Finding Happiness (Bar Mitzvah of Alexander Nadich Levin, 1991)

I must first of all express my appreciation to Rabbi Lincoln for this most gracious introduction. David, I thank you.

During the many years that I served as rabbi of this congregation, I had the privilege of speaking to a large number of boys who became bar mitzvah and girls who celebrated their bat mitzvah. As I think back through the years, I estimate the total must have been at least 1,000 or more, but never was there one like today. Today is a first! My grandson has become bar mitzvah on this very bimah! Yes, during the 30 years that I preached from this pulpit, Hadassah and I had the infinite joy of witnessing the bat mitzvah of each of our three daughters and yes, mine was the great happiness of preaching the sermon and addressing our oldest grandson Tani when he became bar mitzvah. But that was in Teaneck, New Jersey. Today is a first, our grandson Alex becomes a bar mitzvah on this bimah where I have spoken to so many others over the course of the years.

I became Rabbi Emeritus four years ago, but I announced my impending retirement a year and one half earlier. Alexander was dismayed. He was seven and a half and he asked me in sadness, “Aren’t you going to be able to speak at my bar mitzvah?” I told him I hoped that I would. Well, God has been good to me, and Rabbi Lincoln has agreed, and so here we are.

What does one preach about when his grandson becomes a bar mitzvah? What is an appropriate subject? Well, here is a young man starting out on his path of life and like so many others he will be searching for happiness in life. Perhaps that would make an appropriate subject for this morning. How to find happiness? Today it is especially appropriate to speak on that subject, for today is the intermediate Sabbath of the festival of Sukkot, which in the Scriptures and liturgy is described as zeman simhatenu, “the festival of our happiness.” And the topic of happiness is of interest not only to young persons, but to every individual of whatever age, for who is not looking for happiness?

Fortunately, a Biblical text prescribed for reading on this day provides a springboard. My grandson Tani and Michael Lewittes read from the book of Kohelet, the book of Ecclesiastes. It is one of the strangest books in the Bible. Its skeptical author tells us how he has searched for happiness. His discerning and critical eye has roamed everywhere. He engaged in one pursuit after another. He tried everything, but to no avail – he could not reach his goal. He could not find happiness. He multiplied his pleasures, he amassed great power but happiness still eluded him. So he said, havel havalim, “Vanity of vanities!” Utter futility! And he said ufaniti ani be-khol maasai she-asu yadai u-ve-amal she-amalti la’asot, ve-henei ha-kol hevel u-reut roo-ah. “Then my thoughts turned to all the fortunates my hands had built up and to the wealth I had acquired and won-and oh, it was all futile and a pursuit of wind!” He even sets out to increase his knowledge for the purpose of finding happiness. But having tried it, he concludes: mosif data, mosif ke-ev, “To increase learning is to increase heartache.” Finally, he exclaims ve-saneti et ha-hayim, “I loathe life.”

Now where did he fail? He was a wise man and he looked in so many places to find happiness. Where did he not look? He appears to have tasted all the pleasures of life, but he ultimately delighted in none. He tells us that he was a man who had everything, he had houses and gardens and possessions and wealth and power and he even had great knowledge and wisdoms. But yet he was a man who looked at it all and said, havel havalim ha’kol havel, “Utter futility! All is futile!” Where did he fail?

Let me dare to answer the question. And not from books, the answer does not come from books. Nor does it come from any learning that I may have. It comes from my personal experience.

I have served as a rabbi in four cities for over half a century and have been with people in all that life can bring. For four years, I was in the middle of a terrible war in Europe, World War II, and I watched men face death. And when the war was over, I wept in the Nazi concentration camps. From out of all that experience, let me try to answer the question, where did Kohelet fail? What area of life did he not turn to? Where did he not look?

It seems to me that he wrote as pessimistically as he did because he completely overlooked the three principal sources of meaningful happiness. The author of Kohelet, of Ecclesiastes, fails to mention the three greatest blessings a person can wish for. What are they? The love of family, the sharing of friendship, and the bringing of happiness to other people. None of these, not one of them, is mentioned in Kohelet. The author of Ecclesiastes failed to try any one of them in his desperate search for happiness.

It is not more than passing strange that nowhere does he mention love as a source of the greatest happiness? Nowhere. And yet does not life teach us that a good marriage brings such joy to a man and a woman. And if husband and wife are even more fortunate to have children, what gratification! Of course, with children there is an occasional heartache too, but heartache passes and the joy remains. And if you are even more blessed – with grandchildren, what endless happiness? How right was that eccentric contemporary poet, E.E. Cummings, when he wrote, “Unless you love someone, nothing else makes sense.”

The author of Kohelet, according to tradition, was King Solomon, and the author of the book of Psalms, according to tradition, was King David. But if Solomon was the author of Kohelet, he didn’t know the psalms that his father David wrote. For the psalmist divulges the source of happiness when he says, eshteka kegefen poriah be-yarketei veitekha, banekha ke-shetilei zeitim saviv shulhanekha, Ashrekha, “You shall be happy…Your wife shall be like a fruitful vine within your home, your children like olive saplings around your table.” That psalm ends u-re-ei vanim le-vanekha, “And live to see your children’s children.” Abarbanel, the medieval commentator on the Bible, put it succinctly, “En le-adam simhah sheleimah ki im ishto u-vanav,” “A man cannot have complete happiness, the fullness of happiness, except with his wife and children.”

Strangely, very strangely, Kohelet did not state that he sought happiness in friendship. Yet life and experience teach us that we are happy in the company of people whom we like, that friendship brings delight. How grateful I am for the friendship over so many years of two rabbis, wonderful friends, and how much I miss their friendship now that one has gone and the other is as though he were gone. But I am thankful for other rabbis who are wonderful friends, as well as for the friends we have in this congregation. Ben Sira was correct when he said, ohev ne-eman som ha-hayim, “A faithful friend is the medicine of life.”

Did you notice that, as Kohelet goes about everywhere looking for happiness, his ego always gets in the way? The two words that you find most often in the book of Kohelet are ani and li, “I” and “to me.” Kohelet is a detached aloof observer, concerned about himself; unwarmed by sympathy for others, uninformed by any feeling for people. He stands, as it were, outside the fence as people do at a zoo, watching the antics of those within. He sees people suffering – he says so – but he makes no effort to help them. He witnesses injustice and inhumanity – that’s what he writes – but he does not lift his voice to protest. He never steps down from his lofty observer’s perch to extend his hand to help someone. That’s his mistake, that’s where he could have found the happiness that he was looking for. That is what Judaism teachers, the way of mitzvoth, to help the widow, the orphan and the needy. For happiness, in a way is, like perfume. You cannot spill it on others without some of it getting on you.

So to my grandson Alex on his bar mitzvah day, and to all of you our friends – happiness may be found in family, in friends, and in service to others. May you all search for happiness and may you find it!

Amen.

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This is a tribute to Rabbi Judah Nadich z"l and Martha Hadassah Ribalow Nadich z"l, created and maintained by their family. If you have a memory or thought to share, please submit it to nadichblog at gmail dot com.

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