Rabbi Allison RH Conyer
Etz Chayim Progressive Synagogue
Erev Rosh Hashanah 5780
The Grass is Always Greener
If you could be anywhere in the world right now, where would you be?...
Many of us live in a world of “if only” or “what if,” wondering what could have been if onlywe had made different choices. If onlywe had studied when we were young? If onlywe left our job or partner earlier? If onlywe spent more time with the children? If onlywe made the opportunity to travel more? If onlywe went to shul more often…anyone? If onlyI were young again? If only I were older?
Or, what ifwe were rich, or had a partner, or a different partner, or our parents were there for us the way we wanted them to be? What ifI had my dream job or dream home? What if I didn’t have to work? What ifwe didn’t have to worry about anyone else but ourselves? What ifwe didn’t have all the health problems weighing us down?
Our world of “if onlys” and “what ifs” is so easy to slip into. You know what they say? The grass is always greener on the other side.
The Mishna tells us: “Who is rich? One who is satisfied with their lot…”(Pirkei Avot 4:1). When we constantly look at the alternatives, our if onlysand what ifs, the way things could have gone, we feel something wanting. Our cup will always be more empty than full if we focus on what we don’t have or what is lacking.
If you think about it, the difference between feeling a sense of fulfillment or a sense of disappointment is simply perspective. And our perspective is shaped by our thinking and that on which we choose to focus. Author Alan Kay wrote: “A change in perspective is worth 80 IQ points.” A change in perspective helps us grow our mind and fill our heart.
So, consider what really satisfies us. Is it money? Stuff? Our job? Our retirement? Opportunities? Family? Friends?
If we dig deeper, it is…actually… none of these things; rather, it is our experience of all of the above.
In reality, our ability to acknowledge and be satisfied with what we have leads to feelings of gratitude. In the Torah, Moses instructs the people:
וְאָכַלְתָּ֖ וְשָׂבָ֑עְתָּ וּבֵֽרַכְתָּ֙ אֶת־יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ עַל־הָאָ֥רֶץ הַטֹּבָ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר נָֽתַן־לָֽךְ
“When you have eaten your fill, and are satisfied, give thanks to Adonai, your G-d, for the good land which G-d has given you.”
- Deut. 8:10
In other words, take from life what we can, satiate ourselves from what we have, and take time to express our gratitude. Make time to focus on what we have, rather than what we’re missing or what we want.
Martin Seligman, a good Jewish boy, who also happens to be the founder of the Positive Psychology movement in the late 1990’s, spoke about “the pursuit of gratification.” He said that “[t]he key characteristic of gratification is that it engages us fully. It absorbs us… Individuals may find gratification in participating in a great conversation, fixing a bike, reading a good book, teaching a child, playing the guitar or accomplishing a difficult task at work. We can take shortcuts to pleasures (e.g. eating ice cream…[or] having a massage…), but no shortcuts exist to gratification. We must involve ourselves fully, and the pursuit of gratifications requires us to draw on character strengths such as creativity, social intelligence, sense of humour, perseverance, and an appreciation of beauty and excellence…” (Seligman, Parks, & Steen, 2004)
Make time to appreciate our strengths, rather than what we could do better. Work towards those strengths, and we’ll be amazed how much more fulfilled we feel. If we engage in activities, in our work, volunteering, or leisure time, that tap into what we do well, we will feel a sense of accomplishment and positive contribution, leading us to a sense of gratitude. And a sense of gratitude leads us to a feeling of contentment and joy.
But what happens to those of us who are in abusive situations, or are afflicted with a chronic illness? Where’s the positive in that? Where to find the gratitude for that? There isn’t. We don’t. Borrowing from another tradition: “Oh G-d, Grant to us the serenity of mind to accept that which cannot be changed; courage to change that which can be changed, and wisdom to know the one from the other.” But even in situations that we cannot change, there areother things in our lives for which we can be grateful. Acknowledging those things will give us strength when we feel shattered. For some, acknowledgement of those things might even bring us joy.
The book of Kohelet, Ecclesiastes, reminds us that joy does not come from what we acquire in our lifetime. If we only try to fill our immediate desires, we will not be sated. Kohelet said:
“… I commend rejoicing in life, because there is nothing better for a person under the sun than to eat and drink and rejoice. (8:15)…However many years anyone may live, let [them] rejoice in them all. (11:8)”
How do we do that? According to Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, the Ramchal, an 18thcentury Italian Kabbalist and philosopher, the purpose of all creation was to bring into existence a creature who could derive pleasure from G-d’s own good. In other words, humanity was created to enjoy the world. In order to enjoy the world, we must identify and focus on that which brings us joy.
Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said: “[j]oy lives not in thoughts of tomorrow, but in the grateful acceptance and celebration of today. We are here; we are alive; we are among others who share our sense of jubilation. We are living in God’s land, enjoying [G-d’s] blessing, eating the produce of [G-d’s] earth, watered by [G-d’s] rain, brought to fruition under [G-d’s] sun, breathing the air [G-d] breathed into us, living the life [G-d] renews in us each day.”
So, I ask you again, if you could be anywhere in the world right now, where would you be?
This Rosh Hashanah, I invite us all to be here…now…As we embark on an evaluation of our past to clean the slate for the year to come, I invite us all to also make the time to focus on what we have, how we’ve grown, and identify our personal strengths we bring to the world. I invite us all to get rid of the if onlys and what ifs and commit to intentional gratitude – to carving out time each day to be fully present with ourselves and focus on that which we are grateful. If we can do that, we will all have a shanah tovah u’metukah– a good, sweet new year.
Ken y’hi ratzon– May this be G-d’s will.
Seligman, M. E., Parks, A. C., & Steen, T. (2004). A balanced psychology and a full life. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B: Biological Sciences, 359(1449), 1379-1381.