Dear B’nai Shalom members, friends, and families:

When we completed the Fast of Esther just before Purim, we found ourselves in the longest stretch on the Jewish calendar until the NEXT fast day: Shiva Asar B’Tammuz, the 17th day of Tammuz, four months away.

This is the longest period of time between fast days as the six Jewish public fast days are distributed throughout the calendar.

In some ways it is ironic that this is that “longest period of time” between fasts because included in this particular section of the Jewish calendar is Sefirat HaOmer, the Counting of the Omer, itself a period of great sadness and tragedy. In addition, this part of the calendar leads up to the “Three Weeks,” the three week period which connects the fast days of Shiva Asar B’Tammuz and Tisha Bav, bookending the single most catastrophic and heartbreaking time on the entire Jewish calendar.

With all this said, one might come to the conclusion that inherent in being a Jew and identifying strongly with one’s Jewish character must include a vast, powerful sense of disaster, sadness, and misfortune.

There is no doubt when reviewing our long and often painful history that much of it IS filled with an ongoing repetition of persecution, discrimination, rejection, and expulsion. There is no way to camouflage this intense recurring part of our people’s past.

Yet, in spite of such foreboding earlier times, we are directed, even commanded to live our lives with an upbeat, hopeful, cheerful disposition, focusing on the positive and working hard to bring and experience happiness as much as possible.

We are told in Psalm 100: “Ivdu et Hashem b’simcha” — “Serve G-d with joyfulness.” One might ask, with our dark and often painful history, “Is this realistic? Can this be done?” “Is this not asking too much of us?”

The answer to each of these questions is a resounding: “NO.” This is NOT what we are being asked to do and what is expected of us.

It might be helpful to refer to the ongoing topic of discussion raised often by radio talk show host and author Dennis Prager that “happiness is something we choose.” Prager, who, without fail, dedicates one hour of his weekly 10 hours of talk show broadcasting to the “Happiness Hour,” is adamant that our level of happiness depends on how hard we try to attain that level of cheerfulness.

Prager has authored an entire book on the subject: “Happiness Is A Serious Problem” and adheres to the strong premise that was verbalized by our sixteenth president, Abe Lincoln, when Lincoln wisely and insightfully asserted famously that: “Most folks are just about as happy as they permit themselves to be.”

Lincoln, who suffered tremendous tragedies in his life, losing three of his four sons as young children, having to deal with a wife who was recognized as a depressive, himself, dealing most of his life with OWN depression, and not having a single day of peace or tranquility during his presidency due to the ongoing Civil War – Lincoln, in SPITE of all that, made the cogent observation that we truly CHOOSE how happy we are going to be, OR NOT.

Jewish life is filled with challenges and many tests of our faithfulness and resolve. Even now, with the ongoing war in Israel against authentic malice and barbaric evil, we could easily succumb to the depths of despair and defeat, allowing the daily deflating news from around the world and from our own United States to overwhelm and overcome us.

But we are taught that we must persevere and work hard against the forces of evil and hopelessness. Hashem teaches us that we must take stock of ourselves and do a daily inventory of all the things about which we are most happy; those things that bring us joy and pleasure; the parts of our life that delight us and raise us to a level of exhilaration and cheerfulness.

I recently heard of a young girl, happily married with one child whose life has been filled with many points of anguish and sorrow. She shared with others that, in spite of her life’s story of many episodes of grief and bereavement, she takes the time every day, in the morning when she first starts out, to literally list ten things that bring her joy and raise her level of gratification to an enhanced status. What an undertaking! What a hero!

We as Jews have the choice of living our lives miserably, focusing on the constant harassment and oppression of our people in every generation and currently for us around the world, or to emulate the example of this young girl who, in spite of being “dealt a bad hand”, has chosen to concentrate on all that is good in her life and to try to conduct her life each day with a profound sense of goodness, gladness, and hopefulness.

It seems to me that a wonderful way of navigating our daily lives would be to adopt an exercise of working hard to never leave another person without making that person’s life better or making that person happier. In doing so, we will simultaneously be adding to our own collection of experiences that we can, and should put in the positive column.

Wishing you all goodness, happiness, and many reasons about which to celebrate,
Rabbi Dr. Yaacov Dvorin