Monday, September 21, 2009

Happy New Year?

Back during my time in Yeshiva, I heard that the wife of a friend of mine had given birth to a child. As a recently married young man in kollel (read here: no money), the finances of parenthood occupied my mind. After wishing him Mazel Tov I asked him, "I heard that having kids is really expensive. Is it that bad?"
"Actually," he told me, "that's not true. The kid is free. It's the accessories that are expensive."

Apparently, we're not happy. The reason that we're not happy is because we have children. At least that what the science tells us. Maureen Dowd writes,
One area of extreme distraction is kids. “Across the happiness data, the one thing in life that will make you less happy is having children,” said Betsey Stevenson, an assistant professor at Wharton who co-wrote a paper called “The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness.” “It’s true whether you’re wealthy or poor, if you have kids late or kids early. Yet I know very few people who would tell me they wish they hadn’t had kids or who would tell me they feel their kids were the destroyer of their happiness.”
Even Newsweek is in on the secret: kids are a drag. They require work, energy and effort, and can really dampen our fun quotient. We're just not happy. Our children are making us miserable. And in a way, I can see it. Who really likes dragging around every Sunday from birthday party to birthday party? Who truly enjoys the "bliss" of arguing with a child about a piece of candy, or a movie, or a bedtime? Who needs the hassle and the stress of raising children?
From Judaism's point of view, these surveys don't mean much. Sorry, but having children is a mitzvah - a commandment. God demands that we procreate - that we deal with the runny noses, tuition expenses and all the hassles that children bring. It's the very first commandment in the Torah, so the commandment to have children must be a fundamental, integral element to Jewish life.
Indeed it is. While God certainly wants us to be happy, it's not the "happiness" of American sensitivities. Rather, it's a happiness rooted in something far more important and meaningful.
If life is all about experiencing the greatest pleasure, the highest amount of leisure and the most fun, then having kids might not be the way to go. But is that really the definition of happiness? While buying a new car might make me feel good, does it really make me "happy"? Isn't happiness something deeper than the model and year of the car that I drive, and my financial security and well-being? How can you ask a parent compare her "happiness" level with a non-parent? Doesn't that happiness really depend on what you expected out of life.
Even more significant, though, is the root of a person's "happiness". Does your happiness come from giving or from taking? Are you happier when you enjoy a pleasurable experience, or when you give that pleasure to someone else? Answering that question will determine how you'll feel about the trials and travails of child-rearing.
This might be why at Rosh Hashanah we don't wish each other a "Happy New Year". It's not about being happy, although God certainly wants me to find joy in my life. Rather, at the Jewish new year we wish each other a shanah tovah u'metukah, a "good and sweet year".
It might not always be fun to change diapers, discipline teenagers or set limits. But, if we raise our children with the understanding that parenting allows us to share with God in the ultimate form of creation, it certainly is sweet.
Shanah Tovah, U'metukah!