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Happiness Hacks

Velly's Blog

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15 Steps to Personal Freedom

The Pesach Seder can reach deep into the human psyche and help develop a sense of inner freedom within all who participate. 

Every detail is firmly grounded in the mystical teachings of Judaism. Each step has not just a body, but a soul as well, a simple meaning as well as a deep lesson towards higher consciousness.

The Seder’s success is awe-inspiring. No ritual has survived so long and so true to its original form. No lesson has affected humankind with such impact, propagating the values of human dignity, liberty and the search for higher meaning.

To this day, in every corner of the world, Jews come together to reconstruct that original Passover Seder, again and again, year after year. And every year, there is more to learn.

Step

How

Personally speaking…

Kadesh

Everyone stands and says the blessing on the cup of wine together.  We drink while leaning to the left.

 

‘Kadesh’ means to sanctify, but it can also be translated as ‘separate’ or ‘transcend’. The beginning of all journeys is separation. You’ve got to leave somewhere to go somewhere else.  To begin the journey to liberation one must make a move. Laziness and sluggishness are the antithesis of the exodus. A free person is an active and proactive one.  To live a free life and express your full humanity means never to be complacent and satisfied with your personal growth and your moral achievements.

Urchatz

Wash our hands (3 times on the right and 3 times on the left) before eating a wet vegetable. Don’t say a blessing after washing.  Strange!!  One of the reasons we do this is to prompt the kids to ask questions.

As we head into the journey of self- refinement, we clean our hands from destructive tendencies and dependences of the past. No liberation is possible without this step.

But self-awareness can also bring us face to face with blame, regret and resentment.  The danger here is becoming driven by obsessive guilt and remorse and we can exit dirtier than when we entered. Urchatz encourages us to do it cleanly.  Contemplate on how you are a soul being brought into existence at this very moment with a purpose.  Live right now and the future will take care of itself.

Karpas

Dip a vegetable into salt water, say the blessing “Baruch …Borei Pri Ha’adamoh”. This blessing is also for the maror that we will eat later.

As we dig into our life story we will learn that sometimes the ‘salty’ can be sweet.  Pain is the touchstone of spiritual growth.  Pain is awareness and awareness is half the cure.  The ‘saltiness’ of our past, allowed us to view life from a different angle and to rediscover our true self.  While some see their pain as G-d’s abandonment of them, others see it as a divine communication that lets us know that we are capable of more, prompting our very best efforts and the use of the full extent of our abilities.

Yachatz

The Middle Matzah is broken in two. The larger piece is broken into five and is hidden as the Afikomen. The smaller piece is left between the two whole pieces.

Humility and vulnerability is the message of this fourth step. The fake sense of ‘I am whole’ is the greatest obstacle to genuine liberation.  Humility is not lowliness. Humility is lack of self-absorption. We realise our qualities and abilities were given to us from Above. Humility is not self-deprecating, but rather it is a recognition of one’s own good qualities and realising how lucky we are to have them.

Maggid

Read from the Haggadah. Tell the whole story out loud of leaving Egypt.

Tell the story, teach the story. Study, learn, and learn some more. It expands your horizons, challenges your ego and brings you to a deeper place inside of yourself.  Each of us has our inner child, who is always curious and takes nothing for granted. We must safeguard that sensitivity within us and allow it to ask and express its pure and sincere perspective. Never say “I'm too old and set in my ways to learn something new.”

 

Rachtzah

 

Wash our hands again (3 times on the right and 3 times on the left). This time, we say the blessing “Baruch... al Netilat Yadaim” and we cannot speak until we have eaten the Matzah.

Learning new things and asking questions are fantastic, but action is paramount! Immediately after we learn the story, we follow with something concrete. We wash our hands and make a blessing, we do a Mitzvah. If you're bogged down by negativity, surround yourself with goodness and kindness. The first step out, is up.  The path to G-d is through doing good, not just by abstaining from bad.

Motzi

Grab all three Matzahs - the top one, the broken middle one and the bottom one - and pick them up a little. Say the blessing of ‘Hamotzi’

“Hamotzi” means to “He who brings forth”.  Extract the opportunities in everything you come in contact with or anything you own. Liberation is not only about overcoming what holds down, but also about being free to utilize all of our gifts and extract the productive and meaningful possibilities inherent in them.

Matzah

Recite the blessing "Baruch… Al Achilas Matzah." Eat as much Shmura Matzah as you can without speaking while leaning to the left.

Baking handmade Shmura Matzah requires physical labour. Matzah is defined as “the bread of faith.” It is the bread the Jews ate on the night they became a people. The effort of creating handmade matzah, is equally true about faith.  Our relationship with G-d must be alive and passionate!  Our faith cannot be mechanical.  It must be vibrant and active.   Faith takes constant work and exercise.

Maror

Eat ground horseradish root (wrap it in a leaf of romaine lettuce to put out the fire!) and eat it in one shot. It’s okay if you cry :-)

 

Bitterness is an integral and positive component of self-growth.  We need to understand our mistakes and feel pain for our mishaps.  This keeps us humble, balanced and honest and it motivates change.  True freedom contains a healthy measure of serious self-criticism.

But the moment bitterness becomes the dominant emotion in life, it spoils and corrodes all potential to grow.  Insure that your dissatisfaction comes with a certain passion that motivates positive change.

Korach

Make a sandwich with Matzah and Maror, dip it in Charoset and enjoy!

Life is a roller-coaster. Rich moments, bland moments and bitter moments. Liberation comes when we discover the art of sandwiching all the components of our life into one. Acknowledge the bitter moments and realise how they have made us a better and stronger person.  These bitter moments show us that we have the ability to go beyond what our rational mind limits us to, that we are able to rise above mediocrity and realise our enormous potential.

Shulchan Orech

Finally, you can enjoy your delicious meal!

 

Some people think that being an observant Jew means not enjoying life.  That's not true.  Judaism wants us to enjoy the world that G-d gave us.  G-d wants us to have pleasure so long as what we do is dignified and for the sake of refreshing ourselves so that we can serve G-d even better.  Man is not a ‘needy’ being but a ‘purposeful’ being.

Tzafun

Eat the Afikomen that was put away in Yachatz (step #4). Eat it while leaning to the left and make sure that this is the last thing that you eat at the Seder.

The word “Tzafun” means hidden.  We are surrounded by many blessings, but often do not see them since they are ‘blessings in disguise’. By noticing G-d’s favours in the repetitive rhythms of life and appreciating His wonderful gifts to us, nature turns miraculous.

Barech

We fill the third cup of wine, recite the Grace after Meals and after reciting the blessing over the wine we drink it reclining on our left side.

 

Be grateful.  Thank and thank and thank some more. Don’t take anything for granted.  A grateful person is a happy person because he realises that everything he has is a gift. Nothing is taken ‘for’ granted, but ‘as’ granted from G-d. When we are so focused on getting more, we lose the chance to focus on what we already have and gain happiness from it.  Appreciation is an art that needs to be developed.  If we truly appreciate all that we have, we'll appreciate life in its totality.

 

 

Hallel

 

We sing the Hallel, songs of praise to Hashem.

 

 

Be generous in compliments.  We tend to point out the negative in ourselves and in others but find it hard to sincerely compliment the abundant positive in all of us.

Hallel means to praise and that is exactly what we should be doing constantly. Find the good and magnify it.

When we praise, it benefits us, too.  When we praise
 G-d it makes us focus on His goodness and encourages us to follow in His ways. Praising G-d bring the awareness that it is the Almighty who bestowed all these pleasures upon us. This awareness greatly enhances the value of these pleasures.

Nirtzah

Sing “L’shana Habah B’Yerushalayim!” (Next Year in Jerusalem)

‘Nirtzah’ literally means ‘favourably accepted’ because we are confident that Hashem accepted our prayers and thanks during the Seder. We must always have complete faith that G-d is listening to our prayers!

Pray for something and believe with full faith that it will come true. Simple prayers are more powerful than you may think!

The Matzah of Recovery

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Many people believe that matzah was an accidental invention, the result of the children of Israel hastily fleeing from Egypt with no time for their dough to rise. As the verse states, “They baked the dough that they had brought out of Egypt into matzah rounds, for it had not leavened – because they were driven out of Egypt and could not delay.”[1]

Yet earlier in the very same chapter we see the Jews already had eaten matzah the night before they left Egypt. Obeying G-d’s instructions, they conducted a seder which featured three primary foods: “They shall eat the meat [of the Pascal Lamb]. It shall be roasted over fire eaten with matzah and bitter herbs.”[2]

So seemingly matzah was not created by accident. How can we reconcile this with the verse that indicates that matzah was a result of the rush out of Egypt?

One answer suggests that there were two “matzah moments” that were both integral parts of the Exodus story. One matzah the Jews ate while still in Egypt pre redemption. Another matzah was eaten while escaping Egypt post redemption.

Jewish mysticism teaches that the Jewish people in Egypt suffered not only physical enslavement, but were also habituated to pagan beliefs and very unholy lifestyles.   It was a time of deep spiritual bondage; after so many years of dependence, they had neither the tools nor the courage to escape from it.

“The supreme king, the Holy One, blessed be He, revealed Himself unto (the Jews) and redeemed them.”[3]

It was with His help that a morally corrupt and spiritually desensitised people were able to overcome such extreme helplessness and be ready for redemption. Now the Jews were finally ready to be liberated from their external and internal task masters.

But G-d does not help until we show we are ready for redemption. That’s why the commandment to eat matzah came before G-d delivered the Jews. Matzah - which is simply bread that does not rise and inflate - represents a state of self-reckoning and humility wherein individuals realise that where they are now is not where they want to be. This is a very healthy sense of humility which is an absolute prerequisite to redemption.

So which matzah are we commemorating at the seder?  

The answer is “both”.

We recall the accidental matzah that was the result of the hasty escape, but we also appreciate and remember the effort the children of Israel made to humble themselves in anticipation of the redemption, as symbolised by the matzah they ate the previous night. 

The story of Egyptian exile was a prototype of all subsequent exiles both national and personal.

Nobody wants to admit defeat. But it is “…only through utter defeat that we are we able to take our first steps towards liberation and strength. Our admission of personal powerlessness finally turns out to be firm bedrock upon which happy and purposeful lives may be built.”[4]

Refusing to believe that our lives have become unmanageable is being in denial and many seem to be very good at that. In order to take the appropriate steps towards recovery, we first must accept that there is a problem. If we can recognise this and that we personally lack the control to repair it, our next conclusion is inevitably that we need to enlist help from a power greater than ourselves.

This is where humility comes in as a mode for day to day living, a “complete deflation”, which allows us to look outside ourselves for the much needed help which is the basis of recovery.

And so it was with the Exodus. G-d’s redemption only came once the Jews had their serving of humble matzah. They recognised they were in a place they did not want to be and that only through the true power of G-d were they able to be redeemed. As the famous AA recovery slogan goes, “There is no magic in recovery, just miracles.”

So as you crunch on your matzah this Pesach, let go of your ego and allow G-d to enter. Only this will  provide the humility and sobriety that is necessary to free us from our personal bondage.
_____________________
 

[1] Exodus 12:39 

[2] Exodus 12:8

[3] Passover Haggadah

[4] Twelve steps and twelve traditions (AA)

Purim & Recovery

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Dear Rabbi,

You are well acquainted with my recovery from alcohol addiction and how this journey brought me back to my Jewish heritage.

Due to my previous limited understanding, I always saw Purim as a Jewish version of Halloween. My recent Jewish learning, however, has now given me much more understanding and appreciation of this Jewish holiday, its historical significance and meaning for us as Jews today. 

But as a recovering alcoholic there is just one detail I cannot comprehend. How can Jews be encouraged to consume alcohol in excess on Purim to the point where one “cannot differentiate between cursed is Haman and blessed is Mordechai”[1]?

Firstly, the dangers of alcohol are well known. How can there be an endorsement of such extreme levels of intoxication where one cannot discern between the most basic distinctions? Secondly, how can I, a recovering alcoholic, fulfil this obligation? There must be more to this mitzvah!

 
Dear ______,
 
As always your questions are good ones. 
 
As this issue affects your road to recovery, I first must say that many halachic authorities maintain that these words from the Talmud are not meant to be taken literally.  We are not meant to get totally trashed on this holiday. Rather we should say a l’chaim and rejoice in G-d’s salvation and kindness. The mitzvah only applies if one’s behavior remains at the high standard expected by the Torah.
 
But your questions still stand. What’s the point of making alcohol, even if only a small amount, a part of Purim and does this preclude your participation?
 
In Chassidic thought there is an inherent connection between Purim and saying l’chaim.
 
Many of the Jews of Shushan were far from involved in Jewishness. They were deeply integrated into Persian society and its way of life. Yet when Achashverosh’s decree of annihilation hung over their heads, something unparalleled in Jewish history happened. Every Jew’s soul was aroused to the point that a fast day was declared and all cried out for G-d’s help.
 
We have no accounts of the Jews of Shushan reneging on their Jewish identity to escape their death. Haman chose the Jews because they were ‘different’, so it would have made sense for the Jews to prove to Haman that they were ‘good Persians’ just like him.  Instead every Jew on his or her own volition put complete trust in G-d and turned to prayer and repentance.
 
After 70 years in exile, when the Jews had felt abandoned by G-d, this was an astonishing, illogical act, an extreme self-sacrifice for G-d’s name that defied reason.
 
Jewish holidays ultimately are not historical commemorations, but rather are spiritually meaningful.  Purim is really not about dressing up or drinking, but about rekindling our relationship with G-d, something that outweighs any threat, even one of annihilation.
 
However sometimes we feel stuck and uninspired when this connection with the Almighty is not tangible. So we make a l’chaim. Not to escape, nor to avoid responsibility, nor to drown our sorrows, but to strip away some of our coarseness and self-consciousness, in order to feel deeper involvement with our soul and its sublime relationship with G-d. The l’chaim lowers our guard and decreases our inhibitions and allows us to experience the awe-inspiring things we are often too reserved to appreciate.
 
There is a very specific and virtuous goal to drinking on Purim. It’s not about losing yourself, but about getting closer to your self. This is the dedicated Jew’s ambition.   
 
So what about your situation where alcohol is poisonous?   I know our sages would never encourage life threatening activity and therefore you are completely exempt from this mitzvah.
 
Yes, exempt from this mitzvah on the day of Purim, but you and I know that in fact you celebrate Purim every day.
 
Some people can only let G-d in when they are under the influence of chemicals to take Him deeper within. But every second of your life, you let G-d in by being free from substances and their effects. That ‘Purim – Jew – G-d – relationship’ is your everyday reality. Your recovery is fueled by humility, acceptance, faith and trust. Your life is Purim all year round. You vividly see G-d’s hand directing your life and it is this very recognition that keeps you alive. 
 
This Purim, when you won’t be drinking alcohol, you will be performing the greatest possible mitzvah.   
 
And always remember you have four other mitzvot to delight in on that day. To hear the Megillah, to give gifts to two poor people and a food package to a friend and to sit down to a Purim feast[2].
 
Have a heartfelt and joyous Purim, my friend. I so look forward to sharing a sumptuous meal with you and our fellow Jews.

[1] Talmud Tractate Megillah 7B  
[2] “Better that a person should increase his gifts to the poor on Purim than to expand his Purim feast and gifts of food to his friends. For there is no greater and more beautiful celebration than to make happy the poor, the orphan, the widow and the immigrant. One who rejoices the hearts of these sorrowful people is similar to the Divine Presence, as the prophet says (Isaiah 57:15), ‘To revive the spirit of the downtrodden and to revive the heart of the oppressed’.” Maimonides, Laws of Purim (2:17)

The “Inner Peace” Myth

For a 2 minute audio click here 

People have always wondered what are the forces and objectives that drive humanity

Jewish philosophy teaches that there is no one answer. Rather, two distinct and opposing agendas, which derive from two different modes of consciousness, are what drive us.

It is human nature to be inconsistent. Our desires can be contradictory. At times we seek base and materialistic pleasure, at other times we yearn for meaning and spirituality. Chassidic philosophy explains that this dichotomy is a result of the ongoing inner battle between our G-dly soul and our animal soul, each fighting for supremacy and control. 

The particulars of this struggle are unique to each individual. Our G-dly soul, which is the source of all that is good within us, strives for sanctity and transcendence, looking to use all our resources and talents in the interest of developing a relationship with G‑d and to help our fellows.

Our animal soul, however, fights to drag us down into mundane depths in order to fulfill its selfish desires. It is governed by instinct and impulse. The results of the animal drive range from basic self-centeredness, all the way to self-destructive action. Like competing wrestlers, one drive may be in control at one moment, the other drive in control the next.

In life, many look to attain inner peace and serenity. But when tranquility remains elusive, they feel deprived. This may lead to potentially destructive distractions and escapes - unfortunately even through the medium of artificial stimulants - to avoid inner tension.

In our lifetime on earth, inner peace is not a given. But our goal should be that the force of all that is good within us gains mastery over the animalistic. While the struggle may continue our entire lives, we must constantly be involved with good, plugging in deeper into our G-dly souls.

Of Comfort and Challenge

 For an under 2 minute audio click here 

The Talmud says: “Wherever the term “ויהי” and it was, is mentioned in scripture, it is an expression of pain” i.e. it introduces a painful narrative.

This idea can be applied to life as well. When we are very much preoccupied with thoughts of the past, discerning nothing good in the present and not anticipating the potential of the future, that is a sign of anguish. 

Jewish festivals - which often may seem like mere historical commemorations - are all in some way spiritually tied to the future. While Pesach begins by recalling the exodus from Egypt, the second half of the seder talks of our ultimate redemption and concludes with the declaration “Next year in Jerusalem”. Shavuot, to take another example, ostensibly commemorates the giving of the Torah to our ancestors on Sinai. Yet at its essence lies our commitment to keep the Torah into the future. Our rejoicing is not a preoccupation with the past, but lies in the vision of a glorious future. And although the future seems uncertain (thus posing challenges), it still generates joy because it holds the promise and potential of what may be.

From the past we may take comfort, but the future promises excitement. 

When we face new challenges, we are able to rise above mediocrity. Challenges prompt our very best efforts and the use of our abilities to their full extent. Challenges can spark journeys deep into our souls to discover what we are truly capable of.

The past is over. The anticipation and enticing realisation of what remains to be done far outweigh dusty memories, no matter how pleasant.

The Unavoidable and the Optional

For an under 2 minute audio click here 

Some teach that a virtuous life is where one never is angry. Others suggest one should express their anger freely, for pent up anger can have serious negative emotional effects on a person. 

Both these approaches are extreme and a healthy medium is what we should persue. There is a difference between feeling and reacting. Feeling is unavoidable. Reacting is optional and reacting is a choice. With a clearheaded judgment one can decide the most sensible way to react with the best possible results. Without this judgment, anger turns into rage, which has no benefits and it only causes destruction.

Taking control of our reactions consist of training ourselves to exercise restraint when we are provoked, even if we feel that we are in the right. 

Practice restraint by:

Giving it some time

Pausing for time and not acting immediately on one’s anger firstly allows the anger to die away. When anger first explodes, it appears to be a raging fire that cannot be stopped. But doesn’t the biggest conflagration eventually burn out?

Secondly, pausing gives us time to regain control and operate with a rational and clear mind.

Responding in a soft voice

Rage feeds upon itself. Our own tone of voice can dictate the things we may say or do in that particular moment. A soft voice in response to rage is like depriving a fire of its oxygen.

Grandeur or Humility?

 For an under 2 minute audio version click here 

A healthy self-concept is vital to happiness and the Key to this is humility.  Yet, when humility is misunderstood and one sees themselves and being insignificant, they will stop caring about their actions, believing that they are of no importance, which can ultimately lead to the extremes of inactivity and laziness or immoral behaviour and slavery to ones every impulse.

Authentic humility is when one is completely unabsorbed with themselves.  Humble people keep complete focus on their mission in life, for they recognise that G-d created man not as a “needy” being but as a “purposeful” being.  This is a form of healthy personal grandeur, where one understands that a single act can change the world forever, that something eternal is at stake in every deed we perform, that every human being is a partner with G-d in the story of the universe, and that we each have a unique mission that only we can accomplish. This should lead to a profound sense of responsibility to carry out this mission in the best possible manner.

Reb Simcha Bunim pf Pshischa one gave a Chossid of his two pieces of paper.  One with the statement by Abraham in Genesis, “I am but dust and ashes”, and the other with the words of the Talmud, that everyone must say, “The world was created for my sake”, and told him to place the papers in two different pockets.   Reb Simcha than said that our challenge in life and the secret to purposeful living is to know when to flash which piece of paper.

A healthy “happiness inducing” self-concept, is keeping in mind and blending both the humility and the grandeur of the human being.

The Duty to Bless

 For a 2 minute audio version click here 


It’s human nature to experience an emotional spike of joy when we get something new.  But new ultimately becomes normal and we don’t find happiness in normal. So we look for the new new.  The cycle never ends. When we are so focused on getting more, we lose the chance to appreciate what we already have.
 
Many see the drive to accumulate more as a result of unhappiness and the need to fill the emptiness that unhappiness brings.  But in truth, the drive for more means that our minds and hearts are focused on something negative i.e. that which we don’t have. This is not just a roadblock to happiness, it is also a path that leads to unhappiness.
 
A Jewish antidote to this vicious cycle is offered by the Kuzari: “One’s pleasure is enhanced by the duty of saying blessings over everything we enjoy or that happens to us.”
 
The Jewish morning prayer (Shacharit) begins with several preliminary blessings to thank G-d for providing us with our daily needs and for performing everyday miracles.  Some of these blessings include thanks for waking in the morning, our body functioning properly, our sight, freedom, clothing, strength etc.
 
These blessings of thanks force us to begin our day with gratitude which is an antidote to taking things for granted and is therefore a key to happiness.
The gratitude we feel then for what we have does not come only from the thing itself but also from appreciating that it is the Almighty who bestowed all these pleasures upon us. This awareness greatly enhances the value of these pleasures.
 
Here is a practical exercise:
Imagine what your life would be like without some of the things we often so easily take for granted eg your home, family, job, health etc.  Then, recite a prayer thanking G-d for providing you with that gift.

My Every Need

 For an under 2 minute audio version click here 

The Jewish morning prayer (Shacharit) begins with several preliminary prayers and blessings to thank G-d for providing us with our daily needs and for performing everyday miracles.  These prayers are meant to be said at home before one goes to synagogue.  The objective of these blessings are to notice G-d’s favours in the repetitive rhythms of life and to appreciate His wonderful gifts to us. In these blessings, nothing is taken for granted, but as granted.

One of the blessings states: “Blessed are You, …O G-d…who has provided me my every need”.

A story is told of a righteous Jew who, despite living in utter poverty, was always naturally happy.  When asked how he was able to maintain such a positive attitude in the face of such trying circumstances, he responded that each day he prayed to G-d to provide all his needs.  “If I am poor than one of my needs is poverty.  Why should I be unhappy if I have whatever I need?”

It’s not possible for many of us to achieve this intense level of trust.  Still we can work to develop in our personal lives a more sincere trust in G-d. 

Children prefer lollies, but we would rather give them healthy and nourishing foods.   Children cry from injections, but we still immunise them because we know what is good for them.

Sincere trust in G-d means realising that G-d knows our needs better than even we do.  Even some very unpleasant experiences are actually for our good.

A practical take away:  try to handle adversity with less anger and resentment by contemplating that G-d is compassion and he gives me that which he knows, far better than I, what I truly need.

Happiness Depends on Self

For an under 2 minute audio click here 

Usually external factors are beyond our control, thus we can’t depend on them to find true happiness. Further, if we do rely on external factors such as wealth or fame for our happiness , these factors master us.

For the individual to control his or her own happiness depends on developing a positive outlook to whatever life brings us.

This concept of seeking happiness in a way that depends only on yourself can be found in ‘Ethics of our Fathers’. Here the Mishna teaches that the wise man is one who learns from everyone, independent of any intellectual deficiencies in oneself.  The honourable person is one who honours others, irrespective of whether he receives honour from others. The wealthy person is one who is satisfied with what he has, regardless of the amount.

The message is quite clear.  Do not seek or demand happiness through factors dependent on anything external to us. Base your happiness on your own attitudes over which you can be the master.

Judaism does not deny that certain external situations are conducive to happiness. Nevertheless, none of these can guarantee personal happiness.  Observation of ourselves and others will show many examples where one is blessed with dream-like circumstances, but still cannot find an enduring state of joy.

Once we accept the responsibility for happiness, independent on the good or bad fortune in our lives, our attitudes and thought patterns will sustain our happiness, not the chase of illusions.

The Happiness Attitude

 For an under 2 minute audio version click here 

We all know what it feels like to be happy, but the actual source of our happiness has always been hard to pinpoint.

From a Jewish perspective, happiness is mostly determined by our thought processes and attitudes.  Thus happiness is really not a single feeling, but a state of being that is brought about through a range of attitudes and spiritual activities that make a person view life differently.

This is emphasised by the Zohar when it points out that the letters forming the Hebrew word B’simcha-בשמחה (with joy) are the same letters that spell Machshavah-מחשבה (thought)

While our circumstances are often not in our control, our mind is under our control.  Proper attitude is a character strength where instead of trying to change the situation, I change myself to fit the situation.

By constantly involving ourselves in spiritual activity, we can achieve a positive attitude that causes happiness. 

By placing less emphasis on the physical pleasure of life and by endeavouring go out of one’s self eg involving oneself with charity and volunteering, this uplifts us and makes us more appreciative of what we have, where our daily activities become a more joyous experience.

It is for this reason the Mishna in Avot states that the three physical emotions of jealousy, lust and glory remove a person from this world, as these are desires that can never be satisfied.

It is our spiritual activity that can put one’s life and all the nonspiritual activities life entails into proper perspective, leading to a much happier existence. 

Happiness & Spirituality

 For a 2 minute audio version click here 

The Hebrew word that most approximates happiness is osher.   In the Torah, the osher sense of happiness is achieved through spiritual activity.  In Jewish teachings, physical actions cannot bring happiness because man’s physical desires can never be totally satisfied.  Even things that at one point in life made us very happy, eventually fail to make us happy.  We experience an emotional spike of joy when we get something new, but then the new becomes normal and we don’t find happiness in normal. So we look for the new new.  The cycle never ends.  When we are so focused on getting more, we lose the chance to focus on what we already have.

Spiritual experiences, on the other hand, cause a much longer lived pleasure.  It is a rich pleasure that does not easily recede over time. 

The Torah’s examples of activities that lead to Osher are: Those who hold onto the Tree Of Life, that is, the Torah.  (Proverbs 3:18).  A Torah way of life, if lived properly, gives a person an inner feeling of wellbeing and satisfaction along with feelings of accomplishment and spirituality that can change a person’s entire attitude about life.

Another example is from Isaiah 56:2:  One who keeps the Shabbat and does not violate it is called happy.  A properly experienced Shabbat brings feelings that last well beyond the one day. 

The very first verse in Psalms begins with the statement that he who does not follow the advice of evil doers and who does not go in the path of the wicked will be happy.  By associating with and following the path of righteous people, one can experience a special feeling between people who care about each other.

Spiritual pleasure does not always need to be religious in nature.  Examples are experiences of deep friendships or meaningful experiences of personal growth.

There’s no Fun in Hebrew

For a 2 minute audio click here 

Many people tend to associate being ‘happy’ with having ‘fun’.  In Biblical Hebrew, however, there is no word for the latter.* Obviously, fun cannot be the definition of Jewish happiness.

Simchah is often the Hebrew word used for the state of being happy.  It’s a close approximation, buts it’s not the true definition of Jewish happiness.  For example the Torah commands us to be sameach on the holiday of Sukkot. But firstly how can the Torah command one to feel an abstract emotion such as happiness?  And secondly, why is Sukkot the only chag singled out for happiness?

Therefore sameach is generally translated as a term of satisfaction or appreciation.  This is, after all, something that one can be commanded: to appreciate what we have and to be satisfied with what G-d has given us.  As the famous dictum from ‘Ethics of our Fathers’ says “Who is truly rich?  One who is sameach/satisfied with their lot.”  The truly rich person in Jewish terms is the one who appreciates what he has, no matter how much or how little.

Thus to be commanded to be satisfied and appreciative on the festival of Sukkot makes sense.  This is a holiday that comes post-harvest.  For some it’s a time of self-indulgence or relaxation following physical labours.  For others it’s a time of frustration after a disappointing crop.  Hence the commandment of Sukkot is to be satisfied with one’s lot. 

Not appreciating what we have and always desiring more, means that our minds and hearts are focused on something negative: on that which we don’t have. This desire is not only the result of unhappiness and the need to fill the emptiness unhappiness creates.  It is also the original bridge to unhappiness. It is itself a cause for unhappiness. In this sense, it is a negative and harmful human trait.

Satisfaction and appreciation are still not the definition of Jewish happiness, but they definitely are the first steps that lead to it.

*Modern Hebrew has borrowed the Arabic word Kef to mean fun.

Of Miracles and Tests

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Tests demand from us more strength or abilities than we think we have. Through a test we have the ability to go beyond what our rational mind limits us to.

In Hebrew the word for test is ‘nesayon’ and the word for miracle is ‘nes’. Tests and miracles are closely related. A miracle is when G-d breaks out of His standard pattern of natural law and demonstrates unlimited powers. A test is when G-d invites you to do the same.

In the human experience we cannot escape the fact that we will be challenged both from without and within.  These conditions pose a big challenge to our moral and spiritual development.  But our biggest challenge and struggle is also our biggest asset.  For when we indeed overcome challenges through toil, this triumph introduces us to a new and higher level of existence.

 The following story illustrates this point. 

A man once visited the Lubavitcher Rebbe and confided, “I have a problem.  I’ve started to become more Torah observant, but I have a girlfriend who isn’t Jewish and I plan to marry her.”  The man braced himself for some kind of rebuke.  The Rebbe’s response took the man by total surprise.  “I envy you,” the Rebbe said.

“The tests you face are ladders that elevate you to great heights.  There are many ladders in life.  The ladders present themselves as life’s challenges and difficult choices.  The test you face is the ladders that elevate you to great heights; the greater the challenge the greater the ladder.  G-d has given you this difficult test because He believes you can overcome it and has endowed you with the ability to do so.  Very few are presented with a ladder as challenging as yours.  Don’t you see, then, why I envy you?”

The Purpose of Challenge

 For an under 2 minute audio click here 

Man is gifted with many talents and strengths.  But all too often they are not actualised.  When we face new challenges, however, we are able to rise above mediocrity and realise our enormous potential.

Challenges can extract the very best from us. As Nachmanides writes “The purpose of a test… is to take something from potential to reality.”

The Hebrew word for test and challenge is nisayon.  But nisayon can also mean ‘experience’ or ‘training’.

Challenges are a divine communication that let us know that we are capable of more, prompting our very best efforts and the use of the full extent of our abilities.  Challenges also teach us that this strength we never knew we had can be tapped into even in times that are not so distressing.  In this sense, pain is a call to action; it’s not enough to “get by”, but one must strive to reach greater heights.

Our forefather Avrohom faced 10 particular tests. With each test, Avrohom tapped deeper into the reservoirs of his soul.  This is indicated by the Torah’s very first command to Avrohom, ‘Lech Lecha,’ which is usually translated as “go for yourself.”  But in Chassidic thought it is translated literally as “Go to yourself” i.e. your true innermost self.  Avrohom’s tests were a journey deep into his soul to discover what he was truly capable of.

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