On the first day of Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year — the beginning of the period of repentance and self-reflection that culminates on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement), my rabbi began his sermon with the question: “Do you know anyone who is truly happy?” My wife immediately flashed a huge smile and pointed directly at me.
She was right. The fact is that I am truly happy. So I started to think about it and began to wonder about the elements that are necessary for individual happiness. I have come to the conclusion that the one factor that is requisite and indispensable to true felicity is gratitude. It is not by coincidence that the root of the word “gratitude” is “grace,” one of whose definitions is “the freely given, unmerited favor and love of G-d.” I am truly happy because I am grateful for the life with which G-d has blessed me. But true happiness requires far more than gratitude for one’s own situation in life. It requires gratitude for the myriad blessings that we receive, not least of which are the people known or unknown to us who make a difference in our lives.
This September 11th, I had the honor and privilege of accompanying Maj. Gen. James Livingston to Parris Island to attend the induction into the Marines of the latest group of graduates from boot camp. Accompanying a Marine Major General, who also happens to be a recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor, to a Marine installation is an experience nothing short of awesome.
I had the chance to review the citation describing the action for which Gen. Livingston was awarded the Medal of Honor: It reads more like a Marvel Comic book or a Schwarzenegger movie than the acts of a flesh and blood human being. I lack the space to include it here, but you can find it at http://www.cmohs.org/recipient-detail/3346/livingston-james-e.php. I urge you all to read it as a reminder that, indeed, we are blessed that such a man walks among us. I am eternally grateful for Gen. Livingston’s life, courage and character.
But that is not all. On that day, I looked at the faces of those very young, newly-minted Marines as they paraded in review and I was palpably grateful for each and every one of them. I was grateful for the decision that each took to step forward and serve. I was grateful for their tenacity in making it through the three intensely grueling months of physical and mental torture that sealed their transition from ordinary mortals into Marines. I was grateful for their drill instructors, some of whom I met, all of whom are dedicated and impressive. It is gratitude for them that contributes to my sense of happiness.
A few days later, I had another such epiphany. I ride a Harley Davidson Road Glide (otherwise known as a “big honkin’ bike”). One of the things that has made my life incredibly worthwhile has been my membership in an organization called the Patriot Guard Riders, with whom I am privileged to ride. The Patriot Guard was originally formed to protect against the antics of the Westboro Baptist Church, who were harassing mourners at military funerals, but it quickly expanded its function. Wikipedia describes the organization in the following way: “The group forms an honor guard at military burials, helps protect mourners from harassment and fills out the ranks at burials of indigent and homeless veterans. In addition to attending funerals, the group greets troops returning from overseas at homecoming celebrations and performs volunteer work for veteran’s organizations such as Veterans Homes.”
A few days after Rosh Hashanah, I was invited to participate in a Patriot Guard mission. We rode and held a flag watched as Bank of America presented a mortgage-free home in Goose Creek to a much-decorated disabled vet, Specialist Matt Canuel. Spc. Canuel was seriously wounded in 2009 by a 1,200-pound IED in Afghanistan. I am grateful to Spc. Canuel for his valor and his modesty. It was deeply moving to see him receive the keys to his new home from S. Mark Munn of Bank of America and Sandra Ignaszewski of the Military Warriors Support Foundation. I was grateful to the members of the Patriot Guard (most of whom are grizzled old vets with rather mordant senses of humor) and to the members of the Goose Creek Fire Department, all of whom were there to welcome Spc. Canuel to his new home and his new life.
Each of these people are exceptional, but they are representative of thousands of exceptional people who are just like them in their dedication and their willingness to step forward to defend and honor those whom they don’t even know. They deserve our gratitude.
During this period of self-reflection, I am thinking of all those who impact my life. I am grateful to the Almighty for blessing me with my wife and my son and his family. I am grateful for my friendships with, among many others, the recording star John Ford Coley and the great evangelical supporter of Israel, Earl Cox. I am grateful for my friendship with Eli Hyman, of Hyman’s Seafood Restaurant in Charleston, who gives a discount to all active members of the military because, he says, “We owe them.” All of these — and others who are not mentioned here for reasons of column space — are superb examples of what in Jewish is called “mentschlichkeit,” which can be translated as a respect for all people and commitment to one’s community.
I am grateful for Charleston police Sgt. Matt Wojslawowicz, who stands outside my synagogue every Saturday to protect us from those who would do us harm. He greets me with a smile whenever I see him. I am thinking of all the members of the police forces throughout the United States who face dangers that I can’t even begin to imagine — especially in these days of “Black Lives Matter” and other groups whose unifying principle is hatred for the police. After 9/11 it was my practice to approach members of the police force, just to thank them and wish them a good day. It is still my practice, as it is for members of the fire department, EMTs and members of the military.
In my 71 years, I have often wondered whether I would pass the test of courage when it counts. Would I react like the conductors who ran when the terrorist attacked that train in France, or would I act like the three Americans who stepped up and subdued the malevolent barbarian who was bent on killing as many innocents as he could? Gen. Livingston’s is too high a standard to judge any mortal, but there always lurks the question — “Would I pass the test of courage when it matters?” Most of us will never know the answer to that question, because there are people who interpose themselves between us and the forces of destruction: Police, firefighters, military. It is mandatory upon each and every one of us to remind ourselves that our “happiness” relies upon the lives of these men and women. Our “happiness” depends upon our ability to recognize and be grateful for the gift of their lives.
My wife was right. I am probably one of the happiest people you will ever come across. I am grateful for that.
Stuart Kaufman is a retired lawyer, investment banker and businessman. He relocated from New York to Mount Pleasant in 2012. A friend recently told him that he has been a South Carolinian all of his life ... but he just didn’t know it.