Of the Book

By Daniel Bortz

According to a 2013 Harris poll, only 1 out of every 3 Americans described themselves as “very happy.” Happiness is a state of being that many — if not all of us, pursue our whole lives. About the Hebrew month we find ourselves in, the Sages said: “When the month of Adar enters, one must increase in joy.” By using the term increase, the Talmud is insinuating that we must always be happy – now is just a time to add to that joy. But how does Judaism teach us to attain such an elusive state of being?

The first two words we say every morning upon awakening, is: “Modeh ani…” – I thank you for returning my soul this morning. Sure, we can focus on everything we haven’t attained yet. But really, nothing is owed to us – everything is a gift, from our heartbeat and breath to our children and everything in between. This is the reason behind the Jewish blessing of thanks when we eat and drink, as well as after using the restroom. By cultivating a constant sense of gratitude, we can enjoy so many of the little things we have that are taken for granted.

What we can be most thankful for is our very ability to affect change in the world. Recently I asked my high school students a strange question: Why do we celebrate birthdays? If Judaism teaches that our souls were basking in delight in heavenly realms before our birth into a world full of struggle and pain, what is there to celebrate? The reason is that before entering bodies, the soul had no independence or free will to affect cosmic change. The day of our birth has intense significance – now we have hands to give food to the poor, mouths to offer prayers and a kind word, a brain to meditate on beautiful ideas. And every act we do has infinite potential to make this world into a home for G-d. We are partners with Him in this world, entrusted with the most awesome mission imaginable.

But don’t we have legitimate things to worry about? Real challenges and worries in our work, family, health, and personal lives? We can’t ignore these worries. One of the most popular Jewish words is: “Oy!”

Imagine looking at those on a scary amusement park ride at Six Flags. As the roller coaster reaches the highest peak, before its massive drop, many of the inhabitants have big smiles on their faces. How can that be? It’s because, as scary as the ride is, they know that ultimately it’s safe and they’ll arrive at their destination, overseen by a director who is meticulous with every detail. Judaism teaches that every detail of our lives is also meticulously and lovingly watched over and planned by a Director above. Nothing is by chance. Everything has a good reason behind it, and our positive destination is ensured. There is no need for fear or worry.

Wishing you a very happy month and holiday of Purim, whose entire story is based on this theme: Your life is a Megillah scroll – no matter how bad it gets, everything is being lined up to achieve a good, purposeful outcome.

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