Kol Nidrei 5778: Misery is the Road to Happiness
Rabbi Dan Dorsch
Congregation Etz Chaim, Marietta, GA.
After nearly a month without sleep, tonight, I remember what my mother, of blessed memory used to tell me about what it meant to be find happiness as a parent. She used to say that was that “you are only as happy as your most miserable child.”
And I think all of us, as both either parents with children and children with parents, appreciate that sentiment. I won’t claim to be an expert on pregnancy, but my understanding, having been a wonderful, supportive husband--and if my wife tells you otherwise don’t believe her--is that it’s not a feel good experience. It’s as I said on Rosh Hashanah, a “do good” experience. Many pregnant women feel miserable, and then when your child is born, you immediately delve into more misery. The diapers and the sleepless nights. And very soon after you realize that for all the Hollywood and People magazine depictions of William and Kate, that the ease with which it seems that people find happiness with perfect beautiful babies, just isn’t true.
But then, once that child is in your arms, once you have gone through that misery, as my mother pointed out, you are supremely happy. And therein is contained the great paradox of being a parent. Because despite the diapers and the sleeplessness and the tzuris: being in the loving embrace of a child is the moment when you feel the most happy and fulfilled that you’ve ever been in your entire life. And so I am going to tell you this evening, and there are others as well, who will tell you that it is only by engaging with that misery that you discover happiness.
When you are a parent, you cry, because the miserable days seem to take years, but then when your kids grow up, you cry again because the wonderful years have gone by like days. You hate changing diapers and then when your kids are grown up, and then you long for the days when you could. And while whether you are happy or sad in many ways is completely contingent on your child, there is something about going through the misery and experiencing the way that you child eats away at your kishkes that in the end, makes you a happier person.
Tonight, I want to talk about why I believe there are so many people who are unhappy...and why so many of us struggle to find happiness and fulfillment in our lives. If you go online after Yom Kippur, you will find that there are entire industries that have developed around books and articles that promise to teach us how to be happy. A few years ago, Gretchen Rubin’s book, “The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Find Mr. Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun,” spent 78 weeks on top of the NYTimes Best Seller’s list. Look at our world, and the way that advertisers promote vacations. The products you see on the shelves in stores. There are entire industries that claim to promote quick fixes to make you happy.
Yet if you ask our rabbis to define happiness, they had a different approach. They didn’t have a book, all they had were two words: Yom Kippur, which our rabbis unequivocally state in Talmud, is the happiest day of the Jewish calendar.
Now, I know don’t profess to be the world’s greatest mind reader, but I am pretty sure that if I asked everyone here what the happiest holiday was, not one person in this room would have told me it was Yom Kippur. The Torah tells us Va-anitem Et Nafshoteichem. Yom Kippur is a day in which we deliberately make ourselves miserable.
But I think it’s in this statement that our rabbis generously give us wisdom about what they understood the key was to living a happy life. And that is what new parents also understand: and that is, there is something in the misery that we experience today that is absolutely essential to finding our happiness tomorrow. “Hardship” wrote the British writer Samuel Johnson, contrary to what we might think, doesn’t cause melancholy, it “prevents melancholy” because it is through experiencing hardship and setback that we find that pathway forward to finding the happiness we seek. You can truly find happiness unless you know what it’s like to have been miserable. It is our hunger tonight that makes the break the fast all the sweeter tomorrow.
Yet in one of the great tragedies of our world, if you watch television, is that somehow a great many people have convinced themselves, and it may be the same people who buy so many of those books, that by saying “Yes to the Dress,” or yes to “the rose,” that happiness comes easily. When in real life, happiness is not defined not a straight line, but is an ongoing wave of hardship and success. One right after the other. Some of you may remember the television show How I Met Your Mother. For eight seasons, so many of us tuned in, waiting for the happy ending, and then we recoiled and revolted when in the final episode, spoiler alert, the mother died, and Ted began to date another character on the show. How could you Ted? We said? What kind of happiness is this, we decried. You know that some people were so devastated by the way that that show ended that they made their own youtube videos to edit out the sad parts of the ending. That is how we in our society have grown adverse to the idea of misery being a necessary part of being happy.
When in reality what made that finale beautiful was that those of us who have found happiness in our lives understand is that there is a wonderful, elating kind of happiness that is borne from hardship. Losing my mother at 28 years old at the same time my wife was undergoing a form of cancer was probably the worst hardship I’ve undergone in my life, but I have to tell you that every time I look into Haley and Zev’s faces I cry a little, and experience a joy borne of that misery. Every time I teach my children a value that my mom taught me, I cry tears of joy and happiness together. Everytime I say something and become horrified when I realize that my mother would have said it the exact same way...well, then I just want to hit myself in the head. My road to happiness in life hasn’t been perfect, but like many of you, because I’ve persevered, I’ve found it.
Tonight, what makes Kol Nidrei so important is that we affirm before God that we who are imperfect and whose lives have been full of hardship and misery are still worthy of finding happiness. And we do that by dispelling any notion that happiness comes from perfection. In the Talmud, our tradition asks whether or not it is better to have lived you life as a person who is truly righteous, or to have lived your life as a repentant sinner. And do you know what our rabbis say? Not that it is better to have lived in perfect happiness, but on the contrary, that on a pedestal “where a repentant sinner stands, a truly righteous person will never be able to stand.” Judaism doesn’t believe in living an easy, charmed life. Because there is something about the misery that comes from our imperfection, and our willingness to repent for it beginning tonight, that makes us better. And if you haven’t had a moment in your life: a pregnancy that has made you absolutely miserable, the break-up of a marriage that made you think, a surgery where the pain was unbearable, or at a bare minimum you can’t appreciate the feeling of being truly regretful about a mistake, then you won’t find happiness. Lefum tzaara agra say our rabbis, according to the suffering is commensurate reward. That is the secret to finding happiness in your life.
I want to close this evening with a famous Jewish legend some of you may have heard before. It is the story of King Solomon’s servant , Benaiah ben Yehoyada, who traveled the world trying to find the secret to happiness. According to the legend, because there was no mass printing of books, and no NYTimes Best Seller List, King Solomon charged Benaiah to go around the world and to bring him the secret to happiness. And so he went. He traveled from place to place. And yet what Benaiah discovered as he searched was that each and every secret of happiness that seemed to be perfect that he desired to bring back to the King was fleeting. Benaiah tasted what he thought the most delicious meal prepared in the best restaurant in the world, but the corned beef sandwich from the second avenue deli spoiled on the journey, and so he couldn’t bring it back to the king. Benaiah was halfway back to bringing to Solomon the most beautiful flower in the world, only to watch it die on route. And this made him absolutely miserable, and despondent, until he returned to Israel with nothing to give the king. That’s when outside the city gates, he poured out his troubles to an old friend, and found his answer. How he said, Am I to please the King? He is going to behead me for sure! And it was at this greatest moment of tzuris and misery that the old friend said, “ah now you are ready to accept this ring.” And he handed him a ring, with three letters: Gimel, Zayin, and Yud. And he told them what it meant. This too shall pass. And he told King Solomon that the secret to happiness wouldn't come from a deli sandwich, or a wedding dress, or a book from the NYTimes best seller list. But rather, it would come from realizing that at very moment when you are at a moment of absolute misery in your life, that with God’s help, when you are up to your knees in dirty diapers at 3am that it will pass, and that there will be happiness borne from that misery.
The American mythologist Joseph Campbell once said that if we are going to “choose to live in joy” than we must “participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world [...]. And I cannot think of a greater moment when we joyfully participate in a ritual of sorrow than tonight, Kol Nidrei, and yom Kippur. We are going confess all of our sins in an upbeat melody. And despite our feeling hungry, we will be nourished by our friends and family and we will kiss and hug and kiss them because we haven’t seen them since last week.