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Thursday, 15 March 2012

I don’t do self-help.
And I don’t do happy.
So I certainly don’t do self-help books preaching happiness.

Unless…it’s assigned reading.

Because I’m that kind of student.

Prior to the start of the Year-in-Israel program, I received a copy of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion: A centennial history : 1875-1975 by Dr. Michael A. Mayer. With clear instructions to complete it in advance of the opening colloquium.

My first assignment for rabbinical school, I thought, excitedly. And completed it within days.

I genuinely loved the book. The subject matter was something of interest. The writing style was clear and inviting. But neither the subject matter nor the writing style provided the compelling motivation. The mere fact that it was assigned reading was enough of a reason to start and finish the book.

For exactly one month (and I mean to the very day), I have picked up, and then put back down, a book in an annoyingly-bright yellow jacket: Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment. Written by Tal Ben-Shahar. I mean, is that even the guy’s real name? Dew, Son of [the] Dawn. Really?

With just under six weeks remaining before the next, and final, Rabbis Without Borders symposium, I am starting to wonder what is wrong with me. Why can’t I get into this book? Is it a reflection on me? Does it mean something that I am unable to read a book about happiness? Does it mean something that I am wondering if it means something?

Maybe, with a cross-country move, major career transition, parenting a special needs child, maybe I’m not in a happy place?

Or is it possible that the book is just dreck?

And then something quite remarkable happened today. I turned to a colleague…a mentor, really…and asked her these questions. She turned the questions around and pushed me to confront them. To think about them. She offered an alternate title as a way for me to arrive at the desired place as the other participants via a different route. And she shared with me the goals of the assignment. Most of all, she listened. Really listened to my questions. And the questions behind the questions. So that when I picked up the book again this evening, I was able to look past my misgivings and seek wisdom from its pages.

I am now fifty-seven pages into it which, according to, is 30% of the book. I still don’t like it. But now I know why. And it turns out, that doesn’t really matter when it comes to assigned reading.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Thursday, 15 March 2012 10:28 pm

    Some books just suck. Find the things that suck the most and write them down. All of them. This gets to be the book you refer to and disagree with in all your future sermons! 😉

  2. Mollie Cantor permalink
    Friday, 6 April 2012 11:08 am

    Hello Rabbi, This is actually the first blog post i’ve responded to. I know its an old post, but I have to say that I had a very similar response to positive psychology as you. During Yom Kippur, Rabbi Stein (Shaaray T’filla NYC) gave a sermon that centered on the idea that our lives could be better if we could just be more grateful. Gratitude is the key to positive psych. Basically I left the santuary weeping. I was neither grateful, joyful or happy. Rather, I was angry and depressed. I was in the middle of a severe depression, while I was caring for my three lovely but complicated children, a full time job and a recently departed mother in law left very little happiness in me.

    Yom Kippur to passover is a little like good friday to easter. I have been redeemed. Better medications, therapy and time have all contributed to my feeling more positive. Positive psychology is a wellness model. One who is in crisis can not access the wherewithall needed to make the model work for them. Tonight we all witll celebrate the end of our slavery and welcome the challenges of freedom. I hope you are able to find the things that can make help bring meaning and joy to your life. I personally love the psalms.

    Hag Samach,

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