving inheres only in the person who is happy – not just satisfied – with his lot. He is happy because his life is filled with the joys of spiritual pursuits, before whose riches all other interests pale into petty insignificance. In his happiness he resembles a river in flood whose life-giving waters overflow all its banks. We have already seen how the heart of one in a state of joy broadens to encompass all who are close to him; the more joyful the person the greater his desire that all his friends take part in his joy. So it is with the giver.

What is the relationship between giving and happiness?
In what ways is a “giver” like an overflowing river and what does this metaphor mean to you?

Source 2
In Walden, Thoreau writes:

I do not value chiefly a man’s uprightness and benevolence, which are, as it were, his stem and leaves…. I want the flower and fruit of a man; that some fragrance be wafted over from him to me, and some ripeness flavor our intercourse. His goodness must not be a partial and transitory act, but a constant superfluity, which costs him nothing and of which he is unconscious.

What is the difference between a person’s “stem and leaves” vs. her “flower and fruit”?
What might it mean for a person’s goodness to be “a constant superfluity”?

As we prepare for Shabbat, for the final days of this High Holiday season, and for what promises to be a wonderfully intense, first “normal” month of school in October, this is an important time to contemplate these powerful metaphors about giving, goodness, happiness. They challenge us to stay focused, not only on everything we need to do and all we hope to accomplish in the coming weeks and months but also on the people we want to be and the lives we want to live.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,

Rabbi Marc Baker


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