Rabbi Noah Farkas’ Yom Kippur sermon: Clap Along if You Feel That Holiness is the Truth


It might seem crazy what I am about to say

Sunshine she’s here, you can take a break

I’m a hot air balloon that could go to space

With the air, like I don’t care, baby, by the way

(Because I’m happy)

Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof

(Because I’m happy)

Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth

(Because I’m happy)

Clap along if you know what happiness is to you

(Because I’m happy)

Clap along if you feel like that’s what you wanna do

What a catchy tune..  My kids dance like crazy when it comes on. 

Now it might seem crazy what I’m about to say and I might be full of hot air, but I’m not a balloon. Even though my wife sometimes calls me a buffoon.

Yom Kippur is not supposed to be a sad holiday.  We have other holidays that are sad.  We have Tisha B’Av, a night and day of fasting that memorializes the destruction of the Temple.  It takes place in the middle of the summer because nothing says summer vacation better than being told to put down your margarita to mourn the loss of building 2,000 years ago.

On a much more serious note, there’s Yom HaShoah, where we read the names of the victims of the holocaust.  It is a serious day indeed.  Even Passover has its elements of anger like at the end of the Seder we open the door for Elijah, the harbinger of the messiah and we recite “Pour out your wrath” upon those that seem to keep the world from redemption.

Yom Kippur, however is not a sad holiday.  Even though we take a moment to remember the one’s we’ve lost along life’s journey, the purpose of Yom Kippur is not be in mourning. The purpose of Yom Kippur is not to be angry, or completely down on ourselves.  It is a day of personal evaluation and of bringing to the surface of vulnerabilities and our mortality, but once the great shofar is sounded at the end of the holiday we are supposed to dance and sing.  The very first thing you are supposed to do after you break your fast is to put the first pole in the ground for Sukkot, the most joyus holiday on the calendar.  (Orach Chayyim 624:5 and 625:1) Yom Kippur is not a sad holiday.

In fact it’s a holiday that through the process of fasting and praying will make us more joyous and ultimately more holy as people.

Which is what I want to focus on with you for a few minutes today.   I want to think through what it means to make your life happy and to see if happiness is really the truth as the song says or if happiness is part of a greater plan for your life to make you more holy as an individual.

For starters there’s the idea of “being happy.” It’s an emotion usually based on something that is happening to you.  Happiness is based on your happenings.   It’s triggered by by something on the outside and shapes the way you feel in a particular moment.

For example, I’m at my birthday party and I get a cake and everyone sings “Happy Birthday” I’m feeling happy.  I’m at my son’s birthday party and he gets cake, and I sing “Happy Birthday” I’m feeling happy for him. I’m at my son’s friend’s birthday party and he gets a cake and we all sing “Happy Birthday” and I’m happy because I know I can leave soon to get back to watching football.    Happiness is a feeling that happens to you based on your surroundings.

So let’s take a trip where you are surrounded by happiness.  Let’s go to the happiest place on earth.  Disneyland.  I’m there with my family and everyone is having a great time.  We ride the rides, eat ice cream, get a few souvenirs and everyone is happy. Until of course we leave the park, sit in traffic for hours and then I get my credit card bill for how much we spent on tickets, ice cream and souvenirs.    Then I’m not sure I’m so happy.

That is to say that being happy is not only based on your surroundings, but that it is also temporary. It’s ephemeral. It oozes out of us as soon as we stop feeling it.

Where does this idea of being happy come from? How did we get to “Happiness is the truth?”  It comes from ancient Athens, the founders of philosophy, democracy and the gyro sandwich.  Aristotle one of the forefathers of philosophical thought wrote two books on ethics. Eudaimonian Ethics and Nicomachean Ethics, both extraordinary works of erudition.  His idea first principle in both books is that happiness or what he calls eudaimonia is itself the greatest goal in life.  He knows this because as he “says it is complete and self-sufficient, being the end of all of our practical undertakings.” What he means is that we can arrive at the conclusion that happiness is the most important thing in life because everything that we choose do, we do for some greater purpose – except happiness.

I’ll explain it this way.  It’s like the kid in a math class who ask.

Child: Why do I have to learn math?

Parent: “So you can get good grades”

Child:  “Why do I need to do that?”

Parent:  “So you can go to High School?”

Child: “Why?”

Parent:  “So you can go to college.”

Child: “Why?”

Parent: “So you can get a good job.”

Child: “Why?”

Parent: “So you can have a nice home and go on vacation.”

Child: “Why?” 

Parent: So you can be….happy.

Each idea leads to another and another until he comes to rest on the greatest purpose in life, the function of being a human, which he writes is to achieve happiness.  Happiness is “self-sufficient” and the “ends of life’s goals.”

You can draw a straight line from ancient Athens and its philosophers through the Western canon of intellectual thought all the way until today.  The most popular class at Harvard is called the Happy Class.  Over eight hundred students enroll every year.  They fill the largest lecture hall on campus twice a week.  The only purpose of the class is to learn to be happy.

Hundreds of songs on itunes, like the one by Pharrell Williams who says “clap along” either have the title or subject matter as happiness. On the TED website, where all rabbis go to learn to give a sermon, There are over two hundred TED talks on the subject.  On Amazon there are over 20k books on happiness available for purchase.  We go to McDonalds and eat America’s most popular fast food dish – “Happy Meals”  After work we go to where everyone knows your name to for “Happy Hours”  and some people I hear go to other places for “Happy Endings.”

Americans we know are obsessed with happiness.  Perhaps it’s because we look out at the world and we feel anxious.  Whether it’s internationally with the threat of nuclear war from North Korea.  Or domestically with the politics of our country. Especially as we realize that there are strong forces that try to make us more divided.  Or even closer to home with fear and anxiety that permeates everyday life.   There are those in this room who have a fear of getting fired. There are those in this room that have a fear of not making enough.  Fear of not having a big enough bank account. Fear of being shamed for your life choices or just for who you are.  Fear of going back to work after having a child because you leaving them with a stranger.  Or fear of staying home after having a child because it will set your career back.   Or maybe someone in our family is getting sick and we are not sure how to take care of them.  Or there is mandatory retirement at your company but you feel like you’re not done with your life’s work.  There is a lot of anxiety that permeates every corner of our lives.   And we know intuitively that we need something more.  We need a release from the anxiety and pain.  We need something to make us smile. We look out at the horizon and are searching, searching almost messianically for what we call happiness.

Don’t think that Judaism doesn’t care about joy.  Not everything we sing is in the minor key.  Judaism says, being happy is important.  Rabbi Nachman of Breslov famously for example said,  mitzvah gedolah lihiyot b’simcha tamid. “  It is a great mitzvah to be happy all the time. (Likkutei Maharan, Part 2:24).  The word simcha is mentioned nearly two hundred times in the Tanach and nearly a thousand times in rabbinic literature.  An overflowing cup of wine on Friday night is a symbol of unending joy.  You are not allowed to make kiddish angry.  If a bride walks by your shop on the day of her wedding you must stop your work. Stop everything  and dance for her.  It is a commandment to rejoice with the bride and the groom. (Talmud Ketubot 17a) If you are invited to bris, you have to go.

Jewish humorists are some the most famous comedians in history.  We love to tell jokes:

Did you hear the one about the chicken and the salmon who go for a walk?  I know it’s a tough visual. The chicken and salmon go for a walk, and as they walk they see a big sign outside a restaurant: “Lox and Eggs Breakfast for Charity.” The Chicken says, “Come on, let’s go in, looks like fun!” The salmon hedges and says,“I don’t know.” The chicken says, “Why, what’s holding you back?  C’mon it’s for a good cause!” The salmon says, “Look: it says “lox and eggs.” From you they want a contribution, from me they want commitment!”

Or this one….

Rabbi Ben Simmons was fed up with his congregation. So, he decided to skip the services on Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, and instead go play golf.

Moses was looking down from heaven and saw the rabbi on the golf course. He naturally reported it to God. Moses suggested God punish the rabbi severely.

As he watched, Moses saw Rabbi Ben Simmons playing the best game he had ever played. The rabbi got a hole-in-one on the toughest hole on the course and then again on the next hole.

Moses turned to God and asked, ‘I thought you were going to punish him. Do you call this punishment?’

God replied, ‘Who’s he gonna tell?’

Or how about this one…

There was the Jew that went camping.  Spend the night in Yosemite and woke up in the morning to a glorious sunshine.  He goes out of the tent and puts on the Tallit and Tefillin.  He begins to pray.  Thank you God for such a glorious day. For making me free.  And just then a huge bear comes out of the woods licking his chops.  The man knows that he’s breakfast.  So he raises his hands and says, Ribono Shel Olam! Master of the world!  Please, please, I know my end is near, please make this bear into a Jew a good Jew.

He closes his eyes and begins to Shema Yisrael.  He opens his eyes and he sees that bear has put on a kippah and is covering his eyes in prayer as well.  Thank God!  Moshele says!  I’m saved!  The Bear is a Jewish Bear!  He listens closer to hear what the bear is praying:  The bear sings: Hamotzi Lechem min haaretz.

Telling food jokes on Yom Kippur, oy.  Everyone ok?  Anyone hungry?

We love being funny and having fun. We love being happy!  It’s not just you that feels that way this compulsion for happiness.  There was an economic survey back in the 1970s that asked a series of questions that can be boiled down to the inquiry, “are you happy?” The economists behind the survey wanted to know– in a long period of economic growth where incomes were rising and debts falling– did having more money in your pocket made you happier. Questionnaires of this sort have been repeated many times. The results of the survey were decidedly mixed.

On the one hand, you can track happiness and life-satisfaction to income.  The more you earn, the more things you can own, and the happier you can become. This is true for both individuals and whole countries.  On the other hand, when the data is reexamined through the lens of behavioral economics and psychology, a paradox emerges.  While happiness seems to rise with increasing wealth, so did the rising sense of meaninglessness.

Therein lies the paradox of our lives.   The more things you try to own the more you realize that you cannot find meaning in it.  The more you ask yourself, “What do I need to feel happy?” the more you are disappointed when you have have that thing. As one billionaire said, “How many more pairs of jeans do I need to own to make me look good? I already have one for everyday of the week.”

What emerges from these studies is that our sensibilities adapt to the things we own.  Every purchase of material goods we make can add to our satisfaction, but only for a short period of time.  You quickly  get used to your new car or purse and soon feel just as empty as you did before you bought that new thing.  The more we ask “what do I need?” the more we feel that we need.  It is what Freud calls being driven by our instincts or our passions.  We create a cycle of desire…pleasure…desire….pleasure.   Until we look back at our lives, and wonder what it was all about.

Deep down our souls are begging for something different.  Our hearts are screaming for something more.

Ultimately to me, trying to find enough happiness is a like trying to get enough sleep.  It’s something that we tell our friends we don’t get enough of, that we are always looking for more of it, and when we finally have it, we are never awake enough to know it.

Trying to live life as Aristotle says, by setting up happiness as life’s ultimate telos, or goal, and then crafting your entire life around that goal by drugging our way there or buying our way there or vacationing our way there is our inheritance of being in a Western culture. Athens has had a lock on the Western mind for thousands of years.  Rational philosophy, utilitarian philosophy, existentialism, and American pragmatism are all thought palaces built on the foundations of Athens.

But Jews are not Greeks. Athens is not our capital.  Jerusalem is.  Judaism has always said that our lives cannot be reduced to the mere biological cycle of need and satisfaction.  Being happy is not life’s primary goal.  As Kohelet, the author of the book Ecclesiastes teaches, “Come now, I get mixed up with joy and experience pleasure,” and behold, it too was vanity. Of laughter, I said, “It is mirth” and concerning joy, “What does it accomplish?” (Ecclesiastes, 2:1-2) Kohelet was no cranky old man.  He was full of life and wisdom.  Kohelet travelled the world, learned from the greatest of teachers, earned great riches. Some say he was King Solomon.  He had seen it all – being poor and rich – wise and foolish.  And yet, his holy wisdom says to us that happiness leads to futility and meaninglessness.  If he were alive today he would be one of us. He would have gone to a nice college.  Got a graduate degree.  Made a living.  Stayed at the Ritz on vacation.  He has a wine collection, got good seats to Hamilton, the best tea times at the club, and a box at the bowl every summer, yet he felt in the end that all his travels and his wealth brought ephemeral joy, but in the end it had accomplished nothing.   Does this sound familiar to any of us in this room?

That is because life is more than the circle of pleasure, desire..pleasure…desire.  You are more than a biological creature, more than what Freud said about how you are driven by instincts.  The vital drives of sex, food, power and all the time we spend trying to satisfy  those needs do not, according to our rabbis, describe the fullness of our existence.

The material desires are part of each human being, but they cannot fully describe the experience of being human.

Our souls are begging for something different.  Our hearts are screaming for something more.

It is the philosophers of Athens teach us that happiness is the greatest good because it is the only thing we do for it’s own sake, but it is the sages of Jerusalem that teaches us that what happiness is not life’s goal.

It is holiness, that is life’s goal.

The purpose of life, says our tradition, is to be not only happy, but to be holy.

What then is holiness?

It is hard to teach this in a straightforward manner, so Think of it this way.  The kids this year in our day school are doing the Wizard of Oz. Remember the movie?  It’s starts out in Kansas and everything appears to be alright.  They have a nice farm, good family not without its problems, but for the most part everyone is ok.  Except, that there is this one thing that nobody notices. It permeates every corner of their lives. It is in every frame of the movie, it is behind every breath and furtive look.  Yet not a single character notices that the are living their lives in black-and-white. It’s only after the storm when the house goes flying in the air and lands somewhere in munchkin land does Dorothy open the door to the house and wanders outside does she see the world in color for the first time.

That’s what holiness is.  It fills our world and floats in the background and many of us never know that it is there.  If you only live your life trying to achieve one thing, happiness, you are living along a single axis.  Your life is broadcast in black-and-white.

But if you understand that happiness is means and not an end, if you understand that there is a greater world out there more cherished and sacred than happiness alone, if you see yourself in service to something greater, then you you can live in many dimensions at once. Your life is no longer in broadcast in black-and-white but in full streaming technicolor.

It is hard to approach this directly, so let me try again with another story.

When my zayde died, we gathered together for shiva at his home.  After a couple of nights, one of the cousins stands up and says, Can I tell zayde’s favorite joke?  She proceeded to tell it and the family started laughing contagiously.  Then another member of the family stood up and told another family joke.  One after another for 20 minutes amidst their sadness we found laughter.  We were on the floor in stitches.  That’s not because we were happy.  We were able to live in joy and sadness at the same time. Darkness and light comingled together into the admixture of our lives.  We were not happy in a happy moment, we found ourselves to be in a holy moment.

A few years later Sarah and I were married.  At my wedding, Sarah and I stood under the chuppah with our family, and we took a few moments to remember our fallen loved ones including my Zayde.  Just imagine on this beautiful Sunday we stood under chuppah and said prayers for him, remembering this sweet man who poured his life into our. We all cried.  I cried.  Because we were not just experiencing happiness as a couple, but holiness.  When you mourn for your family under the chuppah. That’s a technicolor holy moment because you begin to see the world through a prism that refracts all of life moments into one.

The same is when we had our oldest daughter, Meira.  We named her after my Zayde.  And amongst the most joyous feelings of new beginnings we took a moment to remember him again by sharing a few of his virtues we wished to see in her. I was sad and happy and excited and nervous.  A full spread of colorful emotions painting the world with God’s paintbrush.  Michieye matim brachamim rabim. Bringing light into darkness and darkness into light.   Mourning into dancing, and death into life, precious sweet life once again.  Michieye matim brachamim rabim.

It’s ok to laugh in a shiva house and cry under the chuppah and mourn at a baby naming. It’s not only ok, it’s holy.

Holiness is the fullest expression of our flourishing.  It is finding the colorful background behind the grayscale of our lives.

How do we find holiness?  Jews don’t believe that God makes a map for your life.  We are not predestined to heaven.  God does not set a fated path before each us.  Nor does God even know the outcomes of our choices, otherwise Yom Kippur makes no sense.  What is the use of taking the field and playing the game if everyone, even the fans know the outcome.  God is not a map maker.  God does not have a plan for your life.  That is your responsibility.

God does, however, provide us with a blueprint.  A blueprint tells you how to build the house.  Where to put the beams, what kind of shingles to use and where the plumbing and electricity go.  A blueprint never tells you what paintings to put on your walls or what sports team to follow.  It never tells you which melody to use when you sing your children to sleep.  Or what kind of tortilla to use for ‘Taco Tuesday.’ Blueprints are plans for an environment, an ecosystem in which those holy moments can be found. The blueprint is the background and you are the foreground.

According to the midrash, the Torah is God’s blueprint. (Bereshit Rabbah 1:4)  God uses the Torah to set out the foundations of the world.  The Torah gives us commandments and tells us the many stories of our people, but at it’s center is a single character that matters more than Abraham and Sarah or Moses and Miriam. At  the very center of the Torah is the most important character – so important that the whole world depends on it.

At the center of the Torah is the story of you.

The story of where you come from, of what is the nature of being human, of what is demanded of you, needed of you, and how you can give to the world.

God ordains the sacred times but it is up to you to make them holy.
(Leviticus 23:2) The Torah sets out the blueprint for the house and it’s up to you make life in the house.

The Torah teaches us greatest dimension of difference between holiness and happiness.

Aristotle asks, “How do I find happiness?” “What fulfills my desire?”  “What frees me from pain?”  “What gives me pleasure?” “What do I need?”

The Torah asks, “How do you find holiness?”  “How do you free the pain of others?” “How are you needed?”

Holy moments are not about your needs, but about how you are needed.

You don’t marry someone to make you a better person, it’s because you are needed by your partner so that they feel loved. They need you.

You don’t ask for forgiveness to make yourself feel less guilty, you ask for forgiveness so that the other person no longer has to feel the pain you’ve caused. They need you.

Tzedakah is a holy virtue.  You shouldn’t give money to charity because it makes you feel good and happy, or to get a tax deduction, it’s because the poor need you, they cry out to you.  When you break their fetters of oppression, their shackles of poverty and slavery says the prophet Isaiah (58:6-12) on this holiest of days, you become holy through them.  They need you.

That is how you become holy.  By being needed.

The Torah does not say, Smechim Te’hu,  “You shall be happy” Because life is not lived in black-and-white. God’s blueprint says, Kedoshim Te’hu, (Leviticus 19:2) “You shall be holy”, with all it’s ups and downs.  With happiness and sadness. With life and death.  In life’s fullest dimensions and colors.  Holiness breaks the cycle of desire and pleasure by transcending ourselves to be more godly.   To be like God who is holy.

This is the central task of your life.

The world, according to the Talmud was created for your so that you know that you are part of something dramatically bigger than your personal needs. (Sanhedrin 34a).  Being human and finding significance, and indeed happiness, cannot happen solely by the fulfillment of your desires, but instead in the realization that you are needed. The Torah’s blueprint for your life is only the foundations, the parameters of your days on earth.  It gives you some guidance, but at it’s heart it asks of you this most central question.   “Are you needed?”

Your life is the answer to this question.

In 2011, the Nobel Laureate and author Toni Morrison, spoke at the Rutgers University commencement.  She said, “I urge you, please don’t settle for happiness. It’s not good enough. Of course, you deserve it. But if that is all you have in mind—happiness—I want to suggest to you that personal success devoid of meaningfulness, free of a steady commitment to social justice, that’s more than a barren life, it is a trivial one. It’s looking good instead of doing good.”

Yom Kippur is our commencement day complete with robes and funny hats.   Yom Kippur is also our holiest day of the year. Yom Kippur is the holiday when we free ourselves from the cycle of desire and pleasure in order to achieve something greater, something more than our own short-lived happiness.  We fast our bodies so we can feed our souls.  We wear no leather, nor display wealth of any kind for we know that materialism is no substitute for holiness.  We spend the day away from work and our physical needs choosing instead to reflect and look inside ourselves so that we may grow.  We are all trying not just to look good but be good. Be holy.

Both Athens and Jerusalem say that you and I are the most important thing ever imagined.  But where the Greeks say the goal of life is to be happy, our sages say it is to be holy.  To build a life of holiness where your needs are met by meeting the needs of others.  Where we can build a synagogue community of caring and sharing.  A place that dips into the wellspring of our ancient tradition and say at almost any given moment, that we are doing holy work.  By belonging to a community, making a commitment to a community that says it’s mission is to create holiness in the lives of all people.

By learning our eternal values (Torah), by reaching deep with our own souls (Avodah), by connecting to others (Hevre) and by growing in spirit by growing the spirits of others through acts of loving kindness (chesed). For without them the world cannot stand. (Pirke Avot 1:2)

Our community is not a country club nor is it a business it is a kehila kedosha, a community of holiness.  Were we can never settle for happiness.  Because our lives are so much more colorful than that. Be with us. And you can clap along if you feel that’s what you wanna do.

Gmar Hatima Tova.

This was originally posted on Valley Beth Shalom’s website

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