Shaarei Shamayim

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I have always begun my 1st day Rosh Hashanah sermon with a joke. This year I thought I’d begin with a song—a song that has been the biggest music phenomenon of the year. People were encouraged to make their own video on YouTube dancing to it—and thousands were made. You probably remember seeing on the news that the makers of the video from Iran were arrested. For me this is a song that sets the stage for this New Year. It’s Pharrell Williams’ song called simply, “Happy.” Please turn to the back of your Rosh Hashanah bulletin and we’ll spend a minute learning the chorus and then we’ll sing the song:

It might seem crazy what I’m about to say

Sunshine she’s here, you can take a break

I’m a hot air balloon that could go to space

With the air, like I don’t care baby by the way


Because I’m happy—Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof

Because I’m happy—Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth

Because I’m happy—Clap along if you know what happiness is to you

Because I’m happy—Clap along if you feel like that's what you wanna do

It’s Rosh Hashanah, don’t bring me down

Gd forgives my sins, I’ve been lost but now I’m found

Don’t bring me down, don’t bring me down

Can’t nothing bring me down, Why?...


Shana Tova, happy New Year! Are you happy yet? Well you should be. Rosh Hashanah, the New Year is here and last year—with all its problems and headaches—is now behind us. According to Rabbi Yosef Caro (Beyt Yosef 584) who wrote the Shulchan Aruch, Rosh Hashanah is not a time to confess our sins—that’s for Yom Kippur. Rosh Hashanah—as seen in the Avinu Malkeynu prayer (ibid)—is a time to express our aspirations. It’s a time to believe in ourselves again. It’s a time to envision what our lives would be like if the desires of our hearts came to fruition. In short, now is the time to imagine ourselves being happy. And so I say to you today, open yourself up now to receive Gd’s Rosh Hashanah blessings and be happy.

I want to talk to you this 1st day of the New Year about living life happy this year. Too many people drag through their days with a sour face and little or no enthusiasm. They hardly ever smile. They never laugh anymore. They walk around like they lost their last friend. They come to shule on the holidays like they’re going to a funeral.

It’s like this man I heard about. He walked into a restaurant and walked up to a waitress and said, “Do you serve crabs here?” She said, “Sit down mister, we’ll serve anybody!” Oscar Wilde once said, “Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go.” A lady was talking to her friend and she said, “Do you ever wake up grouchy?” She said, “No, I just let him sleep!”

Gd never created us to endure life. He created us to enjoy life. [REPEAT] We’re not supposed to go around negative, discouraged, sour and grumpy. You and I are supposed to be the happy and our joy should overflow to others. You’ve been around people like this. They’re enthusiastic, happy and full of faith. When you leave them you feel better, refreshed, inspired and energized. That’s what we’re all supposed to be like.

Rebbe Nachman taught, Mitzvah g’dola lihiyot b’simcha tamid, “It is the greatest mitzvah to always be happy.” When you’re happy, others see it and it’s infectious. I know people who haven’t smiled in 6 months or haven’t laughed in 3 years. We should all have a smile on our face and a spring in our step. We should all be kind and friendly, easy-going and fun to be around.

Some of you today need to get your joy back. You’ve allowed the pressures of life to get you down. This not only robs you of the joy that belongs to you, but it robs your family and friends of the gifts that you have to give. You need to draw a line in the sand today on Rosh Hashanah and say, “That’s it. I’m not going to live another day negative, discouraged, sour or grumpy. I’m going to put a smile upon my face. I’m going to let my joy be seen.” SO REPEAT AFTER ME: I’m going to live my life happy….say it again…once more and louder!

You may say to me, “I’d be happy if I had your life, rabbi. I’d be happy if I was as good-looking as you.”…What are you laughing at? “I’d be happy if I was married to Cheryl.” No comment! Gd has given you your life to enjoy. Don’t compare your situation to someone else’s. Gd has given you everything you need to be happy. You may not be in the home you’d like to live in. You may not have the exact job you want. Maybe you’re single and you want to get married. If you’re not careful, you can allow these things to frustrate you until they make you completely miserable.

Listen carefully to this because it’s so important: If you don’t learn to be happy where you are, you’ll never get to where you want to be. [REPEAT] So be happy where you are and don’t fall into the pit of self-pity, always complaining. When you learn to be happy where you are now, you sow the seeds for Gd to take you where you want to be. It’s good to have big dreams. But we must not let our goals and dreams frustrate us to where we can’t be happy where we are now. As it says in Pirke Avot (4:1): Eyzehu ashir, hasomeyach b’chelko, “Who is rich, he who is happy with his lot.”

Too many of us think, “I can’t be happy. I don’t like my life. I don’t like the way I look, the car I drive, where I live and I don’t like the people in my life. When those things change, then I’ll be happy.” No, Gd never intended for us to put off our happiness.

That’s why King David said (Psalm 118:24): Zeh hayom asa Hashem, nagila v’nism’cha vo, “Today is the day Gd has made, let us rejoice and be glad on it.” Today is the day to be happy—not tomorrow when the weather clears up…not next month when I make it through this difficult time. Don’t wait till you lose those 10 pounds, or till your business grows or when your child strengthens out. There will always be something to keep you from being happy. The Rosh Hashanah service will reach its crescendo today as we recite the famous Hayom prayer telling us: “Today Gd will strengthen us, today Gd will bless us.” I’m asking you today on Rosh Hashanah to get rid of the excuses and make a decision to enjoy your life right now, today—no matter what your circumstances!

I remember when my daughter Lea was a little baby. I’d go get her out of the crib in the morning. When she would hear me coming she was so excited she would start jumping up and down. She would give me such a big hug and kiss. Why was she so excited? What was the occasion? Was it her birthday? Were we going on vacation to Disney World? No, it was simply the dawning of a new day. She was excited just to be alive—just to have another day to enjoy. That’s the excitement that Gd has placed inside all of us.

The sad thing is, some people have wasted year after year being unhappy because someone is not treating them right, or because they’re not getting their way, or because their plans are not working out as fast as they would like. Gd knows I’ve had reasons in my life to be negative, discouraged, grumpy and sour, but I’ve made up my mind I’m not going to waste my days. I’m going to celebrate each day as a gift from Gd.

One of the most important things I’ve learned over the years is that happiness is a choice. When you wake up in the morning you can choose to be in a good mood or a bad mood. You can choose to live this day happy, excited, expecting Gd’s goodness, or you can choose to be irritable and sour—just trying to make it through. How you will live your life in this New Year is totally up to you. It’s not dependent upon your circumstances; it’s dependent upon your choices.

I know someone who has always taken care of himself and was in great shape, but now is going through treatment for cancer. It’s been almost a year and I’ve never once heard him complain. He’s always friendly, upbeat and enjoys life. I asked him, “How could he keep such a good attitude in such a difficult time.” He said, “When I get up in the morning I ask myself, ‘Do I want to want to be depressed today or do I want to live happy?’ and I choose to live happy!”

Some mornings we’re going to wake up and think, “Nobody better get in my way. I don’t feel like going to work. I don’t feel like cleaning the house. I don’t feel like driving in traffic. Just let me get my coffee and no one will get hurt!” If we wake up focusing on all our problems, on what we don’t have, we may not realize it but we’re choosing to have a lousy day.  


Here’s the key, when you wake up in the morning, don’t wait to see how the day turns out. Decide then and there what kind of day you’ll have. Make a declaration that, “This is going to be a great day. I know Gd is directing my steps. Something good is going to happen to me today.”   

In fact, this is how a Jew is supposed to start every day. It’s right there in the beginning of every Jewish daily prayer book—in the 1st words we’re supposed to utter every morning before we get up while still sitting on our beds: Modeh ani l’fanecha melech chai v’kayam shehechezarta bi nishmati b’chemla raba emunatecha, “Thank You, living and eternal King, for mercifully returning my soul within me. Great is Your faithfulness.” Our 1st conscious moments are spent thanking Gd for the gift of life. It doesn’t matter what we did yesterday or last night. “Great is Your faithfulness,” means that Gd is faithful to provide what we need today—so be happy about the day ahead.

My colleague, Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg once told me about a convention of neurologists where one of the main topics was orthostatic hypotension—fainting upon getting out of bed. It’s an extreme drop in blood pressure that may occur when a person stands up suddenly causing blood to pool in the legs, leaving less blood for the head. One of the speakers said it takes 12 seconds for the blood flow to adjust. A professor who is a religious Jew noted: “We Jews have a tradition which is thousands of years old…to say Modeh Ani, a prayer of thanks to Gd…when one is still on the bed, sitting down. The prayer has 12 words in it, and if you say it properly, it takes exactly 12 seconds!” So I urge you to say this prayer and wake up excited about every day.

My friends, you can have everything in the world and still be miserable. We all know people like that. Or you can have relatively little and feel unbounded joy. Happiness is a state of mind. Can I say this kindly and respectfully? If you’re unhappy it’s probably because you choose to be unhappy.

We Jews have every reason not to be happy considering our depressing history replete with slavery, exile, persecution, pogroms and anti-Semitism. And yet the Torah commands us to be happy! In the Tochecha, the section of the Torah that lists the terrible things that will befall the Jewish people if they abandon Gd’s Torah, the worst sin is (Deut. 28:47): “Because you did not serve Hashem your Gd with happiness.” And so King David (Psalm 100:2) implores us: Ivdu et Hashem b’simcha, “Serve Gd with happiness.”

What it adds up to is that happiness doesn’t just happen. Happiness is a choice, an obligation, even a command—or as Rebbe Nachman puts it—the greatest mitzvah! That’s why the Sages further tell us that the Shechina, Gd’s Holy Presence, does not rest upon those who are sad or melancholy…but only upon those who are happy. So choose to be happy!

I see too many people who allow someone else to frustrate them and they wind up giving away their joy. George Burns once said, “Happiness is having a loving, caring, close knit family…living in another state.” You may have people in your life, perhaps in your own family that are hard to get along with. They do things just to aggravate you. They know what buttons to push to frustrate you. So you have to draw that line in the sand and say, “No more! I’m not giving away my joy. I realize that today is a gift from Gd and I’m not going to waste it being unhappy because of how someone is or isn’t treating me. They don’t deserve to have that power over me.”

One of the best things I ever learned is…that I am responsible for my own happiness. It’s not up to Cheryl to make me happy…although she does—most of the time—just joking. It’s not up to my family and friends to keep me cheered up. Someone may be treating me wrong. They may not be doing what I want them to do, but that’s not an excuse for me to live a bitter life. No one can take away your happiness. No man, no woman, no obstacle, no sickness, no disappointment…nothing can take away your joy. 

I have found that most of the time we already have what we need to be happy. We just don’t have the right perspective. For example, you may not be happy at your job, but if for some reason you were to lose that job, and you went months and months without any income, and then you were able to get that same job back, most likely you would be extremely happy. You had what you need to be happy all along, you just didn’t realize it.

I know people that are perfectly healthy, but they’re never really happy. There’s always something bothering them. They want a bigger house or a better car, but if they were to lose their health and regain it, I’m sure they would be thrilled. They have what they need to be happy.

I hear people complain:

  • “Well, I’ve got to go to work today.” No the right attitude is: “I get to go to work today. I’ve got a job. I’ve got opportunities. That’s reason enough for me to have a smile on my face.”
  • Or: “I’ve got to take care of these children. All I do is cook and clean and do the laundry.” No, “I get to take care of these children. They’re a gift from Gd—a special treasure.”
  • How about this one: “Well I have to buy my wife an anniversary gift.” No, that means that Gd has blessed you with a wife. You don’t have to buy her a gift, you get to buy her a gift. And if you don’t, you will be unhappy. Because if momma’s not happy, no one’s happy!

Sometimes—I hope you’ll forgive the expression—life sucks, life is so hard. And when that happens, how can we be happy? Some think the answer is money. Joan Rivers once said: “People say that money is not the key to happiness, but I always figured if you have enough money, you can have a key made.” Gertrude Stein was more emphatic when she said: “Whoever said money can’t buy happiness didn’t know where to shop.”

It’s self-evident, however, that “Money don’t buy you happiness”—to paraphrase a popular song. Consider the life of Viktor Frankl, famous psychiatrist and founder of the Logotherapy school of psychology. He survived 4 Nazi concentration camps. Everything he had was lost—including his wife, his parents and brother. He suffered from hunger, cold and brutality—expecting every moment to be taken to the gas chambers. How could he find happiness there?

As Frankl later writes in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning: “Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself.” Frankl found meaning in helping his fellow inmates and that brought him a measure of happiness. He further writes: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way…We had to learn…that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us.”

Wow! True happiness, Frankl teaches, comes not from getting what we expect from life, but rather how we respond to what life expects from us. It doesn’t matter what life throws at us, we can and must find meaning in our circumstances—and happiness will then follow.

I have found is that while there is a real art to know how to receive and acknowledge because receiving makes you vulnerable, most people find meaning in life through giving. When the Torah (Deut. 16: 11, 14) commands us to be happy on the festivals, it always adds: “with the stranger, the orphan and the widow,” commanding us to make sure those who are in need can be happy as well. Maimonides (Hilchot Megila 2:17), in discussing the laws of providing for the poor tells us: “For the greatest joy is to bring happiness to the hearts of the poor, the orphans, the widows and the strangers.”

And here Judaism parts company with most who talk about happiness. For most, the goal in life is happiness. The Jewish approach is that the goal of life is not happiness, but goodness. The consequence of doing good is happiness. That’s why the Rosh Hashanah greeting is Shana Tova, “Have a good year,” and not, “Happy New Year.” It’s because happiness comes from choosing goodness. 

So how do we find happiness? 1st of all, choose to appreciate the gifts you already have and find the good in them. Next, choose goodness and not selfishness in what you do. And then take a more active role to choose to change yourself—to display your better self. On Rosh Hashanah we call it doing teshuva. 

The gift of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur as the time to do teshuva, repentance, teaches us that no matter how we’ve messed up, no matter the stains our souls have accumulated, no matter how distant from Gd or family and friends we’ve become, we still can repair our souls and our relationships. Gd gave us the gift of teshuva on these days so that we could restore joy and happiness to our lives.

For our relationship with Gd, teshuva is a matter of recognizing that it’s not Gd that has abandoned us, we’ve distanced ourselves from Him. We know what we need to do to get closer to Gd—whether it’s coming to shule more often, being more careful in what we eat, taking that Torah class, volunteering at a hospital or just setting aside 15 minutes of alone time every day to just pray and pour out your heart to Gd. 

For our relationship with others, teshuva is a matter of telling the ones we love how important it is to us that they are in our lives and then apologize for not showing more appreciation and for any wrong we may have done them. Then think of 2 or 3 concrete things you can do that will make your loved ones feel loved and appreciated and do them now before Yom Kippur! 

And finally, living in a state of happiness comes with the realization that you are never alone—that Gd is always with you. As it says in the end of the Adon Olam prayer, Hashem li v’lo ira, “Gd is with me, I will not fear.” So when you get up in the morning…sit on the side of your bed and recite the Modeh Ani, or just close your eyes for 12 seconds while you thank Gd for the miracle of another day and feel Gd’s presence. Know that no matter what happens to you that day, Gd has your back and He’s always watching over you!

So, stop waiting until you finish school, until you go back to school, until you lose ten pounds, until you gain ten pounds, until you have kids, until your kids leave the house, until you start work, until you retire, until you get married, until you get divorced, until Friday night, until Sunday morning, until you get a new car or home, until your car or home is paid off, until spring, until summer, until fall, until winter, until the 1st or 15th, until your song comes on, until you’ve had a drink, until you’ve sobered up or until you die…to decide to get rid of all the excuses and realize that there’s no better time than right now to be feel the wonder and excitement of your life...Why? (Sing)


Because I’m happy—Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof

Because I’m happy—Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth

Because I’m happy—Clap along if you know what happiness is to you

Because I’m happy—Clap along if you feel like that's what you wanna do

Be Happy it’s Rosh Hashanah!

                                      Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis

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