12 thoughts on happiness for the 10 Days of Awe

“It’s a great mitzvah to always be happy.”
— Rabbi Nachman of Breslov

1. Happiness is not always easy: You work out to be fit, and you have to work to be happy. It’s also easier to be unhappy (stuck) than happy.

2. Happiness is a choice: Anyone, from prisoners to paraplegics, can become happy. It’s a state of mind, having a sense of mastery over your life.

3. Happiness has little to do with external factors: Money, power and fame rarely bring happiness. If you choose your goals based on internal values, not external, they can bring you happiness.

4. Happiness does not come from doing nothing: We all have control of our leisure time. Use it to engage in challenging things you love: gardening, creating, exercising, being with loved ones. Sloth usually brings unhappiness.

5. Happiness doesn’t mean avoidance of pain: Everyone in life will have pain. But, to quote the Dalai Lama, don’t add suffering to the pain.

6. Perspective is the key to happiness: Rabbi Nachman Gamzu said, “Gam zu l’tovah: “This is all for the best.” In the game of life, if you learn life lessons from painful situations, you get to move one step further.

7. Practice gratitude: It’s hard to be thankful and unhappy at the same time. “Abi gezunt,” is the Yiddish phrase of old: “At least you have your health.” Everyone has something to be grateful for.

8. Happiness doesn’t mean the end of achievement: You can be dissatisfied with somethin and not let it make you miserable. You can be happy and still want more. You will probably always want more.

9. Be engaged in the world: Relationships, true connectedness, bring lasting joy.

10. To thine own self be true: Our sage Hillel said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” Take care of yourself: your body, your health, your mind, your spirit.

11. Give to the world: “And If I am only for myself, what am I?” — that crucial component of Hillel’s famous three-part quote. President Bill Clinton, in his new book, “Giving: How Each of Us Can Change the World,” presents many reasons to give, one of them being it is the best way to make yourself happy.

12. Decide to be happy now: As Hillel said, “If not now, then when?”

— AK

10 books about happiness

1. “Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment” by Tal Ben-Shahar (McGraw-Hill, 2007).

2. “Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment” by Martin Seligman (Free Press, 2004).

3. “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (Steps Toward Enhancing the Quality of Life)” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Harper Perennial, 1999).

4. “The Psychology of Happiness” by Michael Argyle (Routeledge, 2001; first edition, 1987)

5. “The Pursuit of Happiness: Discovering Pathways to Fulfillment, Well-Being, and Enduring Personal Joy” by David G Myers (Quill, 1992)

6. “Stumbling on Happiness” by Daniel Gilbert (Vintage Books, 2005)

7. “The Happiness Myth: Why What We Think Is Right Is Wrong,” by Jennifer Michael (Hecht Harper, 2007).

8. “Happiness Is a Serious Problem: A Human Nature Repair Manual” by Dennis Prager (Harper Paperbacks, 1999).

9. “Living a Joyous Life: The True Spirit of Joyous Practice” by Rabbi David Aaron (Trumpeter Books, 2007).

10. “Happiness and the Human Spirit: The Spirituality of Becoming the Best You Can Be” by Dr. Abraham J. Twerski (Jewish Lights, 2007).

Can happiness be taught?

Are you happy?

No, seriously.

Are. You. Happy?

You can’t answer that question, can you? You know what the first two words mean, but you’re not exactly sure what that third word is, even though you use it all the time. “This makes me happy”; “She seems happy”; “Happy Birthday”; “There! Are you [un]happy now?”

And does “Are you happy?” mean are you happy right in this very moment that you are reading this sentence? Or, happy with your entire life? Anyway, what does it mean to be happy? Does it mean to experience constant pleasure? Bouts of joy? Moments of ecstasy? Does it mean to suffer no pain? Never be sad? Never struggle with challenges? Whatever it is, how does one get happy?

It’s a High Holy Days challenge if ever there were one, since if we all lived happier lives, wouldn’t the world be a better place?

So. Are you happy? Or are all these questions making you miserable?

Happiness. It’s the new black.

Actually, the quest is not new. From Adam to Aristotle, Tony Robbins to Tony Soprano, from the Bible to the best-seller lists, philosophers, religious leaders, theologians, politicians — all have dealt in one way or another with what it takes to live a happy life. America, in fact, is the only nation founded upon this: The pursuit of happiness is our inalienable right.

And pursue it we do, with vigor.

Now more than ever before, it seems. If the ’60s were about “Freedom,” the ’70s about “Me,” the ’80s about “Money,” the ’90s about “Power,” in the new millennium we’re recognizing something essential: None of the above, by themselves, can bring about happiness.

Think about it: Anything anyone has ever wanted in life — to be free, to be king, to be rich, to be slim, to be loved — can be boiled down to “one thing,” to quote Curly in “City Slickers”: To be happy.

And never before has the word happiness appeared in so many popular book titles. “Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment,” by Tal Ben-Shahar; “Happiness and the Human Spirit: The Spirituality of Becoming the Best You Can Be,” by Abraham J. Twerski; and “The Pursuit of Happyness,” by Chris Gardner and Quincy Troupe, upon which the Will Smith movie is based, to name a few.

Even the world of psychology — which has long studied human suffering — has joined the fray. With the recent founding of “positive psychology,” a new branch devoted to applying empirical methods to studying and creating happiness, it seems everyone — from rabbis to doctors to teachers to coaches — is involved in the quest once dominated by self-help gurus.

But what does it mean to be happy? And how do we get there?

Here is some of what a wide range of writers, psychologists, rabbis and happiness gurus have to say on the subject:

What is happiness?

“Most people have a very fragmented idea of what happiness is,” said Dr. John Drimmer, who co-founded of The Positive Psychology Center of California last year, which offers individual and group psychotherapy, professional training and corporate consulting to help people live lives of purpose and joy and fulfillment. Drimmer said Americans equate happiness with self-esteem — but that’s only a part of it; self-esteem alone doesn’t lead to happiness.

“Let’s say you put all your emphasis into developing oneself. Ultimately, the truth is we’re all going to die,” he said, adding, “Sorry to sound like an existential Jew.”

Instead of happiness, he said, “Well-being is a better word. That’s what I think we can expect, and want, out of life.”

Harvard professor Tal Ben-Shahar puts it quite simply: “Happiness is the overall experience of pleasure and meaning,” the Israeli-born author writes. In a phone conversation from his home in Israel — he will commute to Boston to continue to teach his positive psychology class next semester — Ben-Shahar said that we tend to confuse pleasure with happiness.

“Pleasure is an important component, but not the only one … we also need our behavior to be personally meaningful, to be personally significant,” Ben-Shahar said.

True happiness lies somewhere between the hedonist’s indulgent lifestyle (live only for today) and the religious ascetic’s lifestyle (live only for the world to come). The Hebrew word for happiness is osher.

“In Hebrew osher means approved — I live a life of which I approve, an authentic life,” Ben-Shahar said.

“Authentic Happiness” is the name of another book, this one by Dr. Martin Seligman, who in 1998 founded the field of positive psychology, which “focuses on the empirical study of such things as positive emotions, strengths-based character and healthy institutions,” according to the University of Pennsylvania’s Positive Psychology Center. Seligman’s research, the center’s Web site says, “has demonstrated that it is possible to be happier — to feel more satisfied, to be more engaged with life, find more meaning, have higher hopes, and probably even laugh and smile more, regardless of one’s circumstances.” (At www.authentichappiness.com, you can find tests to take using positive psychology.)

One of the best scientific explanations of what it feels like to be happy comes from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of the “Flow” series that began with the 1990 “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (Steps Toward Enhancing the Quality of Life)”: “The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”

These moments of flow, or optimal experience, can occur while working; socializing; exercising; reading; being with family, friends, lovers or alone (but probably not while watching TV, which, according to his scientific monitoring, actually produces lower levels of flow). Here’s how he breaks down the phenomenology of enjoyment:

  • We take on tasks we have a chance of completing.
  • We must be able to concentrate on what we are doing.
  • The task has clear goals and immediate feedback.
  • We have a deep and effortless involvement and are separated from everyday worries;
  • We have a sense of control over our actions during the experience.
  • Our concern for self disappears, but emerges stronger after the flow experience.
  • Our sense of time is altered during the experience.

But why are we so concerned with happiness at this particular time — are we so very unhappy now?

Some people would argue that we are not any more unhappy than our grandparents were.

“Nothing changes, because the human condition is eternal,” said Dennis Prager, radio host and author of “Happiness Is a Serious Problem: A Human Nature Repair Manual” (Harper Perennial, 1999). “If you would have asked your grandmother if she was happy, she would have looked askance at your question.”

He said her response might have been, “If I had lunch and are my kids well,” then that’s happiness.

Others might say that we think about these questions only because we have the time and leisure now to think about them.

“In a way, there’s never been a time or place in the history of the world in which you have so many people who didn’t have to worry about meeting their basic needs,” Drimmer said. If you’re running for your life, trying to feed your family, evade natural disasters or political terrors, you might not have the wherewithal to ponder, “Am I happy?”

But now — for better or for worse — we do.

And perhaps it used to be that people — people like our grandparents, and their grandparents — thought that if they just had this one thing (food, freedom, wealth, kids, security, their daughter marrying a doctor) then they would be happy.

“Traditionally, people looked for it in more money and prestige, but they [now] realize it hasn’t worked,” Ben-Shahar said.

In other words, some of us have gotten everything we ever wanted, and we are still not happy.

“Jealousy, desire and the pursuit of honor are the three biggies that will take you out of your life,” Rabbi Naomi Levy of Nashuva, a post-denominational spiritual community in Los Angeles, said, quoting “Pirkei Avot” (Ethics of Our Fathers, 4:28). “They will destroy your life. I counsel people all the time who have spent so much time pursuing things that don’t make them happy, and they don’t understand why they’re not happy. We spend our whole lives thinking that this next thing will make us happy — whatever the next thing is — it’s very easy for us to fall into that pattern.”

Many rabbis and spiritual leaders believe that unhappiness is the modern plague because we are so disconnected from religion.

“When a man has a path, he is happy,” said Rabbi Matityahu Glazerson, author and speaker from the RazOt, The Lev Eliyahu Institute, who recently lectured on joy at The Happy Minyan in Los Angeles. “There is no happiness like the closing off of doubt.”

“To be truly happy, we need to live as spiritual beings,” writes Twerski, a doctor and rabbi, in “Happiness and the Human Spirit: The Spirituality of Being the Best You Can Be.”
He’s not talking about being religious.

“Every person can be spiritual, regardless of the degree or even presence of formal religion, by being the best person he or she can be,” he said.

Even scientists agree that our general disconnect from religion might be what has gotten us to this search for happiness, because religion and religious institutions provide many of the essential ingredients needed to be happy: interconnectedness, community, family, meaning, uplifting experiences, a sense of purpose. But many scientists, who pride themselves on intellectual rigor, say the days of formalized religion are over, despite those benefits.

“The shields that have worked in the past — the order that religion, patriotism, ethnic traditions and habits instilled by social classes used to profit — are no longer effective for [the] increasing number of people who feel exposed to the harsh winds of chaos,” Csikszentmihalyi writes. “Today it is more difficult to accept their world view as definitive. The forms in which religions have presented their truths — myths, revelations, holy texts — no longer compels life in an era of scientific rationality, even though the substance of the truth may have remained unchanged,” he said.

Maybe a new, intellectually satisfying religion will arise, he said, but “in the meantime, those who seek consolation in existing churches often pay for their peace of mind with a tacit agreement to ignore a great deal of what is known about the way the world works.”

Others see our era in more dire terms: It could be, they argue, that ours is an apocalyptic time. “We are on the verge of the messianic era,” said Arjang Zendehdel, head of Dreamality Education & Coaching a center that uses 14 different disciplines, including positive psychology, to support people in discovering their full potential. Zen-dehdel, who was also a host of a weekly radio show in English and Farsi, said the messianic era means intense divine consciousness and awareness.

“People are becoming more and more thirsty, and they’re not satisfied with the way things were,” Zendehdel said.

Is it possible to become happy?

First, scholars in the field argue, happiness is not a static or definitive state of being, it’s actually a process. The question, Ben-Shahar writes, should not be “Am I happy?” but “How can I be happier?”

“The question acknowledges the nature of happiness and the fact that its pursuit is an ongoing process best represented by an infinite continuum, not by a finite point,” Ben-Shahar writes. “We can always be happier; no person experiences perfect bliss at all times and has nothing more to which he can aspire.”

And that is the whole point of psychology — or at least positive psychology.

“It’s the empirical study of how people can live rich, rewarding, wonderful lives,” Drimmer said. “Not just individually. How can we create families that are like that and even countries that are like that?”

It’s true that there are some genetic and environmental factors. Some people are born with better temperaments, better parents, better living conditions, better lives. But almost all the happiness research has shown that happiness has little to do with outside conditions.

Viktor Frankl, in “Man’s Search for Meaning” (Mass Market Paperback, 1997), catalogued Holocaust survivors who found meaning in their lives, and even Alexander Solzhenitsyn was at times in “flow” in prison. Twerski found conjoined twins who didn’t want to separate because they were happy. On the other hand, every day we read about celebrities — who would seem to have reached the epitome of what we’re striving for — who nevertheless are on drugs, in rehab or on the verge of suicide.

“Many people assume that money is the key to greater happiness. In fact for most people, money has a very small effect on happiness, because their basic needs are satisfied already, and there are much more important causes of happiness,” writes Michael Argyle in “The Psychology of Happiness” (Routledge, 2002).

“Ultimately, happiness is not based on what we have,” Zendehdel said in an interview. “Ultimately, happiness comes from within.”

Levy said she pays close attention to the Torah verse, “V’samachta b’chagecha” (and you shall be happy on your holidays).

“Can you command joy? If you can command it, it must be that joy is an option, that it’s within your strengths to achieve it,” she said. “There’s an aspect to happiness that’s in our power, ‘Sameich Bechelko,’ [Who is happy? He who is happy with his lot].”

Prager takes it one step further. Not only is attaining happiness possible, it is a person’s duty to be happy.

“We’re morally obligated to act as happy as possible,” he said. “I have increasingly less patience for the chronically unhappy. Because almost everybody alive has a reason to be unhappy.”

How can we become happier?

Even though most happiness guides say that they cannot simply “give recipes for how to be happy” (“Flow”), most offer steps toward a well-lived life.

Twerski offers 10: Be humble, compassionate, patient, open to change, choose wisely, make the most of all situations, improve yourself, have perspective, purpose and search for truth.

Prager offers five: Express gratitude, let go of our images, act happy, don’t rely on children for your happiness and practice self-control.

Ben-Shahar offers six: Accept emotion, engage in enjoyable and pleasurable activities, have perspective, simplify, take care of your body and express gratitude.

Zendehdel offers five: Gratitude, perspective, faith that everything happens for the good, spirituality and growth.

All of the lists stress gratitude and perspective, which brings to mind the parable of rabbi Nachum Gam Zu, who always said, despite his misfortune, “Gam Zu Le’Tovah” — it’s all for the best.

To acquire these traits, though, is not as easy as reading a book, taking a class, making a resolution. They must be practiced.

For example, Drimmer explained in an interview three exercises he has his UCLA medical students do.

  • For gratitude: Every night for a month, students must take five minutes to go through their day and think of three things that made them happy.
    “And what we know is that over a period of a month the neural pathways begin to shift,” Drimmer said. “The reason to do it at the end of the day is we know about the nature of memory, and the last thing reflected on before we go to bed is very powerful.”

  • For meaning: The students meditate in class on their week, to find what it was that was most personally meaningful.
    “Why did that matter to you?” He keeps asking them to get it down to an irreversible word: “Invariably the words are different aspects of the same irreducible gem — they are all words about connection and caring and unity.

  • For purpose and using strengths: Each student must ask five classmates to identify their five top positive characteristics from a 24 “Character Strengths” list, and then pick the most common occurrences and see if they can use those strengths the next day.
    Csikszentmihalyi doesn’t offer exercises, but he does advise people to become involved in auto-telic pursuits: “a self-contained activity, one that is done not with the expectation of some future benefit, but simply because the doing itself is the reward.”

Which is what they say about mitzvot, or positive commandments: they are a reward in themselves.

So where does Judaism fit into this? Does God want us to be happy? Can a religious person be happy?

There has long been a debate as to whether it is an actual mitzvah to be happy. “Mitzvah Gedolah Lehiyot B’simcha,” Rabbi Nachman of Breslov said, meaning, it’s a great mitzvah to be happy.

But many debate whether this is a positive commandment in itself, as it comes from the Psalms, “Ivdu et Hashem B’simcha” (worship God with joy). Some say the words simply mean one should be happy when performing a mitzvah, especially since being happy is not counted as one of the 613 commandments.

But Rabbi Aharon of Karlin, one of the early Chasidic leaders, reportedly said, “There is no mitzvah to be joyous, but joy can bring on the greatest mitzvot.” It is also true, he said, that “it is not a sin to be sad, but sadness can bring on the greatest sins.”

Some say the Eskimos have 100 words for snow, but the Torah has many different words for happiness. “Simcha” is the generic word for happiness; “aliz” means joy.

According to Glazerson, who wrote “Letters of Fire: Mystical Insights Into the Hebrew Language” (Feldheim, 1991), many of the words for happiness kabbalistically refer to a certain type of happiness: “Sasson is a sudden unexpected happiness, gila is the happiness of discovery, rina is a refreshing happiness, ditza is a sublime joy, chedva is the happiness of togetherness and tzahala is dancing and rejoicing.”

Hebrew’s Osher, for happiness, has the same root as the Hebrew word for head, rosh. Simcha has the same letters as thought, or machshava. “There is no happiness without the head. It’s all in a person’s mind,” Glazerson said. “If the head is straight, you will be happy.”

In fact, the advent of the Chasidic movement in the 17th century sought to bring a mystic joy — with singing, dancing and prayer — a reaction to what they saw as an overly ritualistic, intellectual Judaism among those who came to be known as “mitnagdim,” or opponents.

The popularity of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach in the 20th century, again, has sought to bring that primal joy of song back to Judaism.

Joy is “what Judaism is all about,” Glazerson said. “How can a person be unhappy if he truly believes in God?”

In “Living a Joyous Life: the True Spirit of Joyous Practice” (Trumpeter Books, 2007), Rabbi David Aaron talks about a prediction from the Zohar mystical text: “It said there will come a time when the Jews will relate to Jewish tradition like cows eating grass, and that this generation will bring ruin upon itself.”

“The Talmud said that when people accept the Torah with joy and happiness, these feelings are guaranteed to be long lasting,” he added. “But when people accept the Torah with anger or feelings of coercion, though they may observe its commandments for a while, eventually they reject them and everything breaks down.”

It’s easy to lose the point in whatever we are doing, Levy said.

“It’s easy to practice a Judaism that’s rigid, it’s also easy to practice in a way that’s mindless, to just get out of bed and not be aware of anything. It’s easy to lose all of it,” she said. “The more mindless we are, the more we act out of fear, or the more we don’t learn that we can’t just show up and expect something to happen. The more passive we are as Jews, the less we’re going to get out of it.”

The question of how to make Judaism more meaningful and relevant is a different story, but everyone agrees that it must be practiced voluntarily and with … happiness.

“For those who subscribe to the morality of duty, finding meaning — leading a moral life — necessitates sacrifice,” Ben-Shahar writes. “Sacrifice, by definition, is not pleasurable (if it were, it would not be sacrifice). The morality of duty, therefore, puts meaning and pleasure against each other.”

Most theologians and scientists agree that religion does provide a structure and opportunity for happiness.

“Religion can provide standards of right and wrong that are not altered by expedience. While it is true that people may distort religion for their own needs, religion can still provide guidelines that help us know how to be more considerate, more compassionate, more spiritual,” Twerski writes.

Both Prager and Ben-Shahar were raised in Orthodox homes and still ascribe to many of the strictures, although they do not call themselves Orthodox.

“Many of the habits that I was taught, or that I practiced as a child, when I was Orthodox, I still keep today,” Ben-Shahar said. “I value them today on a much more conscious level than I did then.”

“The best advertisement for religiosity is a happy religious person; the worst is an unhappy one,” Prager said. “So I make this appeal to religious Jews who walk around unhappy: Either walk around happy, or stop being religious.”

But can an atheist achieve happiness? (Duh!)

Prager doesn’t think so: “If you believe that there is no God, there is no ultimate justice, then everything is pointless. I don’t understand how you can be happy with those beliefs. I just don’t understand it,” he said. But he’s in the minority.

Every person can acquire a spiritual side that is necessary to achieve a state of happiness.

“You don’t have to believe in God or be a religious person to be appreciative or to have great things in your life,” Levy said. “Judaism is just one way to happiness, not the way.” What makes a spiritual person is an “expansive” outlook, she said. “It’s the ability to be aware of your surroundings, it’s the ability to find some kind of connection, to feel connected — whether you’re a person of faith or not.”

For believers and nonbelievers alike, happiness should be a priority. Hillel said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I?”

Ben-Shahar said, “If we do not make the pursuit of our own happiness a priority, we are hurting ourselves and, by extension, our inclination to help others.”

Are we there yet?

Since happiness is not a destination but a lifelong process, it is not possible to achieve Curly’s “One Thing” and then rest on our laurels forever. “I think it’s in our DNA to want more,” Zendehdel said.

Or, to quote Al Pacino’s character in “The Scent of a Woman”: “The day we stop lookin’, Charlie, is the day we die.”

Reb Shlomo Carlebach teaches and sings about the mitzvah of joy in this streaming MP3 audio file.

Tal Ben-Shahar will be speaking in Los Angeles at the Professional Leaders Project Think Tank on Oct. 29.

A night for the soul

Have you ever heard words of Torah that made you really uncomfortable? Where you almost started to squirm, not because you were bored, but because you were rattled?

This happened recently when I had a “Torah in the Hood” salon at my place for about 20 Jewish singles.

The class was connected to Purim, and it was billed as “A mystical journey into a mysterious holiday.” The speaker was the Chasidic mystic and philosopher Rabbi Manis Friedman, author of “Doesn’t Anyone Blush Anymore?” which on its back cover has a raving blurb from a fellow mystic named Bob Dylan.

Little did we know during the polite chatting over Moroccan tea that we were about to be ambushed by the rabbi’s provocative riffs on the human soul.

With the glow of candles reflecting softly on his long white beard, Rabbi Friedman didn’t waste any time. He started by telling us that the struggle in Judaism is not to find the truth — because we already know it. The struggle is to realize we know it, and then make it compatible with our reality.

Argument is part of the noise that makes us forget we already know the truth. When we get drunk on Purim so that we can’t tell the difference between “Blessed is Mordechai and cursed is Haman,” it is to show us that beyond the state of knowing and reason — when our minds are plastered — our souls are intact and sober, and they know the truth.

The body might be drunk, but the soul is our designated thinker — it never stops knowing the difference between Mordechai and Haman, between right and wrong, between holy and unholy.

Rabbi Friedman was talking about the human soul as if it had a mind of its own, a very confident mind.

The soul doesn’t need argument or reason to make its point. It knows that this is wrong because it is wrong, and this is right because it is right. The soul doesn’t need to explain why you should go to the gym or visit the sick or control your anger or resist gossip or be Jewish. It is our Godly instinct. It just knows. It just is.

It was a little disconcerting to hear something as nebulous and intangible as a soul being talked about like a human asset at our disposal. But the notion that we could mine — even emulate — this asset was exciting.

According to the rabbi, we suffer from inner conflict, in part, because we don’t allow ourselves to enter the state of “soulful knowing.” Our rational minds are taught to process everything — to challenge, to argue, to debate, to struggle, as if those acts themselves had some overarching truth. In the process of all this processing, our egos become the heroes. We become self-conscious instead of soul-conscious.

When we’re not in touch with our souls, we’re also confused about our roles. Our egos make us worship uniqueness. But the Torah values roles above uniqueness. When we praise the Woman of Valor on Friday night, we don’t praise her for being unique; we praise her for being trustworthy, respectful, resourceful and compassionate. We praise her knowing soul.

In this mode of living, there is little room for tortured debate, agonizing dilemmas or self-absorbed obsessions. The struggle becomes to lower the noise level in our minds, nourish our souls with Godliness and then allow our soulfulness to permeate our reality.

In short, the rabbi was telling 20 well-educated Jews to put their minds in the service of their souls. But wait, the real discomfort in our Torah salon was still to come, and it started when someone brought up a perennial hot topic in the singles world: Looking for a soulmate.

Rabbi Friedman explained that the biggest obstacle in romantic relationships is what he calls the “third thing.” This third thing is the all-consuming question one asks of potential soulmates: Are they fulfilling our needs?

We are in love with our needs and, because love is blind, we are blinded by them. We’re in love with love, status, security, sex, laughter, companionship, intellectual stimulation, spiritual inspiration or whatever else we might need at any point in time. When we meet someone, we don’t see a real person; we see a potential need-filler.

But need-filling is not the same thing as soul-filling. Needs are noisy and shifty, while souls are quiet and eternal. When we care about each other’s needs at the expense of each other’s souls, we become needmates, not soulmates.

As the rabbi reminded us, our needs can play tricks on us. They can come and go and change without notice, and then what? Who is left facing us? Who is that person we are having dinner with?

In his soft, almost whispering voice, Rabbi Friedman suggested another way. Perhaps the path to true love is to lower the noise level in our minds and bring only one thing to the table: the desire to learn who the other person is, so we can touch their souls.

Romantic unions that are born in this fashion are not flashy, but they create real soulmates.

By now, after 90 minutes of this spiritual jazz session, Rabbi Friedman had challenged us to look at our minds and souls in a different way, and he turned our views on love and soulmates upside down. Not bad for a night’s work.

What’s more, he didn’t let us off the hook by using obscure language that no one understands. As far as esoteric messages go, his words were remarkably clear. Maybe that’s why they shook us up — and also drained us.

The reaction was not polite enthusiasm. It was more like, “What was that?” People left slowly and silently, as if something deep and quiet inside of them had been touched.

Their souls, perhaps?

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

Time to Leave Your Mitzrayim


We learn in the haggadah, “B’chol dor v’dor, chayav adam lirot et atzmo k’ilu hu yatzah mi’mitzrayim” — “In every generation it is one’s duty to regard himself as though he personally had come out of Egypt.”

In effect, I had a rather personal and literal fulfillment of that teaching almost 60 years ago.

During World War II, at 18 years old, I was drafted to serve in the U.S. Army. It was my lot to be stationed in the headquarters of a Quartermaster outfit in the China-Burma-India Theater of War. Our base was in Assam, India, just below Tibet, and bordering on China and Burma. Our task was to supply the truck convoys that traversed the Burma Road as well as the cargo planes that “flew the hump” ferrying supplies over the Himalayas into China.

During my first Pesach in India, I went to a seder sponsored by what was then called the Jewish Welfare Board. Held somewhere in the jungle area, it was attended by several hundred Jewish personnel.

After the defeat of both Germany and Japan, my company had to stay behind at our post for several months for administrative work. When the order came to leave — in the middle of April 1946 — I was able to get to a seder at the beautiful synagogue that then existed in Calcutta, which I had visited upon my arrival in India almost two years earlier.

During chol ha’moed Pesach — the intervening days of the holiday — I was able to board a troop ship for the long journey home. We went from the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean to the Red Sea (or Sea of Reeds) and through the Suez Canal, before heading out to the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. After going through the Suez Canal, our ship made stops at Port Said and Alexandria, Egypt. I can still recall the shipwrecks in the ports as well as the young kids in small boats begging for coins.

So there I was — a Jewish Israelite, in “bondage” to the military, leaving Egypt, during Pesach, on my way home to the “freedom” of civilian life.

The haggadah teaches that Ben Zoma had the occasion to quote the Scriptures “L’ma’an tizkor et yom tzaitcha mi’eretz mitzrayim kol y’may chayecha” — “That you shall remember the day you left Egypt all the days of your life” (Deuteronomy 16:3). Indeed, I would. I was going home. I was safe. I would be free!

It should be noted that, often times, the Hebrew root of the word Mitzrayim, matzar, which means a narrow strait or a limited boundary, is interpreted to apply to our personal lives in terms of the struggle to be free of our own “enslavements.” We can be in “bondage” to personal trials, obsessions, habits, compulsions, narrow opinions, prejudiced attitudes, grudges and family disputes — all of which prevent us from realizing our fulfillment in life and the joy of knowing who we are and what we represent.

We are challenged to overcome our personal “mitzrayims” — to find the resiliency and strength of will within ourselves to break though the wall of circumstance. Indeed, faith creates heroism, and there is the mystique of human nature — the ability to transcend pain and fear and to transform weakness into strength. Is that not the collective history of our people? And is that not the essential lesson of Pesach?

May the Almighty in His redemptive mercy enable each of us to find our way to freedom from whatever “enslavements” we have so that we can more readily serve Him and bring glory to His Holy Name.

Mervin B. Tomsky is rabbi emeritus, Burbank Temple Emanu El and past president of the Rabbinical Assembly, Western States Region