Saturday, March 22, 2014

Parashat Shemini: Are you happy?

One of my favorite quotes from Oscar Wilde that I just discovered is that “There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.”

I’ve been dwelling on this quote a lot lately, especially since signing my new contract (oh, yeah. I signed a new contract. No big deal). What does it mean to get what one wants? What is it do we really want in life? What are our ambitions, and are they external—that is, what we’ve been told to want—or do they come from a deeper place, a place rooted in our identity, in who we really are?

Since I’ve gotten here nearly five years ago I’ve been asked over and over again “are you happy here?”, and I’ve always chafed at that question. Someone asked me that the other day at Brew Ha Ha and I found myself get profoundly uncomfortable. Part of it is my New England upbringing—‘happiness’ seems so ephemeral, so superficial somehow. It just feels like the wrong question, but up until recently, I couldn’t quite put my finger on why. This week, studying with some colleagues, I think I figured it out. I don’t want to be asked if I’m happy—sometimes I am, sometimes I’m not. I want to be asked if I’m appreciative. Do I appreciate where I am—this community, this congregation, the people around me? Do I appreciate and value the people who strive to make this place whole?  Do I feel like I have the opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives, to make connections that are meaningful? Is this place my place, and can I see it as a good place? The answer to those questions is yes. But those are different questions, questions rooted, I hope, in a deeper place of my neshamah, what that speaks to not getting what I want or not getting what I want, but being where I’m supposed to be.

Is that happiness per se? No, but it allows for moments of happiness that may be rooted more deeply than in superficial goals or aspirations, ones that don’t leave us satisfied, but feeling like Oscar Wilde’s tragic character—either unrealized, or found wanting.

This week Aaron and his sons are ordained as kohanim, and Aaron blesses the people of Israel. It is a profound and joyful moment, scarred when Nadav and Avihu, Aaron’s sons, bring alien fire forward, and are consumed themselves in fire, dying in an instant. What is the strange fire, the eish zarah? We’re never told. Some scholars suggest they were drunk, or weren’t wearing the right ritual garb. One suggests that they were arrogant. But I would suggest another possibility. That their death is a metaphor for our own pursuit of happiness, our own vain pursuit of what we’re told to want. Rather than appreciating their position and their role, the expectations of the community and the rituals they were to practice, they were blinded by ambition, blinded by haughtiness. They performed their ritual superficially, rather giving of themselves wholly and completely. They chose not to be fully present, and as a result, suffered.

So it is with us. We spend so much of our time burning strange fires within ourselves, fed by other people’s expectations: of wealth, beauty, physical prowess, how our relationships should be, our homes should look, how our jobs should be, how our families should look. We hold on to a fantasy rather than being fully present. We don’t appreciate what we have, or who we are.

So, are you happy? Do you have what you want? Or is those the wrong questions? I think they are. Are we appreciative? Are our lives, imperfect and immeasurable, filled with blessings? Do we have opportunities to live out those blessings? I hope the answer is yes. The Dalai Llama once said: There are only two days in the year that nothing can be done. One is called yesterday and the other is called tomorrow, so today is the right day to love, believe, do and mostly live. Teach us, O God, to see every day you give us as a chance to appreciate who we are, to embrace our place and our community, to live fully in it and our own lives, and to free ourselves of the strange fire of want. Amen

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