By Rabbi Howard Alpert
Parshat Ki Tavo
Happiness. It is often pursued but seldom achieved.
The internet and popular media are filled with stories of celebrities looking for happiness but rarely shows them happy. Most of us who are not celebrities want to be happy but cannot agree on what happiness is or where it might be found.
The definition of happiness has been subject to debate and change over time. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, happiness is “a pleasurable or satisfying experience.” Vocabulary.com tells us that happiness is “a sense of well-being, joy, or contentment.” When people feel safe, successful or lucky, the website tells us, they experience happiness.
In the 20th century, Sigmund Freud described happiness as physical and emotional pleasure, which he claimed to be a universal goal, cutting across cultures and geography. Alfred Adler, on the other hand, understood happiness as coming from the attainment of power; power, not pleasure, he taught is the universal goal.
Whatever the details, these modern definitions assume that happiness is a personal, subjective experience growing from within the individual, not connected to family, community or society; it is focused on the self rather than on the other.
Popular self-help websites and publications are filled with steps that one may take to achieve happiness. Like their more intellectual counterparts, they share the notion that a person is responsible for his or her personal happiness and that its attainment can be found by focusing within the self rather than beyond the self.
This approach may have first been popularized by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the 18th century, who claimed that community is a burden from which the individual has to free himself to achieve happiness. In any case, they represent a major departure from earlier philosophers like Aristotle and Plato (as well as the major western religious faiths) for whom happiness and well-being could be achieved only within community.
Torah has a different idea.
In this week’s parshah, Parshat Ki Tavo, we are taught the commandment of Bikorim — the bringing of the first fruit — during which our ancestors acknowledged the gifts that God had given them and their ancestors before them. In that context, Torah tells us, V’Samachta B’Chol Hatov … “Be happy in all the Good that the Lord, your God, has given you.”
Contrary to the modern understanding in which happy or happiness is a state of being not an action (dictionaries say the word can be used as an adjective but never as a verb), Torah tells us that being happy is an action that we all can undertake. It then goes on to outline the conditions necessary for happiness to be achieved.
First, happiness must be shared with others, “… You, together with the Levite and the stranger in your midst” the Torah tells us. This is a difference between pleasure and happiness. Pleasure is an individual experience. It is fleeting and may not be accompanied by happiness. Happiness, on the other hand, is ongoing and can be experienced most fully when we are bringing it to others as well. One can be happy in the good that God has given us only after we have shared some of that good with others who have not been as fortunate.
Second, the ability to be happy requires self-consciousness; it is a gift that must be recognized to be fully experienced. As envisioned by Torah, we attain happiness when we verbalize our recognition that we are recipients of God’s gifts and our readiness to share it.
Finally, happiness is attained when we sense ourselves to be connected to family, neighbors and even strangers in your midst. Loneliness is the antithesis of happiness. It devours it. Happiness cannot exist when one is in a state of loneliness.
But we are not alone. Common experience and shared history tie us to our family and community as well as to the generations that comprise the historical nation of which we are a part. Acknowledging that fact and acting upon it are the necessary conditions for happiness to be achieved.
Long after the Torah was written, Viktor Frankl summarized the meaning of happiness in his book Man’s Search for Meaning and mirrored the Torah perspective. Frankl, a German Jew who survived the horrors of the Holocaust, learned from his experience that life is not primarily a quest for pleasure or for power, but a quest for meaning.
As explained by Frankl, meaning can be found by doing something that is important, that impacts the world positively, in whatever fashion, in a way however great or small; by caring for another person; and by being brave, dignified, and unselfish in the fight for self-preservation.
Happiness is achieved when one finds meaning in dedication to the world beyond one’s self.
Rabbi Howard Alpert spent his professional career as a campus rabbi and executive with Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.