Sermon: Yom Kippur 5773- Ashreinu – are we happy?

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 26 September 2012

Let me ask you a question.  Well, three questions. Three big questions.

How satisfied are you with your life? Do you feel that the things you do are worthwhile?  How happy do you feel?

These aren’t just any questions.  These are, now, ‘official’ questions, government approved questions.  They are three of the questions that you would have been asked had you been one of nearly 200,000 people across the country interviewed by the Office for National Statistics earlier this year.  For the very first time, their national household survey asked about happiness – in what was, technically, the first ‘Subjective Well-being Annual Population Survey’, sometimes referred to as David Cameron’s Happiness Index.

You may have seen the results when they were released just before the summer.  Or, rather, you may have seen the rather dramatic but simplistic headlines that were based very loosely on the data.  The Guardian’s was a pretty typical effort: The way to bliss: live on a remote island and don’t work.  Or, as the Daily Mail put it: Feeling Down?  Up sticks and move to the Shetlands. Because the survey found that the happiest people in the UK are those who are either of just pre-working age – late teens – or just retired.  And the happiest places in the UK are, rather unexpectedly, the Scottish Islands.  And, bad news for us, if you live in London you are, apparently, less likely to be content than well pretty much anywhere else in the country, with the possible exception of Thurrock.

Now, in truth, I’m not sure how helpful these questions really are in a survey.  And assuming that there are few of us who either fancy, or are able, to uproot ourselves to Muckle Roe or to the Isle of Yell, the survey also doesn’t tell us a great deal about how to be content.

But these are exactly the right sorts of questions for us, today.  Exactly the sorts of questions that we should be asking ourselves as we sit here on Yom Kippur – carrying out Cheshbon HaNefesh – our annual well-being survey – of the soul. And as we do so, we might look to Judaism to give us some alternative happiness options – ones more practical than moving to Orkney.

And if we do, we will be rewarded.  Because our tradition is full of ideas and insights about how to be happy.  They are there in our liturgy – the poetry which expresses our aspirations about the world.  In fact, we have already come across a few happiness suggestions this morning – possibly without you even noticing.  Whenever the liturgy has included the word Ashrei it is expressing something about happiness – as in the phrases Ashreinu Ma Tov Chelkeinu or Ashrei Ish SheYishma L’Mitzvotecha both of which we read this morning.  Whenever that word Ashrei comes up, the prayer-book is actually talking about our happiness.  When the Shofar was blown for the first time last week, we responded Ashrei Ha-Am Yodei T’ruah – ‘Happy is the nation that knows that sound’.

The word being used, Ashrei, is the happiness of contentment, of satisfaction.  It has at its root a verb meaning to go straight ahead, to advance.  Ashrei is not a word suggesting pleasure – transient, self-centred, gratification – or even expressing joy – normally, in Hebrew, simchah – which is a different sermon altogether.  Rather, Ashrei is the deep-rooted and enduring happiness of fulfilment, of feeling life is worthwhile.

This same Ashrei is found repeatedly in the writings of our ancestors – in biblical poetry such as the Book of Psalms – which contains most of the 33 uses of the word Ashrei – as well as in the Wisdom Literature of Proverbs and the impassioned teachings of the Prophets.  And each time it comes, it is there to give us an insight into how we might be able to be happy.  You’ll be pleased to know that I am not going to go through all thirty three this morning – indeed, some of them are a bit uncomfortable to the modern ear, some are too theistic, or too preachy maybe, to fully resonate – but others do have the potential to express true insight even for us today.

Towards the end of today, time allowing, we will read Psalm 32 – which begins with words that are especially apposite for today.  Ashrei N’sui-Pesha – Happy is the one whose transgression is forgiven.  It continues v’ein b’rucho r’miyyah – in whose spirit there is no deceit.  This verse can be read quite simplistically within the classical theology of Yom Kippur – we confess, God forgives, God rewards, we get happy.  But there is a greater truth within it also. Its real insight is that the process of today, the process of reflection, confession and forgiveness that today offers to us, helps us to be happy.  As every self help programme knows, happiness requires us to, at the very least, be able to be honest with ourselves, to reconcile ourselves to the things that we have done.  If we exist with self-deceit in our spirits we can not attain the emotional liberation that allows real fulfilment.  And, once we know ourselves, we can, perhaps, control ourselves – the midrash Bereshit Rabbah – reads Ashrei n’sui pesha not as ‘Happy is the one whose transgression is forgiven’, but as ‘happy is the one who noseih lifts up their transgression’ – happy is the one who has mastery over the desire to wrongdoing that we all encounter, the one who does not deceive themselves but recognises the evil inclination and works to subdue it.

Our capacity for self deceit is a repeated theme in a number of Ashrei texts which emphasise how important it is that our actions really reflect our ideals.  So, for example, Psalm 106 which tells us Ashrei shomrei mishpat, oseih tzdakah b’chol eit Happy are those who guard justice, who act justly at all times.  It’s not enough to value justice, we have to live it too. Or Psalm 119 – Ashrei t’mimei derech – Happy are those whose way is pure, blameless, straightforward.  Our potential for happiness, these suggest, is linked to our integrity – our willingness to reflect the values we hold dear in the way that we actually behave in the world.  If we believe in equality, in truth, in justice, then if we do not put those into effect in our lives how can we ever expect to feel satisfied, to feel that our lives are worthwhile?  That is true of out home lives, our work lives, and our religious lives – no area should be carved off as subject to different rules and expectations – if we are to feel whole, to feel happy.

Other Ashrei texts answer the second question asked by the ONS survey – Do you feel that the things you do are worthwhile?  One such is Psalm 41, which includes one of the most intriguing verses in the whole book of Psalms: Ashrei Maskil el dal – Happy is the one who understands the wretched.  Simplistically, this tells us the value of looking after one another.  The classical commentators understand it as an instruction to visit the sick.  But, again, it has a deeper insight than its surface meaning.  A midrash asks the obvious question.  Why does it say Happy is the one who understands the wretched, rather than just who looks after the wretched?  Because it is not enough just to help others – to be truly rewarding it must be done with thought, with appreciation for the needs of the other, with consideration for their dignity, for their perspective.  The Malbim, a Nineteenth century Polish commentator, takes this verse a step further.  Not enough to consider, he interprets the verse as meaning ‘Happy is the one who learns from the wretched’ – whose world view, whose understanding of suffering, is fundamentally altered by being in relationship with the vulnerable in society.  Incidentally, one of the less surprising, but most uplifting results of the ONS Survey was that one of the occupational groups reporting greatest happiness in their lives were those in the caring profession.

And then there is my favourite Ashrei of all – From Psalm 84 – Ashrei Yoshvei Veitecha, od y’hall’lucha sela – ‘Happy are those who dwell in Your house, they will forever praise You’, which we will chant later on in the Mincha service.  To the classical commentators this was understood as a reference to the priests in the Temple, but it has a privileged place in the liturgy, suggesting that from very early on it was understood to represent all of us – Happy are those who come together, as we do today, in a House of Meeting for prayer. The verse identifies something very special about prayer.  Or rather, about the act of communal worship, coming together with others to join voices together – prayer is not a passive act, it says – Happy are those who come together, who come together not to watch but to praise you.  The success of minyanim such as Kollot and the Big Bang at Alyth, as well as our classical services on Friday night and Shabbat morning attest to the power of communal worship.  It is no longer unusual for more than 600 people to come through Alyth over a Shabbat – coming together in the House, to deepen and enhance our lives.  Ashrei Yoshvei Veitecha.

In part this reflects the joy of worship.  But it also reflects the power of community.  It is a common critique of modern society that we increasingly exist as individuals, cut off from other people – what American sociologists refer to as Bowling Alone.  Ashrei Yoshvei Veitecha – happy are those who buck that trend, who come together with others in a House not that dissimilar to this one.

I don’t want to labour the point – or, at least, not more than I already have.  Nor do I want to trot out a trite line that ‘Judaism can make you happier’.  For what it is worth, I do believe that to be true, but there is a reason that it is called Subjective Well-being – each of us finds happiness in different ways.

But Judaism tells us that it is OK to aspire to that happiness.  Ours is not a religion that idealises misery – as the scholar Nahum Sarna puts it, not ‘the religion of the sad soul’.  The final instruction that Moses gives to the Israelites before he dies is – Ashrecha Yisrael – Be happy Israel.

In our liturgy, and in the ancient liturgy of Psalms, we have insights into how this happiness might, just might, be achieved: Being at one with ourselves, reconciled with our own actions – good and bad; Aspiring to live with integrity – refusing to compromise, intellectually, morally, emotionally, by carving off pieces of our lives where ethics, values don’t matter; Responding to the needs of others wholeheartedly and learning from them; Being part of community – not only, not necessarily, this one – but seeking to exist along with others.  Maybe, who knows, even coming together to worship with others.

Our tradition tells us that these are enduring sources of contentment – not transient moments of pleasure, but deep lasting wells of fulfilment from which we can drink.  And they are sources of fulfilment that we control – derived from our actions, our commitments, not by the fickleness of the world around us, or the fickleness of divine decree.

And so, when the second Subjective Well-being Annual Population Survey comes around, when next Yom Kippur comes around, even if we can’t give up work, even if we can’t move to the Isle of Skye, still we might be able to answer Ashreinu – we are happy.

May we be inscribed and sealed for a good (and a happy) year.