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In the Pursuit of Happiness or of Meaning? What constitutes חיים טובים – the ‘Good life’

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There is a famous adage in Hebrew ‘yeladim ze Simcha’ – I sometimes wonder who coined this phrase -maybe someone who doesn’t have kids!? When they’re screaming, moaning, causing no end of troubles in their teenage years, is this really true? The answer of course is yes because children are often the greatest meaning we have in our lives. We invest the most in their upbringing, we sacrifice repeatedly for them giving up immediate pleasures for the benefit of a long-term gain.  Children are our happiness, but what does happiness mean? Today it has come to be equated less with meaning more with hedonistic or narcissistic pleasure.

When we wish people a Shana Tova it is usually accompanied by ‘a happy healthy year’.  But Shana Tova doesn’t mean happy it means ‘good’. What do we mean when we say good? What is the ‘good life’? This is the question Socrates asked in ancient Greece and Shlomo Hamelech asked thousands of years before. Are happy and good the same thing? What do we really wish for our children when we say, ‘we just want them to be happy’? What does happiness mean and should it really be the goal of man?  We live in a generation that is obsessed with happiness, the amount of self-help books with the title happiness has skyrocketed.  In a world where happiness has become the supreme value there are significantly fewer people who are actually happy. Why is this? What are we doing wrong?

I believe the answer lies in the way we define happiness as well as the equation we have set up for ourselves- a good life is a happy life. It doesn’t work because it lacks substance.  There was a psychology study done recently that found satisfying ones needs and wants increases happiness but is irrelevant to meaningfulness. Happiness is largely present orientated whereas meaningfulness focuses on the past and future. A happy existence consists of being a taker, a meaningful existence consists of being a giver.[1]

Thousands of years ago in ancient Greece Socrates one of the first Greek philosophers contemplated the relationship between happiness and the good life.  Socrates lived in a society much like ours today where happiness was synonymous with material pleasures and immediate satisfaction. He argued that happiness should not be the supreme value, rather the highest good is virtue – arete – the ability of man to know what is good and to CHOOSE the actions that will bring about the most good which requires courage, wisdom, moderation and justice. When we just pursue pleasure we become ‘slaves’ to those pleasures because they can never be satisfied. When we become slaves to something there is no choice in our actions and the negation of choice is the negation of value.

What does the Torah say about this relationship between happiness and the good?

The book of Kohelet that we read on Sukkot is probably the most depressing book in Tanach.  Its existential tones and fatalistic nature means it could very well be a precursor to the stoic school of Greek philosophy. There is a deep melancholy that pervades its pages Shlomo Hamelech writing at the end of his life is reflecting on its meaning and purpose.  The famous expression that repeats itself throughout is vanity of vanities everything is vanity – hevel as well as the famous statement ‘ there is nothing new under the sun’ reflects the main theme of the book – nothingness, we may toil and labour, gain material possession and intellectual wisdom, but ultimately everything returns to dust and nothingness.

Kohelet chapter 1:2-5/16-17. Chapter 8:14-15

הֲבֵל הֲבָלִים אָמַר קֹהֶלֶת, הֲבֵל הֲבָלִים הַכֹּל הָבֶל

Vanity of vanities, saith Kohelet; vanity of vanities, all is vanity.”

The essential message of the book is that meaning is over estimated in this life, mankind has nothing to add or give and will ultimately return to the dust of the earth – in other words be merry and happy for tomorrow you may die.

טו וְשִׁבַּחְתִּי אֲנִי, אֶת-הַשִּׂמְחָה, אֲשֶׁר אֵין-טוֹב לָאָדָם תַּחַת הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ, כִּי אִם-לֶאֱכֹל וְלִשְׁתּוֹת וְלִשְׂמוֹחַ; וְהוּא יִלְוֶנּוּ בַעֲמָלוֹ, יְמֵי חַיָּיו אֲשֶׁר-נָתַן-לוֹ הָאֱלֹהִים–תַּחַת הַשָּׁמֶשׁ.

“So, I commended mirth, that a man hath no better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry, and that this should accompany him in his labour all the days of his life which God hath given him under the sun”

A life of hedonism is the only solution to the emptiness of living. Kohelet (expect for the end part which arguably could be perhaps the development of a change of paths throughout the book[2]) seems to emphasise the futility of choice and delay of gratification for in any case everything is vanity and disappears quickly,

What kind of person develops such a mindset?

Rabbi Sacks points out that what is fascinating but not surprising in the books is that the word ani – ‘I’ is used 29 times, speech in the first person – libi/raiti – 117 times. A life in which the ‘I’ is at the centre is a life that becomes full of meaninglessness – it may at first lead us to pleasure but ultimately, we will discover the shortcomings of a life of hedonism for real and true happiness is not a lone experience. It comes rather through finding meaning in our lives, from engaging in actions that provide us with a purpose and that see the bigger picture. True happiness comes from giving and not taking, from a shared joy through family and nation. Happiness is reflecting on my past present and future, on being part of something meaningful that is bigger than just the ‘I’ and its immediate satisfaction.

One of the most important lessons we can impart to our children is the delay of immediate satisfaction for a longer-term gain or value. In the world of the ‘instant’ this is a very difficult message to give across.  Choice means thought out decisions, the weighing of different options and their consequences, discovering wisdom through process and time.  The choice laden life is often sold out to the one of instant gratification, and though the latter may provide us with short term happiness, the former ensures long term meaning.

This is what Rosh Hashanah and Sukkoth are all about. On Rosh Hashanah, our tefillot are worded in the plural – we are praying not just for ourselves but the whole of the people and the world. We are part of a larger and bigger goal – the goal of mankind, of tikkun olam, of easing the pain and suffering of others. We emphasise the choices that we make and their long-term consequences.  We recognise that ‘choice’ or ‘free will’ is central to our existence, joy and purpose.

On sukkot – Zeman simchatenu – the time of our ‘happiness’ when Kohelet is read, we affirm the mistake made at the start of the book by rein acting its very antithesis. We leave the comfort of our own homes to reside in a temporary structure demonstrating that joy does not come through enslavement to material pleasures but rather ‘choosing’ to free ourselves from their hegemony and yet still rejoice through eating drinking and being merry. Kohelet laments our vulnerable and uncertain life, on sukkot we rejoice in the face of uncertainty and vulnerability. We affirm, as Kohelet also does, that the only thing we truly have is ‘life’ but to make life worth living we must do as Moshe commands the people in Sefer Devarim ובחרת בחיים we must choose to ‘live’. The happiest of festivals in the Torah is so because we make a choice to rejoice through meaning and not through decadence.

יג חַג הַסֻּכֹּת תַּעֲשֶׂה לְךָ, שִׁבְעַת יָמִים:  בְּאָסְפְּךָ–מִגָּרְנְךָ, וּמִיִּקְבֶךָ.  יד וְשָׂמַחְתָּ, בְּחַגֶּךָ:  אַתָּה וּבִנְךָ וּבִתֶּךָ, וְעַבְדְּךָ וַאֲמָתֶךָ, וְהַלֵּוִי וְהַגֵּר וְהַיָּתוֹם וְהָאַלְמָנָה, אֲשֶׁר בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ.  טו שִׁבְעַת יָמִים, תָּחֹג לַיהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, בַּמָּקוֹם, אֲשֶׁר-יִבְחַר יְהוָה:  כִּי יְבָרֶכְךָ יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, בְּכֹל תְּבוּאָתְךָ וּבְכֹל מַעֲשֵׂה יָדֶיךָ, וְהָיִיתָ, אַךְ שָׂמֵחַ

13 Thou shalt keep the feast of tabernacles seven days, after that thou hast gathered in from thy threshing-floor and from thy winepress. 14 And thou shalt rejoice in thy feast, thou, and thy son, and thy daughter, and thy man-servant, and thy maid-servant, and the Levite, and the stranger, and the fatherless, and the widow, that are within thy gates. 15 Seven days shalt thou keep a feast unto the LORD thy God in the place which the LORD shall choose; because the LORD thy God shall bless thee in all thine increase, and in all the work of thy hands, and thou shalt be altogether joyful.( Devarim 16:13)

Happiness in the Torah is shared. It is not the ‘I’ rather the ‘I-Thou’.[3] It’s essence will be felt in the presence of others, your son’s daughters, servants, stranger, orphans etc. Furthermore, our happiness is dependent on our ability to give to those less fortunate than ourselves elevating our material wealth and pleasure to something holy.  The happiness society talks about today is widely divergent to the happiness described by the Torah.

In Parshat Ki Tavo (Devarim 26:1-12) the farmer brings his first fruits to the temple. There the Torah also speaks of שמחה of happiness.  In this narrative the farmer, having toiled for many months finally sees the fruits of his labour but instead of immediately entering his home and reaping its benefits alone he is told to take those fruits up to the bet Hamikdash and stand before the Kohen. There he must relay the story of his ancestors, the same narrative we read in the pesach Haggadah beginning with ארמי עובד אבי  my father was a wandering Armenian. When we bring the bikkurim, finally returned to our land, reaping the fruits of our labour, we are given the gift of perspective. we attest to our part in the very long and tumultuous history of our people and their dream and journey to redemption.  Happiness does not come from lonely individual hedonistic pleasure eating drinking and being merry but from the realisation that through choosing to bring my fruits to the temple, sharing my joy with the stranger, attesting to my place in the long history of my people, I have created meaning in my life that far surpasses any moment of happiness I would achieve in pursuing temporary gratification.

Victor Frankel a psychiatrist who was a survivor of the unimaginable horrors of the holocaust argued that in the absence of meaning the void is often filled with boredom that results in the pursuit of hedonistic and materialistic pleasures.  In other words when I feel my life lacks any higher value – that everything is ‘hevel’ – transitory, uncertain and momentary I will find pleasure in things that will ultimately lead to my demise.  According to Frankl in his book Mans Search for Meaning, man will only want to live when he has what to live for, when he ‘chooses’ life.

So I return to the start; the person who coined the phrase – yeladim ze simcha – did so basing it on the torah definition of שמחה. Happiness not as the transitory experience of a particular instant, but rather as a series of choices we make at each given moment that are not always the easiest option.  Choosing meaning and giving over immediate pleasure and taking. The hardest pursuit, the one that requires an absolute giving up of self for the sake of the other – that is where true happiness lies and that comprises the ‘good life’.

בְּסֵפֶר חַיִּים בְּרָכָה וְשָׁלוֹם, וּפַרְנָסָה טוֹבָה , נִזָּכֵר וְנִכָּתֵב לְפָנֶיךָ אֲנַחְנוּ וְכָל עַמְּךָ בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל לְחַיִּים טוֹבִים וּלְשָׁלוֹם

In the book of life, blessing and peace and good livelihood, may we be remembered and inscribed before you – we and your entire people the family of Israel for a good life and for peace.

Chaim tovim – the good life, is happiness that arises from a value filled existence, joy shared, bread halved, a recognition that we are part of something larger than just the ‘I’, life celebrated, being a blessing for others and making a blessing on life.

Shana Tova

[1] Some Key Differences between a Happy Life and a Meaningful Life: Baumeister, Vohs, Aaker, Garbinsky Journal of Positive Psychology November 2013

[2] The use of ‘I’ and ‘vanity’ is reduced massively and in its place we have the verb ‘you’. It seems the author is conveying a very poignant message that develops and changes throughout the book. For an in-depth analysis see Rav Nativ on Sefer Kohelet at the virtual Be Midrash Har Etzion.

[3] I purposely use the language of Martin Buber here.  His emphasis on the I-Thou encounter as the central feature of meaning in our lives is manifest thousands of years earlier in these pesukim.  Furthermore, for the eminent twenty first century philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, the origin of morality is established in the face to face encounter between two people, but that encounter sees the destitution of the other and their needs to which I must respond by taking responsibility.  In other words value, meaning and depth of existence come through seeing the other as the stranger, the widow, the orphan since it calls me to a higher purpose. Again something we see reflected in these very pesukim.

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