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Kol Nidre 5779: Who is Rich?

On September 2, I woke up and decided to have a perfect month.
Let me explain.

I wear an Apple Watch. It’s a fitness tracker - you might wear something similar, or know someone who does. It’s basically a pedometer for the modern era - yes, it also tells me if I’m getting a text message or a phone call - primarily, I like it because it keeps me standing, moving, and exercising on a regular basis.
Each fitness tracker has its own way of motivating you to move. The Apple watch helps you set goals - 12 hours of standing, 30 minutes of exercise a day - and sends encouraging messages throughout the day to help you meet that goal. You can also win a “badge” for different achievements. For example, you can win a badge for a “perfect” week for your stand, move, or exercise goal - 7 straight days of meeting the goal that you set for yourself.

I’m a pretty active person, but recently, I was noticing that my exercising was falling lower among my priorities, and it had been a while since I consistently met my exercise goals. On September 1, I happened to have a pretty active day, so I met all my goals without even noticing. So on September 2, I decided to meet all my exercise goals every day of the month - a perfect month.

Some days, it’s been easy to meet my goals - a quick 30 minute workout first thing in the morning or at the end of the day. Other days, it’s been a little more challenging to find the time - I definitely did a few sets of pushups at 9pm on Rosh Hashanah when I was 2 minutes shy of my exercise goal. Totally worth it.

It’s September 18, and I’m still working toward my perfect month. I know it’s a completely arbitrary and self-imposed goal, but it has made me happier, hopefully healthier, and a little more balanced during this busy month of the High Holy Days.

For those who were here last week, you’re probably thinking, ok, Rabbi Liz, but what does your workout routine have to do with Pirke Avot?

Pirke Avot chapter 4, a text from the Mishnah, our central text for these High Holy Days, asks a series of questions about four key character traits - who is wise, who is strong, who is rich, and who is honored? Last week, we sought to answer “who is wise” and “who is strong.” Tonight, we take a look at Pirke Avot’s third question.

Who is rich? The one who is happy with one’s portion.
V’eizehu ashir - hasameach b’chelko

As we saw from the previous two questions, one of the reasons I love this text is that it is counterintuitive and countercultural. Here, Pirke Avot suggests that the person who is rich is satisfied with what they have - not striving, seeking, working toward amassing a greater fortune or a higher standing in the world. 

How can we make sense of this? Overall, we are pretty goal oriented. As I’ve observed about my 18 month old son, as soon as he was able to roll over, we were waiting for him to sit up. As soon as he could sit, it was time to crawl! It starts from a young age, and the expectations that we put on ourselves and on those around us are exhausting. It gets even more complicated when we try to answer Pirke Avot’s question - who is rich - and working for wealth gets caught up in our goal-setting and striving for success.

In Hebrew, the words for rich - ashir - and happy - ashir - are nearly identical. They are pronounced exactly the same, and differ by one silent letter - the word for rich starts with an ayin, and the word for happy starts with an alef. This bit of wordplay was certainly on the mind of those who composed our Pirke Avot text.

As I prepared to teach and share with you about this third question of our central text, I was pretty sure I would talk about a common aphorism - money can’t buy happiness - as a way to understand this idea.

Then, of course, new research came out just a few weeks ago saying - surprise - money actually does buy happiness. Whoops! Yes, in a long-term study of lottery winners - in Sweden - “[l]ottery winners said they were substantially more satisfied with their lives than lottery losers. And those who won prizes worth hundreds of thousands of dollars reported being more satisfied than winners of mere tens of thousands.”

I think this study confirms something many of us already understood. Money, wealth, financial security - they certainly contribute to happiness - at least in part. But you wouldn’t be here, at Temple, on Kol Nidre, preparing for 24 hours of prayer and reflection, if money were the only source of happiness, the only source of riches. There is something beyond the material that still contributes to our overall well-being, to our spiritual satisfaction.

For me, the more compelling question is not “who is rich?” but “who is happy?” Many have tried to answer this question - who is happy, what is happiness - throughout human history. Gretchen Rubin, an author of popular non-fiction, set out to understand happiness. The result was her book, the Happiness Project. She writes:

“[one day] as I sat on [a] crowded bus, I grasped two things: I wasn’t as happy as I could be, and my life wasn’t going to change unless I made it change….with that realized, I decided to dedicate a year to trying to be happier.” (Gretchen Rubin, The Happiness Project, 3)

Here’s what Rubin did - she spent some time researching, reading, and reflecting. She identified what made her happy in her day to day life, and what did not. Next, she made resolutions - goals - that would allow her to elevate what brought her happiness, and minimize what did not. Rubin began her Happiness Project on January 1st, and picked a theme for her resolutions each month - a nice way to organize her aspirations. In April, she focuses on family; in June, she focuses on friendship; in September, she pursues her passion - reading and books.  The third and most challenging phase of her project was to keep her resolutions each month - seeing which were feasible, which added to her happiness - especially as she added new resolutions every month.

As Rubin explains, her goals and resolutions, as well as her sources of happiness, may not be the same as yours or mine. There is still a lot we can learn from her process on how to bring more happiness and contentment into our lives.

First, Rubin concludes that, in most cases, we are the masters of our own happiness. She says:

“One of the best ways to make yourself happy is to make other people happy; one of the best ways to make other people happy is to be happy yourself.”

Second, Rubin tackles the question of money. Even before the recent the Swedish lottery study, Rubin had a hunch that money can contribute to our overall happiness. One of Rubin’s resolutions from the month of July, her month focused on money, is “Spend Out.” Recognizing the power that money can have to influence happiness for herself and others, she advocates spending money on others.

This is a value that we live as a community. Whether through our supplemental dues campaign to sustain our own congregation, or through the many initiatives of our social action committee that support our local Pittsfield community - collecting coins for fuel assistance, our Thanksgiving food drive to collect 1000 cans of cranberry sauce, the PFTY food drive, and more - we know that giving tzedakah to those in our midst elevates our entire community. It make us happy to help, and it’s the right thing to do.

In November, Rubin focuses on her attitude as a source of happiness. In this month, Rubin reflects on a phrase she comes across in a journal entry from a British diarist in the 1600s - “if I have a heart to be contented.” Here’s what she said:

Did I have a heart to be contented? Well, no, not particularly. I had a tendency to be discontented: ambitious, dissatisfied, fretful, and tough to please. In some situations, this served me well, because it kept me constantly striving to improve my work and achieve my goals. In most areas of my life, however, this critical streak wasn’t helpful. (Rubin, 259)

Tonight is Kol Nidre, the beginning of Yom Kippur. We are ten days in to a brand new year. For the next day, we have the opportunity to reflect on last year. To look back and last year and say - we fell short. We missed the mark. This can easily turn into an exercise that is negative and self-deprecating. Tonight, with our Kol Nidre prayer, we are absolved of our shortcomings, of the vows and promises we made that we were unable to fulfill. Let’s instead use this as an opportunity to resolve to do better and be better next year. Maybe a Happiness Project for the year 5779 is right for you. Maybe setting resolutions or goals will help you find a way to be happier or more content with your lot. 

I also believe that the simple act of paying attention to who and what makes us happy, to little moments and big blessings and everything in between - to taking time to feel and express gratitude - is how we can be happy with our lot, as Pirke Avot encourages. 

So, I’d like to just mention that I gained a least one hour toward my stand goal during this service thanks to our Kol Nidre prayer. I’m still working toward my perfect month badge on my Apple watch, but I’m not going to hang all of my happiness on it. After all, it’s a goal that I invented for myself. For my whole life, my mom’s mantra for us has been - there’s no such thing as perfect. And another of my teachers, Rabbi David Saperstein, was fond of saying - "let not the perfect be the enemy of the good." Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur are our yearly opportunity to remember this. We set goals. We work hard. We work on our own happiness, and we work to elevate the happiness, health, and financial well-being of others. And we know that when we fall short, we have the chance to reflect, renew, and move forward into a new year of happiness and gratitude, sameach b’helkeinu, content with our lot.

Fri, December 13 2019 15 Kislev 5780