Monday, May 28, 2007

Hollow Happiness: When Plastic Smiles are Part of the Dress Code

I am not an ogre.

I love warm smiles, and moments of joy. I am a big fan of optimism. I consider authentic happiness to be the mission of mankind. But I just can’t stand stupidity.

Speaking of stupidity, why is it that people say the darndest things to mourners? You know, the silly remarks intended to “cheer up” the bereaved. Of course, these ridiculous attempts are miserable failures, causing more pain than comfort. Jess Decourcy Hinds recounts how she resented the attempts made to “cheer her up” after her father’s death:

"After a recent death in my family, I received a number of condolence cards that tried to talk me out of my grief. "You should be happy you have your memories," wrote one friend. "You should feel lucky you got to be with your father in the hospital." Lucky? Happy? You've got to be kidding!

Some cards made little mention of my father's death at all. Instead, they focused on the question of how I was going to distract myself from my grief. "Are you applying to grad school?" one person wrote. "How's your teaching going? Are you still renovating your apartment? Are you keeping busy?"

I was 25 when I lost my father last fall. He was only 58, and his death from bone cancer was slow and excruciating. When I cry for my father, I cry for his suffering; I cry because he worked long, grueling hours to save for a retirement he never got to enjoy. I cry because my mother is alone. I cry because I have so much of my life ahead of me, and my father will miss everything. If I marry, if I have children, he won't be there. My grief is profound: I am mourning the past, present and future. I resent the condolence cards that hurry me through my grief, as if it were a dangerous street at night…...

On the day of my father's funeral, we were greeted by a grinning deacon who shook our hands and chirped, "Isn't it a beautiful day? I'm so glad you have sun for your memorial!" I wanted to shake this woman. Couldn't she invoke a solemn tone for at least five seconds on the darkest morning of my life?"

People say stupid things to mourners because mourning is an annoyance. No one wants the mourners to bring their mood down with all their crying and grief. So of course, friends push the mourners to snap out of it, so they don’t have to feel the mourner’s pain. And, as I have noted over and over again, people love denial. Hearing the mourner talk about loss reminds us of the inconvenient fact that death is a part of every life.

Mourning is also out of fashion. The happiness pursued today is speedy and superficial. There are a multitude of quick fixes for finding happiness; just check the magazines at supermarket checkouts and the self help aisle in the bookstore. In a quick fix culture, a mourner is expected to snap out of bereavement overnight.

Hollow happiness is now the new fashion. 21st century happiness doesn’t depend on living a meaningful life; all you need to do is slap on a plastic smile (from a good plastic surgeon, of course), and think happy thoughts, and voila!…you’re happy. Happy in a superficial way, that is; an empty joy that ends up dulling a person’s soul.

We must abandon this dress code of hollow happiness, and search for authentic expression.

The Jewish tradition takes mourning seriously. As the famous verses in Ecclesiastes says:

…There is a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance…

Sadness is a painful feeling. But it is also the only proper response to loss and injustice. If you truly love someone, can you simply just move on and smile after they die? Mourning is an ethical requirement, and a life without sadness is a fraud.

Real lives have pain and sadness and loss.

The superficial way of handling loss seeks to make pain bearable by burying it under a smile.

The proper way of handling loss seeks to make the pain meaningful by cherishing memories and mourning properly.

And all the quick fixes and plastic smiles in the world cannot compare to the proud soul of an authentic mourner.

Friday, May 25, 2007


As you know from previous posts, Darfur matters a lot to me. (see previous posts like 1, 2, 3,

Here's something from the latest Canadian Jewish News. I guess at least I can say I protested while this terrible crime was taking place. What can the U.N. say for itself?

We need to do something now.

Harper needs to do something at the G-8.

Friday, May 18, 2007

No One is Going to Hand You a Crown

We’re raised like princes, but we don’t know how to become kings.

Kids get what they want. In a comfortable society like ours, we are indulged as children and treated like little princes and princesses.

We are raised as princes, with life expected to bring a steady stream of entitlements. Go to school, get your degree, yada yada yada, and there’s a white picket fence and suburban bliss waiting for you. And princes like us expect to automatically become the king.

But that’s wrong. No one is going to hand you a crown. Birthright doesn’t determine who is a true king.

Even people who are lucky enough to be handed the keys to the kingdom fail. Plenty of people inherit wealth, fame and beauty, and still fail miserably. The old proverb “from shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations” is all too often true. Plenty of princes are handed crowns, but fail because they have no idea what it takes to be a king.

So, what does it take to be a king?


Chutzpah gets a bad rap; it’s now simply another word for “impolite” or “obnoxious”. In actuality, chutzpah is the secret to becoming a king.

The Talmud says “chutzpah is a king without the crown” (Sanhedrin 105a). There are multitudes of people who never discover their inner king. They wait in vain for others to recognize their abilities. They sit quietly hoping that someone will just hand them a crown.

The Talmud is telling wallflowers to stand up and take charge. Chutzpah means never accepting limitations. Don’t politely accept mediocrity as your lot in life. If you want to be a king, grab hold of your destiny.

Rebecca and Stuart Klein have a great deal of chutzpah, and they have refused to follow conventional wisdom on how to live their lives. Both are disabled (he's quadriplegic, she's paraplegic), and yet they are married and the parents of bouncing baby twin boys.

Of course, conventional wisdom finds this act of chutzpah intolerable. As noted in an article in the LA Times, some people who meet the Kleins can’t resist saying:

"you're going to have your hands full," or "it's going to get really hard when they're older" - comments that perplex Stuart.

"Why say how hard it's going to be?" Stuart says. "What's the point? If they say it in a certain way, and then say, 'OK, we'll come over and help you out,' that's one thing, but otherwise, what are they suggesting?" Then he adds a characteristic joke, "Should we put them up on EBay now or wait till they're older?"

But the Kleins are kings. They have the gift of chutzpah. It doesn’t matter how hard things are, or what other people think. The Kleins have grabbed hold of their own destiny.

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation”, Thoreau famously wrote. Perhaps the mass of men, but not kings. True kings have chutzpah, and don’t wait for others to hand them a crown.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

When Big Fat Weddings Get in the Way

The wedding business is big business. According to CNN:

"A total of $125 billion -- about the size of Ireland's GDP -- will be spent on 2.1 million weddings in 2005, according to the "American Weddings" study conducted by The Fairchild Bridal Group. Fairchild surveyed more than 1,000 brides."

(O.K., so you’re not so good at math; how much is that per person?)

"The average price tag that is fast approaching $30,000 represents a 73 percent increase during the past 15 years, according the study."

30,000$ is a lot of money. Some people simply don’t want a big fat wedding. Mary Beth Baptiste did her best to bring down the national average in her backwoods wedding:

"We snow shoed a short distance into the trees and found a pine alcove for our chapel. Our Unitarian-Universalist minister read some inspirational passages we had chosen, we exchanged our own vows and we kissed. Two friends photographed the ceremony with a digital camera and surprised us by popping open a bottle of champagne they'd carried into the woods in a backpack……..

The final rundown: Marriage license: $25. Dinner for five: $60. Minister's snowshoe rental: $15. Flowers: $25. Champagne: $10. Cake: $15. Online photo album: free. Total: $150."

Now, when it comes to material goods, I’m no fundamentalist. I don’t believe that wealth and luxury are the root of all evil. (That idea is found in the sacred book of another religion). But as a guy who eats more than his share of wedding dinners, I can tell you that bigger is not always better.

Big fat weddings can get in the way of love.

The Bible will back me up on this. Isaac and Rebecca have a shoestring wedding. Rebecca is brought by Isaac’s servant to Isaac’s hometown, and meets him in the field:

Now Isaac …went out to the field one evening to meditate, and as he looked up, he saw camels approaching. Rebecca also looked up and saw Isaac. She got down from her camel and asked the servant, "Who is that man in the field coming to meet us?"

"He is my master," the servant answered. So she took her veil and covered herself.

Then the servant told Isaac all he had done. Isaac brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he married Rebecca. So she became his wife, and he loved her….

Two strangers dramatically meet and find true love. A simple wedding in the field is a shoestring wedding that turns out really well.

But Rebecca and Isaac’s son is not as lucky in love. Jacob arranges to marry Rachel, and Laban, his future father in law, throws a big wedding. Then there's trouble:

So Laban brought together all the people of the place and gave a feast. But when evening came, he took his daughter Leah and gave her to Jacob…

How does Jacob lose track of his bride and end up with the wrong one? It’s hard to know, but if I had to guess, the size of the wedding might have had something to do with it. Big fat weddings have a tendency to get confusing.

I’ll admit that big fat weddings can be wonderful (I got married at one). But when the big fat wedding is all about pageantry and theatre, then the couple is reduced to being a mere prop in a large stage show.

Weddings require drama, not theatre. The couple’s love, commitment and devotion makes for an enchanting drama. Weddings small and large should celebrate the drama of love.

Unfortunately the drama of love can get buried under an obsession with impressing the guests. When this happens, the big fat wedding becomes off-Broadway theatre.

And then, the big fat wedding just gets in the way.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Refusing to Quit: Denial at its Best

I’ve been harsh on denial, in this blog, and from the pulpit.

Now I'm not changing my mind. Denial is a destructive force. Health problems, financial problems, and relationship problems don’t go away when you close your eyes. Denying problems only compounds them. Denial, at its worst, is the coward’s justification for inaction.

But denial is not all bad; it also serves an important function. Elizabeth Kubler Ross famously noted that denial is one of the initial stages in the cycle of grief. Denial is a healthy reaction to the shock of tragic news. It’s a coping mechanism that keeps us from choking on too much pain.

This type of denial calms people at difficult times. Mourners tell me that they feel detached from reality at funerals, as if they are watching themselves on a television screen. It is simply too painful for them to fully absorb their personal loss.

But denial, at its best, gives us the courage to be optimistic.

The Talmud (Ketubot 104a) relates a fascinating story about denial:

“On the day when Rabbi died the Rabbis decreed ……that whoever said that Rabbi was dead would be stabbed with a sword.”

Rabbi, (Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi) the most prominent Rabbi of his time, is about to die. People always love to speculate about the impending death of a celebrity. But hearing people cavalierly gossip about the imminent death of their beloved teacher is too much for the Rabbis. They don’t want him declared dead before his time.

The Rabbis are not just lashing out emotionally. They are also teaching us an important lesson about optimism. It is wrong to quit early.

It’s easy to give up on life. A distraught family wonders whether a futile fight will only prolong suffering. Doctors wonder whether they should pull out all the stops, when there might be other patients who are more deserving of scarce resources.

Here, optimistic denial is critical. Sometimes, you can give up too quickly. In a matter of life and death, you have to hang on to hope, even to a long shot. As the Talmud says, “even if a sharp sword is sitting on your neck, don’t stop praying” (Berachot 10a).

Yes, most people who are on their deathbed end up dying. But there are times when the long shots do make it. I personally have seen people rise from their deathbed. And years later I see them on the street, and thank God for giving them the blessing of optimistic denial.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Our Mothers Lied to Us: Why Unhappiness Makes Sense

It begins when we’re children. We wake up in the middle of the night, screaming, “Mommy, Mommy, I had a scary dream”. Our mothers hugs us, calm us down, and tell us “don’t worry, everything will be alright”. Comforted by these words, we go back to sleep. And long after this childhood nightmare, we cling to the faith that life has only happy endings, that “everything will be alright”.

But our mothers lied to us. When tragedy strikes, we’re shocked to find out how vulnerable we really are.

This discovery hits us in our 30's. One day, Naomi, a young woman in her early 30's, arrived in my office in tears. She was distraught over the death of her friend Donna, and couldn’t sleep at night. Naomi couldn’t understand how it was possible that someone so nice, so young, and so vital could just die suddenly. After speaking for a few minutes, we both understood that Naomi wasn’t grieving because she had lost a good friend; in fact, she wasn’t that close to Donna. What upset her was how Donna died; she had an allergic reaction to a bee sting, and died on her front lawn. Naomi couldn’t understand how such an absurd death could happen to a young, healthy, good person just like her.

When Donna died, Naomi’s world came tumbling down. She assumed that life always follows the traditional suburban, middle class narrative, with a loving spouse, a nice cozy home, a minivan and smiling, happy children. Now that Donna, a nice, thirty-something mother with three small children had died, Naomi realized the story doesn’t always have a happy ending. And she came to my office searching for her lost sense of security.

Naomi is like the rest of us; she believed her mother, and assumed “everything will be alright”.

Unfortunately, when Donna died, she realized it’s not such a wonderful life after all. And now she was insecure and unhappy.

Yet feeling miserable and insecure is the first step on the road to happiness. If “everything is going to be alright” then we might as well sit back wait for happiness. But that’s not the reality of life. Happiness is never served on a silver platter.

One of the most difficult theological problems is theodicy, or why bad things happen to good people. Rabbis through the ages were desperate to answer this question and defend God’s glory. Yet they refused. Rabbi Yannai said:

"Neither the security of the wicked nor the suffering of the righteous are within the grasp of our understanding."

This Mishna is bizarre. At first glance all R. Yannai is doing is teaching us that he’s ignorant and out of answers. Telling others about your ignorance is not usually something you would call “teaching”.

Yet R. Yannai actually has a profound lesson. He's not merely saying he doesn't have an answer; he's saying we can never discover the answer. R. Yannai is exposing us to a fundamental truth: life is unfair. Unhappiness makes sense.

But R. Yannai's lesson doesn’t end there. He wants us to learn how to respond to an unfair life. If we realize that even God will not guarantee us worldly happiness, then we have to do the job ourselves. We have to fight for happiness in an unjust world.

And we have to become Happiness Warriors.

Monday, May 07, 2007


We all want power.

We want muscle power.

We want political power.

We want financial power.

Power brings glory and prestige. Who doesn't want to be strong, rich and famous?

Unfortunately, we forget the most fundamental form of power: the power of values and spirit.


Shimon Ben Zoma, a second century scholar, taught the importance of soulpower. He said: “Who is strong? One who captures his desires.”

This statement is counterintuitive. Power is most intense when unrestrained, without limits. Self denial seems wimpy, the act of a holy loser who refuses to take “advantage” of life. Why capture your desires when you can conquer all your heart desires?

Yet Ben Zoma is right. Power is paradoxical. Without soulpower, any achievement remains empty. The billionaire with inner demons is a miserable man with a lot of money. We need to conquer our hearts before we conquer anything else.

And sometimes, we need to defeat ourselves. Without self control, power disappears. "The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong", because battles and races are ultimately won with soulpower. The the undisciplined athlete will underperform; the disorganized army will falter on the battlefield. Soulpower is a prerequisite to genuine power.

Some of the most amazing examples of soulpower are those who choose life in the face of murder.

The murder of a loved one is an invitation to anger. And anger is the easy choice. Releasing anger seems cathartic, and considering the circumstances, anger seems justified.

Remarkably, there are people who refuse to be swallowed by tragedy. As Evelyn Gordon notes in the Jerusalem Post, some take the courageous route and transform death into life. She writes:

“After 13-year-old Koby Mandell was bludgeoned to death by terrorists in 2001, for instance, his parents decided to set up a foundation to help other victims of terror. Today, the Koby Mandell Foundation runs a variety of programs, including a summer camp for the siblings of terror victims, who are often traumatized by their brother's or sister's murder, and a big brother/big sister program in which specially trained counselors work with these traumatized youngsters on an ongoing basis.

After 15-year-old
Malki Roth was murdered in a suicide bombing in Jerusalem that same year, her parents established a foundation to help families care for special-needs children at home. The Malki Foundation provides free long-term loans of equipment and helps finance therapy. It was inspired by Malki's devotion to her own severely disabled sister.”

By conquering their hearts, Koby and Malki’s families have refused to allow death to rule over their lives. And in the process, they are improving the lives of the weak and vulnerable.

Koby and Malki’s families understand Ben Zoma’s teaching.

They understand the meaning of soulpower.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

I Give, Therefore I Am

Why would anyone give money to charity?

Charity is weird because people are naturally selfish. People daydream about new houses, new cars and new jewelry, not about old people in soup kitchens. Humans are instinctively egocentric.

Yet, oddly enough, people give charity. Sometimes it’s out of guilt. Sometimes it’s to receive recognition and honor. (Although it’s a lot cheaper to hire a psychologist, or put your name on an office building). But most of the time people donate out of idealistic motives.

We give because we love. Humanity is one big family, and it’s instinctive to love your family. A few weeks ago I visited a foster home in Beersheva for teens from troubled backgrounds. Immediately, feelings of compassion and love stirred in my heart, as if these kids were long lost relatives .

Love dilutes our instinctive greediness, and motivates us to share with others what is rightfully, and selfishly, ours.

But love is only part of the charity story. Giving charity also transforms us into true human beings.

Man is created in the image of God. This biblical idea reminds us that to be truly human, one must emulate God. The Talmud sees this as requiring us to imitate God’s compassion.

However, the image of God carries a much larger burden. We are also expected to emulate God the creator and become partners in creation. Tikkun Olam, perfecting the world, is now our responsibility. As Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik puts it:

“WHEN man, the crowning glory of the cosmos, approaches the world, he finds his task at hand—the task of crea­tion. He must…. repair the defects in the cosmos, and replenish the "privation" in being. Man, the creature, is commanded to become a partner with the Creator in the renewal of the cosmos….”

Man by his very nature, is driven to emulate God’s creation by fixing the world. Giving charity is an existential need.

Or, to put it in other words: I give, therefore I am.

Because it focuses on Tikkun Olam, existential charity does not stop at the recipient. World fixers want to inspire others to join in their mission.

My friend Peter was a refugee who fled Hungary in 1957. Peter had recieved a visa to go to Vancouver. However, when the train from Quebec City stopped in Montreal, he and two friends decided to jump off the train. Frightened they might get caught by police, they hid in a broom closet.

Late at night they ventured back into the station, and a volunteer from Jewish Immigrant Aid Services was waiting on the platform. He had seen the boys jump off the train, but couldn’t find them. So he waited at the train station, to make sure they had a place to live, a sponsor, and some pocket money.

A few years later, Peter tracked down the name of the volunteer, and went to visit his small walk up apartment. There he met the man’s widow; the volunteer had died a short time before.

Peter wanted to give this woman of modest means some sort of a gift; he insisted it was simply to honor her husband. To this, the woman replied: “You want to honor my husband? Then do as he did”.

From that day onwards, Peter has devoted himself to community work. What Peter does today was inspired years ago by that selfless volunteer, one of God’s partners in creation.

And like his anonymous benefactor, Peter can say: “I give, therefore I am”.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

The Difference Between Home Movies and Home Cooking

Technology is so wonderful, it manages to mess everything up.

The camera allows us to perfectly record events. My wedding of fifteen years ago is on videotape, ready to be relived at a moments notice. My eleven year old twins are still celluloid toddlers, swaddled in diapers and playing on the floor. I have photo records of all sorts of trips and events, including some that I can no longer remember. My life has been preserved in megabytes and videotape.

But all of this photography can be too much of a good thing. People can become so absorbed in taking pictures and movies that they simply forget to experience life itself. Perhaps the photographic class could gain something by occasionally putting their cameras down.

Dana Chidekel, “a memory-card-carrying member” of photographic class, tells about the time she forgot to bring her video camera to her daughter’s recital:

She sang in a high, clear soprano voice that stunned me. I don't recall taking a breath….. At the conclusion, I was crying……… I could have kicked myself for not bringing the video camera, but…not filming was what allowed me to have the unadulterated joy of this experience. Freed from the demand to document what was happening, I could live it.

In the end, home movies are two dimensional. The Zohar says, “God desires the heart”. This is true not only of our relationship with God, but of any interpersonal experience. Real experiences enter the heart; ultimately, memories of our feelings matter more than images or sounds. While a movie may be a slice of life, standing behind the camera can cut you off from reality.

Movies focus on the outwardly dramatic, the moments of intense action. Unlike movies, real life includes trivial, dull moments that matter a great deal.

Some critics get annoyed when I mention food at funerals. “What difference does it make”, they tell me, “if she made good blintzes and honey cake and chicken soup?”. “After all, it’s a funeral, not a dinner!”. I understand the sentiment. Talking about Bubbie’s Friday night menu trivializes the real depths of her love.

But home cooking is one of those trivial things that are so important. Home cooking is not about recipes or menus; it’s about love. Each bite is a symbol of how Bubbie poured her heart into nourishing, caring for, and loving her family.

And this is love you can taste and remember. Elvira Brody tells about returning from her mother’s funeral, and finding some of her mother Nettie’s Easter pizzas in the freezer:

We opened the freezer and looked in, and there they were. My mother's pies. …My husband and I looked at each other in surprise, saying nothing. Then we took out the pies from the icy mist and put each in a plastic bag.

……That Sunday night, gathered with our 15-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter at our dining-room table, I brought in one of the pies, now steaming hot and emitting a savory aroma. I sliced a wedge for each of us, and we ate, scraping our plates for crumbs.
I'd eaten my mother's pies every spring my whole life, and they always tasted good. But now, flavored with grief, the pie somehow tasted better than it ever had. With each bite I recalled with fresh clarity everything Nettie had meant to me over the years, had meant to all of us. How she had raised me without a husband around, all the while toiling as a seamstress, and especially how she had lavished love and attention on her adoring grandchildren.

I'd never in my life felt so grateful to anyone. Through the pies she had expressed her love for family and friends, nourishing body and soul.

In each of those pies was Nettie’s love. In every spoon of chicken soup is an ounce of affection.

The difference between home cooking and home movies is in the heart. A photograph may capture the moment, but a pizza can capture someone’s heart.

And all that matters is the heart.