Rabbi Karen Citrin
February 20, 2015

Mr. Finkelstein, so the story goes, suffers severe pains in his chest and is rushed to one of the finest hospitals in America, the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.  For seven days, he receives treatment there.  Then suddenly, without explanation, he checks himself out and has himself transferred to a small, rundown Jewish hospital on New York’s Lower East Side.

The doctor on the ward is intrigued by his decision.  “What was wrong with the Mayo Clinic?” he asks.  “Was it the doctors?  Didn’t they find out what was wrong with you?”

“The doctors,” says Finkelstein, “were outstanding.  Geniuses!  I can’t complain.”

“Was it the nurses?  Weren’t they attentive enough?  Were they cold, uncaring?”

“The nurses were angels.  No, I can’t complain.”

“So was it the food?  Too little, too bland, too boring?  It must have been the food, yes?”

“The meals were wonderful,” says Finkelstein.  “They tasted of paradise.  About the food, I can’t complain.”

“So tell me, Mr. Finkelstein, why did you leave one of the greatest hospitals in the world and come here?”

Mr. Finkelstein gives a big smile and says, “Because here – I can complain!”[1]    

We might say that complaining is the national sport of the Jewish people.  We are familiar with the multiple tales in the Torah, especially in Exodus.  And most of us are familiar with the popular Yiddish word, “kvetch,” which makes an art form out of complaining.

Interestingly enough, we Jews, the experts at kvetching and complaining, are part of a religion that repeatedly commands us to be happy.  Happiness is a mitzvah, a sacred obligation.  The commandment to be happy is at the center of many of our holidays. 

There’s Sukkot, the harvest festival on which we’re commanded, “hayita ach sameach – you shall be completely happy” (Deuteronomy 16:15).  There’s Simchat Torah, when we dance and find joy in the Torah.  There’s Shabbat, the weekly holiday that encourages us to fill our time with “oneg” – not cookies, but with pleasure and delight.

And there’s Purim, which we’ll celebrate in a couple weeks with costumes and carnivals, silliness, joy, and laughter for kids and adults.  The Talmud actually instructs us to start preparing ourselves emotionally for this rockin’ Jewish party two weeks in advance.  As soon as the Hebrew month of Adar begins, which this year is actually today, we are taught: “Mishenichnas Adar marbim b’simcha.  When Adar come in, we increase our joy” (Talmud Ta’anit 29a).  Or, more simply put, “Be happy, it’s Adar!”

I’m sure that many of you are wondering, can we really have a commandment to be happy?  Did the rabbis really expect us to feel an emotion on command?  We can’t force ourselves to feel happy just because our tradition tells us to, especially with all that is going on in the world right now.  Can there really be a mitzvah, a religious obligation, to be happy? 

Until just a few decades ago, the question of happiness was mainly in the hands of philosophers and poets.  Recently, science has entered the conversation.  Are some people more genetically inclined to be happy?  According to the Harvard Business Review, [2] happiness research has become a hot topic in the past 20 years.  One writer calls it, “The Science Behind the Smile.” The article asks if it is possible to measure something as subjective as happiness?  Methods of measurement include electromyography to measure the activity of the “smile muscles” in the face, verbal ratings, and psychological testing. 

Much of the research confirms things we’ve already suspected.  In general, people who are in good relationships are happier than those who aren’t.  Healthy people are happier than sick people.  One interesting trend: Religious people are happier than those who don’t participate in communal religion.  Like the Psalmist said, Ashrei yoshvei veitecha – Happy are those who dwell in Your house; they will sing Your praises forever” (Psalm 84:5).    

That being said, there are other more surprising findings according to the article, The Science Behind the Smile.  “When good things happen, we celebrate for a while and then sober up,” the study asserts.  “When bad things happen, we weep for a while and then pick ourselves up and get on with it…. We have a remarkable ability to make the best of things.  Most people are more resilient than they realize.”  And some research indicates that challenging experiences can actually lead to increased happiness. 

I recently read a book that made me think more about the pursuit of happiness and the nature of happiness.  The book is called, “A Century of Wisdom – Lessons from the Life of Alice Herz-Sommer, World’s Oldest Living Holocaust Survivor.”[3]  I know, we don’t usually associate the Holocaust with happiness.  Please permit me to tell you a little about what I learned about the remarkable woman. 

Before her death at the age of 110 on February 23, 2014, a year ago this Monday, the pianist Alice Herz-Sommer was an eyewitness to the entire last century and the first decade of this one.  She survived the Theresienstadt concentration camp, attended the trial of Adolph Eichmann, and met some of the most fascinating historical figures of our time.  As a child in Prague, she spent weekends and holidays in the company of Franz Kafka, Gustav Mahler, and Sigmund Freud.  Having survived the camps along with her young child by playing music, Alice moved to Israel after the war.  Golda Meir attended her house concerts, along with Leonard Bernstein and Isaac Stern.  Until the end of her life Alice, who lived in London, practiced piano for hours every day. 

Despite her imprisonment in Theresienstadt and the murders of her mother, husband, and friends by the Nazis, and much later the premature death of her son, Alice managed to live a life without bitterness.  Alice was always grateful for life.  She credited music as the key to her survival, as well as her ability to acknowledge the humanity in each person, even her enemies. 

A Century of Wisdom is the inspiring story of one woman’s lifelong determination, in the face of some of the worst evils of all time, to find happiness in life.  It is a testament to the bonds of friendship, the power of music, and eternal optimism. 

Author Caroline Stoessinger notes that Alice liked to remember something Leonard Bernstein said after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy: “This is our answer to violence, we will make music more beautifully, urgently, and more passionately than ever before.”    

And Alice, herself, said, “When you truly love your work, you are much happier.  And I can say that your chance of success is greater…. Enjoy even menial tasks.  They help to overcome life’s greater challenges.”  Alice laughs as she finds a new solution to a difficult passage that she has practiced for at least one hundred years. 

To return to science, psychologists today show that the frequency of positive experiences is a better predictor of happiness than the intensity of positive experiences (Ed Diener).  In other words, “when we think about what would make us happy, we tend to think of intense events – going on a date with a movie star, winning a Pulitzer, buying a yacht.  But really, somebody who has a dozen mildly nice things happen each day is likely to be happier than somebody who has a single truly amazing thing happen.”  The small stuff matters.  Exercising, sleeping, playing and listening to music, and especially practicing gemilut chasadim, acts of loving-kindness.  Studies show that, “One of the most selfish things you can do is help others.” 

So, can we really be commanded to be happy?  Yes.  But there is more to the commandment than just a fleeting emotion.  It is a state of mind and a perspective on life.   Did you know that our people, even in the darkest of days in the concentration camps, wrote the scroll of Esther from memory and read it in secret on Purim?[4]  This quintessential Jewish story teaches the Jewish resistance to annihilation.  This message, as we think about Paris, and Israel, and elsewhere around the word, is especially relevant today.

Rabbi Janet Marder teaches, “For thousands of years, Jews have been psyching themselves into a state of joy and laughter in the midst of circumstances that might otherwise have led them into crushing despair.  Living in exile, often in poverty and hunger, objects of hatred and contempt, they consciously created an internal mood that defied external surroundings.” 

In time of darkness, we passionately affirmed the words that we read in the book of Esther: “The Jews had light and gladness, happiness and honor” (Esther 8:16).  During Havdallah we add, “So may it be for us.”   

Laughing and rejoicing on Purim is not merely a display of irreverence.  It’s an act of freedom and courage.  It asserts that we are in charge of our emotional state.  We determine how we will respond.  Regardless of what happens to us, we can construct a life that is fulfilling and full of meaning.  Our sages knew how easy it is to sink into darkness.  And so they taught us to be happy, despite everything.  They taught us to stop kvetching, to cultivate joy, and to pursue happiness in our lives.

[1] From “Be Happy!” Sermon by Rabbi Janet Marder. March 6, 2009, Congregation Beth Am.
[2] The Science Behind the Smile. Harvard Business Review Staff, January 2012.  And, Stumbling on Happiness. Daniel Gilbert, 2006. 
[3] A Century of Wisdom. Caroline Stoessinger. Spiegel & Grau, New York, 2012.
[4] Megillat Esther, Robert Gordis.