I had a hard year. A really hard year. My mother got a headache that turned out to be brain cancer. I got pregnant with my fourth child. Terrific news -- except it turned out to be a very difficult pregnancy that led to an even more difficult delivery and first few weeks. My three other children all started new schools and the transition was not exactly smooth. Then all six of us got the swine flu. With hormones and life raging, I felt truly depressed.
I am not a depressed person. I am a happy person. The person everyone always counts on to cheer them up. I was a natural cheerleader. I go to bed happy and I wake up happy. And then one day I didn't.
I thought it would pass. But with each day, I started feel less and less happy. As the holidays got closer, I started to feel panicky. We all know that during the holidays we are supposed to be happy. From the moment we get around the table and acknowledge how thankful we are at Thanksgiving to New Years Day, we are supposed to be smiling. At this time of year, it seems we are obligated to be happy.
As if I do not have enough pressure this year, I now have to be happy! I do not think I am alone. Even under the best of circumstances the holidays are hard. Relationships are complicated. Kosher turkeys are always dry. Being happy on top everything seemed impossible. I needed to figure out how to get happy and quickly. As a rabbi maybe the fastest way was to find the secret formula for happiness within Judaism.
The tradition asks, "Who is rich?" The answer -- "One who is happy with his lot." How annoying - because I am not happy with this lot so now I find out I am poor too! Then I come across a famous story from the Talmud. A rabbi asks Elijah the prophet who will merit going to the world to come. Elijah tells him those two jesters in the marketplace who cheer people up when they are depressed and who work hard to make peace between quarreling people are the ones destined to "heaven." So now in this unhappy state I am sad here but also screwing up my chances in the next world too.
My research ends up sounding like the Peanuts classic, Happiness is… a beautiful bed, hard labor, being a comedian, resisting evil… to name a few. These were not the answers I was looking for. Maybe I needed to go to the Highest Authority. I expect me to be happy, everyone else expects me to be happy, but does God expect me to be happy?
I don't think so. I think God knows that our life experiences do not always make us happy. It is impossible for anyone to be happy 24/7. It is especially hard to schedule happiness. Just because it's December and the halls are decked, does not mean that all is well. God is not thinking about my happiness. Rather, God is thinking about my sadness. God is trying to hold my hand. God is trying to comfort me and share in my grief. God is focused on letting me know that He is here for me and will not abandon me even in the most difficult times. God wants me to know, in this holiday season, that he is present for me – even when I don't feel it.
With all the merriment, I forgot the essence of the holidays – the music, the food, the services, the festivities – is not to make a bad situation better, pretend it didn't happen or fake our way through. The point is to remember that regardless of what happens in our lives during the year, we are not alone; God is with us.
I will be sad this holiday season. This year's blessings didn't come wrapped with the happiness ribbon. My mother is still here and I can tell her I love her face to face, but her condition worsens. I have a wonderful family, but haven't slept in months. The holidays may not be filled with cheer, but this year I will be filled with something greater. I will know that God is right beside me whether I am happy, sad or some place in between.
Rabbi Sherre Hirsch is the author of "We Plan, God Laughs: What to Do When Life Hits You Over the Head." She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and four children and is working on her second book.