In the podcast “Hidden Brain,” psychologist Azim Sharif discussed how religion started, thousands of years ago, as a means of social cohesion. The early pagan religions relied on the threat of supernatural punishment as a means of inducing behavior that kept groups together.  As social groups enlarged from maybe one or two dozen people to groups of hundreds, then thousands, an individual needed to have means of trusting other individuals, since not everyone knew every other person in the social groups. Indeed, supernatural punishment and reward is still one of the main inducements that caused – and keeps – some religions to become so large. In this regard, Judaism is an example of just this promise/threat scenario.

Today’s parashah lays out for us in stark terms how we are supposed to observe Gd’s commandments. “See, this day I set before you a blessing and a curse: a blessing if you listen to the commandments of the Lord your Gd, which I enjoin upon you this day. And curse, if you do not listen to the commandments of the Lord your Gd but turn away from the path that I enjoin you.” We read about how we are to deal with those who worship “false Gds.” We are to put them to death! And we are to destroy all other houses of worship besides our own.

There are a couple of really disagreeable segments in this and other parashiot such as instructions to the Israelites to kill those they plunder in their quest to conquer and inhabit the Promised Land. These portions and the curses that result from noncompliance are sometimes pointed to by nonjews when they depict our Bible as being filled with punishment and violence.

Well, I personally don’t believe that tangible punishment awaits us if we sin. Nor do I believe that we will be rewarded in any tangible way for performing good deeds. I don’t need to be addressed as a toddler. I – we – each must find our own way in which the commandments speak to us, informed by our people’s story and teachings. I have also spoken before about ritual and its importance.

So you have here a committed Jew who is at least somewhat observant, but who doesn’t believe in Divine reward and punishment. How do I reconcile that? I would be happy to reiterate my personal theology with you, but having done that from the bimah already, I want to focus on a different aspect of today’s parashah.

I’m only mentioning this fire and brimstone portion of the parashah to contrast it with what I consider the more positive portions, gratitude and rejoicing.

I recently finished a book by Jonathan Ruach (Ruach – he must have been Jewish, right?) called, “The Happiness Curve.” The book describes how one’s self-measure of happiness is relatively high in early adulthood, sags appreciably before reaching its trough, usually in a person’s mid-40s to early 50s, and then climbs again. This is found irrespective of the country studied and the gender analyzed, and is independent of socioeconomic status. It’s really an amazingly consistent finding, and the author does a great job giving numerous reasons why this may be so.

The trough in the happiness quotient follows the dashed dreams of our youth and is exacerbated by financial realities, the realization of the limits of what we will be able to achieve in our lives, the feeling of, “Is this all there is,” our inevitably growing list of infirmities, finding ourselves in a “sandwich generation,” new burdens – imperfect kids, spouse, etc, etc.

The good news is that this changes, and an upswing in one’s “happiness score” occurs in the form of a relatively comfortable acceptance that life is messy and imperfect. So how can Judaism help? In fact, Judaism just might have at least a partial answer, helping us raise the depth of the trough and shortening its time frame.

I believe that, in addition to following certain rituals, odd though it may seem, one of the ways we honor Gd is to feel joy – to rejoice. The word for this in Hebrew is simcha, or some derivative of it. The word is found more in today’s parashah than in all the other books of the Torah combined! As you all know, Judaism teaches us to count our blessings. We are taught to say 100 blessings a day. We even have a blessing upon seeing a rainbow. Indeed, our Shabbat service starts out with a list of items for which we should be grateful.

In the book, Ruach points out how a sense of gratitude helps lift us out of the happiness trough. Here is where our parashah comes in. Today’s parashah conveys the importance of rejoicing – of being grateful for the blessings which were bestowed upon us.

When my daughter Leah was small and would sometimes complain about one or another friend, I used to tell her that if all you see are warts, then the whole world is ugly. In a similar way, although life is filled with pain, we are commanded in today’s parashah to rejoice as well. Indeed, the talmud relates that one of the questions we will be asked by a heavenly court when we die will be whether we enjoyed all the gifts that were ethically ours for the taking. Being grateful is a way of thanking Gd. True joy though, reaches beyond the boundaries of ourselves and touches the lives of others. Maybe that’s why our parashah includes rules of giving to others, and in that way, cultivating a sense of community.

So why bother to cultivate such an attitude? Expressing gratitude may make others feel good, but what about us? Aside from following the commandments of the Torah, is there any tangible value? Well, as it turns out, the answer is yes.

In his book, The Science of Gratitude, Robert Emmons discusses a study of nuns in the United States, whose writings, attitudes and subsequent health records were followed for over 60 years. The nuns kept personal journals, and the results were startling. The more positive emotions that the nuns expressed when they were young – the more gratitude, hope and love that was in their writings – the more likely they were to be alive and healthy . . . 60 years later!

A multitude of studies since the nun study has linked wide-ranging health benefits to thankfulness – benefits that are physical, psychological and interpersonal. It’s not difficult to see that people who frequently show gratitude and thank others tend to have closer social bonds.

Numerous sociology studies have consistently pointed out that a sense of awe and gratitude does wonderful things for us, including a heightened sense of altruism and a resultant concern for others.

In this as in so many other ways, the Bible has shown its wisdom. Gratitude is good for others, but it is also good for those who are grateful. A sense of awe and gratitude not only makes for better Jews, it makes for healthier and happier Jews!

In Judaism, it’s a great mitzvah to find joy.