Instant Happiness?

Susan and I shared in the immense joy of dear friends while attending the wedding of their daughter on Labor Day.  Since Rosh HaShana starts this coming Sunday night, we heard many greetings of, “Shana Tova,” (have a good year) and, “Have a happy new year.” The sentiment is lovely. The words are not quite accurate.

Being happy is a purposeful decision we make. Being happy is our responsibility.  It’s not the responsibility of our parents, friends, family, or God.  God commands us to be happy regardless of circumstance. (Deuteronomy 16:15)

On both occasions when the Torah mentions Rosh Hashana, it fails to speak of new year.

Speak to the Children of Israel saying, in the seventh month, on the first of the month, you shall have a rest day, a remembrance with shofar blasts, a holy gathering.
(Leviticus 23:24)

In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall have a holy gathering;
you shall do no work, 
it is a day of shofar sounding for you.
(Numbers 29:1)

The day is identified only as a day for blowing  the shofar, a ram’s horn. Indeed, the Rosh HaShana synagogue service revolves around hearing one hundred blasts of the shofar. 

In general, Judaism seems to value sound above sight.  Music is more esteemed than the visual arts. In fact, the Torah warns against trusting eyes, much preferring what you hear to what you see.

…that you don’t detour after your heart and your eyes,
which incline you to go astray.
(Numbers 15:39)

…hear, Oh Israel, the statutes and judgments which I speak in your ears today
(Deuteronomy 5:1)

God indicates that ears are a better avenue for trustworthy information than eyes.  But there is another difference between ears and eyes.

What happens if we press ‘pause’ while watching a movie?  We see a freeze-frame—a still picture with actors frozen in whatever postures they were in at the instant that ‘pause’ was pressed. We can slice an instant of video, disconnected from the moments before and after and still retain a meaningful visual image.

However, with sound it is different.  If we press ‘pause’ while listening to a song or a speech all we hear is silence.  Sound is meaningless when disconnected from the moments before and after.

Rosh HaShana is also known as, “The Day of Memory.” Nobody with zero memory could hear a tune.  All he’d hear is a sequence of disconnected notes.  Despite having no memory, a human could easily view a painting, picture or statue.

Hearing also helps to connect us to others. If you had to make a horrible choice between having only sight or having only hearing, many people might instinctively choose sight. Yet ancient Jewish wisdom suggests that deafness is a worse affliction. Blindness isolates one from things, but deafness isolates one from people.

Our ability to make sense of sound depends on continuity of time.  And continuity of time helps us be happy.  Living in a sliced instant of disconnected time means that the pain, sadness or humiliation we now endure overwhelms us with its sense of permanence.  We remain frozen in our agony.

Or, perhaps, we think that being happy this very instant is the most important thing and so we miss out on the joy of planning and working for long-term happiness. Hearing the shofar blasts vibrates our souls into a visceral awareness that this instant is not all-important.  It is part of a bigger picture. We can recognize that excruciating pain will pass and so will peaks of excitement. Our task is to choose happiness with past, present and future in mind, as did the young couple whose marriage we celebrated.

Rosh HaShana does not stand as a day isolated from the rest of our year.  It is a time when our prayers focus on how our own conduct impacts our connection with God, our world and with all humanity. May God grant us all a year of peace, good health and prosperity.  And happiness?  Well, that is, of course, our choice.

14 thoughts on “Instant Happiness?”

  1. Dear Rabbi, this is excellent! I never understood why it is more important for me to hear than see with my eyes. I made the choice to do it after realizing our daughter was born blind. She is now 38 yrs. old and she always appear content. It is when she moans that I know she’s not well. I purposely do not wear my glasses because I choose not to ‘read into things’. I would rather listen. However, you gave me even greater insight realizing I am in need to correct my tone. My tone should always reflect the goodness of God. It is there where I can tell if I agree with His plan for our lives or not. And interestingly, kind of funny, we can sometimes tell a Jewish woman from the sound of her voice. Why is that?

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Hello Teena–
      Thanks for your very uplifting letter. There was somebody I knew who used to sound very irritable and unfriendly whenever she answered the phone. I directed her to always put a smile on her face before answering the phone. Though it was external only, the smile did modify her tone and she immediately started sounding better.
      How can you tell that a woman is Jewish from the sound of her voice? That’s funny. Can you really? Well, if I was an anti-Semite, I’d have some suggestions about the giveaways, but I am not so I don’t.

  2. Rabbi, this thought tool hit very close to home, as my husband is going blind. Since he is the only wage earner for our family, and I have 1 still at home and one in grad school, he is continuing to work while refusing to learn how to walk with the white cane he now needs in crowds or at night. He only this month started admitting to colleagues and friends that he is visually impaired. I am going to send this thought tool to him, and pray he reads and accepts that having improved hearing ( his body is compensating) is a far greater blessing than losing his sight is a tragedy.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      That is terribly tough for a man to accept, Mrs M,
      Perhaps show your husband your letter as well as the Thought Tool.
      Tell him I wish him well.

  3. Thanks as always for your wisdom, Dear Rabbi and Susan! You never fail to hit the nail on the head in my life, whether via synchronicity or Divine Providence, as may be. I write once again to underline and applaud your message. I lost vision in my right eye in December 2017 after an ophthalmologic uncontrolled experiment (four surgeries); and I still await Divine restoration of vision in Sep 2018. Blindness indeed represents one’s relation to things. While not exactly ‘blind,’ I approach legal blindness. Without stereovision and on one compromised eye I cannot read as before, cannot drive, cannot putter or wander at will. But hearing indeed represents one’s relation to other humans: one thing to save me has been through my ears. My lovely wife (‘a good woman is above the price of rubies’) escorts me to advanced music sessions where I can contribute to interweaving melodies and harmonies, if not via shofar, that save my soul. Beracha (blessings ) and Mazel Tov on your new grandchild!

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Thanks James–
      When we resonate, we resonate. Your letters are always welcome and inspirational. I am so uplifted to read of your happy marriage.

  4. I am very interested in the Jewish lifestyle, teachings, and level of commitment that the faith inspires. It seems that Rosh Hashanna encourages and supports all the above. Very good article.

    Also, I am very interested in the Feast of Tishri. Do you have any information on it that you could share with us.

    Thank you very much and please keep up the good work.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear Tom–
      By “Feast of Tishrei” I assume you mean the 7 day Biblical festival of Tabernacles or Sukot in Hebrew. We have a number of Thought Tools about the holyday most notably Thought Tools of October 2nd 2017 and also September 17th, 2013. It’s all rather amazing.

  5. Thank you for that very enlightening explanation on hearing and seeing. Your message is a very good tool for discerning the things of this world in a godly manner.

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