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A Conversation with Yael Eckstein, Fellowship President and CEO, on Finding Happiness Daily

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Yael Eckstein, President and CEO of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, oversees all of the organization’s ministry programs and serves as the organization’s international spokesperson.

Prior to her present duties, Yael served as Global Executive Vice President, Senior Vice President, and Director of Program Development and Ministry Outreach. Based in Israel with her husband and their four children, Yael is a published writer and a respected social services professional.

Yael Eckstein has contributed to The Jerusalem Post, The Times of Israel, and other publications, and is the author of three books: Generation to Generation: Passing on a Legacy of Faith to Our Children, Holy Land Reflections: A Collection of Inspirational Insights from Israel, and Spiritual Cooking with Yael. In addition, her insights into life in Israel, the Jewish faith, and Jewish-Christian relations can be heard on The Fellowship’s radio program, Holy Land Moments, which airs five times per week on over 1,300 radio stations around the world.

Yael has partnered with other global organizations, appeared on national television, and visited with U.S. and world leaders on issues of shared concern. She has been a featured guest on CBN’s The 700 Club with Gordon Robertson, and in 2015 served on a Religious Liberty Panel in Washington, D.C. The same year, Yael’s influence as one of the young leaders in Israel was featured as the cover story of Nashim [Women] magazine. In 2019, The Algemeiner named Yael to the Jewish 100, citing the positive influence she has made to Jewish life, and referring to her as “the world’s leading Jewish interfaith activist.” In 2020 and 2021, she was named to the Jerusalem Post’s list of 50 Most Influential Jews.

Born in Evanston, Illinois, outside of Chicago, and well-educated at both American and Israeli institutions – including biblical studies at Torat Chesed Seminary in Israel, Jewish and sociology studies at Queens College in New York, and additional study at Hebrew University in Jerusalem – Yael Eckstein has also been a Hebrew and Jewish Studies teacher in the United States.

Tell us about this week’s Parashah, which you’ve said can teach us about how to be happy and find joy all year long.

This week’s Parashah is called Ki Tisa, which means “when you count,” and it covers Exodus 30:11 through 34:35. In this Torah portion, we read about the sin of the golden calf.

Scripture tells us that Moses went up to Mount Sinai to receive the 10 commandments. But when he didn’t return as quickly as the Israelites thought he would, they panicked and sinned. The Israelites built an idol, a golden calf, as a replacement for Moses, who they thought would never return. But as we know, Moses did return. And when he did, he was devastated to see the Israelites worshiping the golden calf.

When Moses saw the people sinning, he smashed the tablets, which he had just received from God. He destroyed the calf and rebuked the nation. And when the dust settled, he pleaded with God to forgive them. Ultimately, God forgave the children of Israel, and he gave them a new set of tablets to replace the first ones. The verse that I want to focus on today tells us about Moses’ role in creating the second set of tablets. It is Exodus 34:1, and it reads, “The Lord said to Moses, “Chisel out two stone tablets, like the first ones, and I will write on them the words that were on the first tablets, which you broke.”

The verse tells us that God commanded Moses to make two tablets just like the first set of tablets and that God would write the same words, The 10 Commandments, on the new set. Scripture, tells us that these holy tablets were made from stone, but it doesn’t tell us what kind of stone.

According to Jewish tradition, the tablets were made out of sapphire. Sapphire was chosen for the tablets not just because it is a valuable and beautiful stone; the rabbis explained that the blue color of sapphire reminds people of the sky, and of God in the heavens. Jewish tradition also teaches that when God directed Moses to chisel out the new tablets, Moses had trouble finding sapphire to make them from. After all, he was in the middle of the desert. He looked everywhere for that precious stone, but he just couldn’t find it. So eventually God appeared to Moses and told him where it was.

Where did Moses find the sapphire for the tablets, and how does this relate to finding happiness?

It turned out to be in the only place that Moses hadn’t looked, right beneath his own tent. The very thing that Moses was seeking was right beneath him all along. There is a profound lesson here for all of us in this story. Everyone is searching for happiness and fulfillment in life. But like Moses, many of us look in all of the wrong places. We look everywhere but where we are. We think we’ll find happiness in a new car, in a different house, or on an exotic vacation.

We think, if only my spouse were different, my child was easier, or my job was better, then everything would be great. But the truth is that we already have everything that we need to be happy. Right here, right now.

Here’s the thing. If we keep looking for happiness in other places, other people, or other situations, we’ll never find it. And we can miss out on the joy that is possible if only we would see the treasures already in our lives.

We don’t need to look any further than our own home to find everything that we need to feel happy and fulfilled. We may need to look beneath the surface, but our treasure is there, just waiting for us to claim it.

I love this message because it reminds me that no matter what is happening in my life or in the world, no matter where I’m at in life, I can always find happiness and fulfillment in the way things are right here, right now. And I’ve been thinking about this message a lot lately because we are in the Hebrew month of Adar, a month all about happiness.

Why is the month of Adar all about happiness?

Because this is the month that we celebrate the holiday of Purim, the holiday that was established in the book of Esther. In Esther 9:21-22, we read, “Celebrate annually, the 14th and 15th days of the month of Adar is the time when the Jews got relief from their enemies. And as the month when their sorrow was turned into joy, and their mourning into a day of celebration.”

You see, the days of Purim and the month of Adar were established as a time of happiness. Because this is the time when the wicked Haman planned to annihilate the Jews, but God saved them, and the enemies of the Jews were destroyed instead.

In Esther 8:16 we read that when the Jews heard that their lives would be saved, they were filled with joy. The verse says, “It was a time of happiness and joy, gladness and honor.” And ever since then, the entire month of Adar has been observed as a happy time every single year.

In The Talmud, a 1500-year-old compilation of Jewish teachings, the rabbis taught, “When Adar begins, we increase our joy. During Adar, we are supposed to be extra happy.”

How can we create this happiness for ourselves, even when we face struggles?

It’s easy to push a button or turn a dial if we want to turn up the volume of sound, but how do we turn up the volume on happiness? And what about during difficult times, like many people have been experiencing over the last few years during the pandemic? How can we be happy when there is so much getting us down? Is our happiness really in our control?

Well, my friends, the answer is very clear: yes. Yes, we can choose to be happy. Yes, we can be happy even during tough times. Yes, we can be joyful even when life isn’t the way that we wanted it to be. How? I think it goes back to the lesson from our verse in this week’s Parashah Nothing needs to change in our outer circumstances, we don’t need to go anywhere or change anything in order to find happiness, because real happiness doesn’t come from anything that is outside of us. But rather, joy comes from the inside.

Do you ever struggle to find joy?

Of course. A few weeks ago I found myself in a difficult situation. Three out of four of my kids were sick. And then my husband, who is an amazing father, and an incredibly helpful husband, started burning up with fever too.

So I was taking care of my kids and my husband, and trying not to fall behind on work. I was barely keeping it together when I got a call from my daughter’s school, telling me that she was exposed to COVID and needed to come home and be quarantined. That meant that I would have all four kids at home, three sick, one in quarantine, a sick husband, and a ton of work to get done. And not to even mention the laundry, the dishes, and the cooking. It was dreary outside, a rainy winter day, and I felt my mood starting to match that weather.

But then I caught myself and I said, you know what? I’m not going to get down. I have so much to be happy about. I’m blessed to be strong and healthy so that I can take care of my family. I’m blessed to have four kids and a husband. I’m blessed to have meaningful work to do. And when it rains in Israel it’s always a blessing, because our country relies on rainfall.

At that moment I suddenly shifted, refocused, and I found my happiness right where I was. In the same situation that could have brought me down, I made a decision to change my perspective and that made all the difference in my reality.

Does our happiness impact how we serve God?

In Psalm 100:2, we read, “Serve God with gladness.” The Hebrew word b’simcha, which is translated as “with gladness,” literally means “with happiness.” The verse tells us that we need to serve God with joy, no matter what is going on in our lives. And there’s something really interesting about the Hebrew word b’simcha. When the letters are rearranged, they form the Hebrew word, machshava, which means thought. This teaches us that our joy depends on how we arrange our thoughts. Our happiness doesn’t depend on our circumstances, it depends on how we perceive our circumstances.

In Jewish thought, the decision to be happy is one of the most important decisions that we will ever make. The rabbis taught that happiness keeps a person from sinning, and brings us closer to God. Happiness gives us strength and protects us from harm. Being in joy is a form of spiritual health, and Proverbs 22:17 says, “A joyful heart is good medicine.” Being happy keeps our bodies healthy and vibrant too.

What if things are really terrible in our lives right now?

A few years ago I watched an inspiring interview with a woman named Alice Summers. At the time Alice was 108 years old, and she was the oldest living Holocaust survivor. She died two years later at the age of 110. During the interview, she was asked what the secret is to a long and happy life. And you know what she answered? “Optimism. We need to look for the good. Life is beautiful, and we have to be thankful that we are living.” Then she added, “I know about bad things, but I look to the good things.” This is good advice that’s relevant for anyone who wants to be happy.

It’s all about what we choose to focus on, how we arrange the thoughts in our head. But this advice is even more meaningful coming from a Holocaust survivor like Alice. Alice saw the worst and lived through the most horrific experiences. She lost a lot of family in the Holocaust, including her mother and her husband. And she spent years in a Nazi concentration camp with her young son, where she suffered terribly and had to watch her innocent child suffer too.

But even after all of that, Alice was a happy person. Because she made a decision to focus on the good, to be thankful for her blessings, and to be joyful. And if Alice was able to find joy despite everything that she went through, can’t we all find a way to be happy, too?

Any tips for increasing our joy on a daily basis?

If you struggle to stay happy by keeping your thoughts happy, especially if you are going through a difficult time, I have an idea for you. Sometimes we can change how we feel by changing our thoughts, but other times even that seems too hard. So instead of working on our head, we need to go straight to the heart. And one of the most powerful ways to do that is through music.

The full verse of Psalm 100:2 is, “Worship the Lord with gladness. Come before him with the joyful songs.” The rabbis taught that this verse teaches us to come before God with joyful songs so that we can serve him in a state of happiness. Yes, you understood that correctly. And it might not be a surprise. Music can help us become happy and stay joyful.

Holocaust survivor Alice Summers wasn’t only known for her exceptional optimism. She was also known for her musical talent. She played the piano her entire life until she died at 110 years old. Even when she was in the concentration camps, the Nazis used Alice for her musical ability, and she credits music for saving her life. It gave her hope and joy during that dark time.

In the Jewish tradition, one rabbi stressed the power of music more than any other. He was known as Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, and he lived during the 18th century in Ukraine, also a difficult time and place to be Jewish. Not surprisingly, Rabbi Nachman was also known for emphasizing the importance of joy. He taught that we have an obligation to stay in joy and to bring joy to others. And he taught his followers to use music as a way to stay happy, and a way to make others happy. Even to this day Rabbi Nachman has many followers, and they are still famous for their joy and for their music. In fact, if you come to Israel, you just might experience it for yourself.

How do Rabbi Nachman’s followers still use music to bring joy to the people of Israel?

In today’s day and age, this is how Rabbi Nachman’s followers spread joy. They paint cars or vans with bright, happy colors and attach a loudspeaker to it. Then they drive all over Israel playing joyful songs about hope and faith. There are literally hundreds of cars like this all over the country. You could be stuck in traffic feeling stressed, and then all of a sudden one of these cars might pull up beside you, playing loud, happy Jewish music. And if traffic is at a complete standstill, the people in the car will probably get out and start dancing too. Usually on the roof of the car.

Can you picture it? How can that not make you smile, or at least a little less stressed about being in traffic? We call this an “Only in Israel” experience – you aren’t going to see this anywhere else in the world.

I know it sounds crazy, but I can tell you from firsthand experience that it really works. These people bring so much joy.

Then there must be a lot of music played in the month of Adar, the month of happiness?

During the month of Adar, the Jewish people do a lot of singing and dancing in order to increase our level of happiness. It’s a tried and true method. Just about every Jewish day school marks the first day of Adar with music and dancing. And in Israel, we see more of these musical cars spreading their joy through the country.

My daughter came home with face paint all over, and she said that during school they put on face paint and were just dancing around the classrooms, singing and making all the other classes happy. In our home, where music is always an important part of our lives, we play even more music than usual. And we dance for no other reason than because it’s Adar, and it’s time to be happy. We literally turn up the volume on our happiness by turning up the volume of our music.

And one of the best things about music is that it’s always available to us. If you can’t play an instrument, you can listen to music. And if you can’t listen to music, you can sing. Even if you have a terrible voice like me, and if you can’t sing, you can always listen to the music in your heart.

Any other tips for finding joy?

I have one last tip for being happy and staying happy, especially in hard times. No matter how depressing things may seem, we can always pray to God and ask him to help us stay in joy. Jewish people end every Sabbath with a special service called Havdalah. It marks the end of the Sabbath and the beginning of the new week. The service includes a prayer based on Esther 8:16. We pray, “For the Jews, it was a time of happiness and joy, gladness and honor. So may it be for us.”

We ask God to bless us in the coming week with the joy and happiness that was experienced in Esther’s time. And with God’s help, it’s possible to feel this kind of happiness, to stay joyful, and to serve God with gladness no matter how challenging things may be.

In Isaiah 12:3 we read, “With joy, you will draw water from the wells of salvation.” This first teaches us that joy makes it possible to taste God’s goodness and the sweetness of his salvation no matter what is happening in our lives. This week, let’s think about how we can be happy and stay joyful. Can you rediscover the treasures already in your life? Can you focus on your blessings? Can you reframe your challenges by seeing them from a positive perspective?

God wants us to be joyful, and everything we need to be happy is already with us. A treasure trove of happiness awaits us all, we need only to claim it.

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