The Pursuit of Happiness – Parshat Ki Tavo 2017

The summer of 2013 was interesting for many reasons, not least of which was the most infectious song of the summer, Pharrell Williams’ hit “Happy.” As the single went viral, especially because of its inclusion in the movie soundtrack of Despicable Me 2, a strange phenomenon began to occur. People genuinely seemed to be happy.

I remember walking through a college campus around that time and seeing a group of young adults, of men and women supposedly engaged in the pursuit of higher learning in a University, dancing to “Happy” as it blasted from a loudspeaker nearby. And I thought to myself, this song is really just the “hokey pokey” or “if you’re happy and you know it” for adults. You can’t help but smile and move your hips to its catchy beat and upbeat message. 

Among its lyrics, one of its most famous lines is “Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth.” That phrase has always struck me as more than just a throwaway line. Williams is making a statement: happiness, as an emotion, is the ultimate measure of value. Similarly, the Greek philosopher Aristotle, in his Nicomachean Ethics, contends that only Eudaimonia, Greek for happiness, is something worth pursuing for its own value. Every pleasure, every dollar, every other worldly pursuit, is only a means to some other end. But happiness is an end unto itself.

For Aristotle, happiness is the aligning of one’s activity with their unique function, i.e. the pursuit of knowledge. For Epicurus, happiness could be achieved only through pleasure, by which he means the absence of pain and suffering. The centrality of the value of Happiness is so engrained into the Western ethos that Thomas Jefferson consecrated its pursuit as one of humankind’s only three inalienable rights. But what does Judaism have to say about this? Do we too believe that the Pursuit of Happiness is life’s ultimate purpose? Or is the Pursuit of Happiness no more than an act of folly?

German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche argues that happiness is meaningless, that “Man does not strive for happiness, only the Englishman does!” If any, which position does the Torah take on this issue?

Superficially, one may think that the Torah agrees with Pharrell Williams that happiness is the truth. פרשת כי תבוא includes within it the longer of two versions of the תוכחה found in the Torah. The תוכחה consists of a list of positive consequences of following the Torah and a much longer list of punishments for failing to observe G-d’s law. Among the consequences is this horrifying line:

וְעָבַדְתָּ אֶת־אֹיְבֶיךָ אֲשֶׁר יְשַׁלְּחֶנּוּ ה׳ בָּךְ בְּרָעָב וּבְצָמָא וּבְעֵירֹם וּבְחֹסֶר כֹּל וְנָתַן עֹל בַּרְזֶל עַל־צַוָּארֶךָ עַד הִשְׁמִידוֹ אֹתָךְ.

you shall have to serve the enemies whom Hashem will let loose against you — in hunger and thirst, naked and lacking everything. He will put an iron yoke upon your neck until He has wiped you out.

What will we have done to deserve such a harsh penalty? משה tells us in the preceding פסוק:

תַּחַת אֲשֶׁר לֹא־עָבַדְתָּ אֶת־ה׳ אֱלֹקיךָ בְּשִׂמְחָה וּבְטוּב לֵבָב מֵרֹב כֹּל.

Because you did not serve Hashem your G-d in joy and goodness of heart over the abundance of everything,

This is absolutely confounding; not only is משה רבינו telling us that שמחה is a central aspect of service of G-d, but serving G-d without this sense of joy leads to slavery and suffering. רבינו בחיי writes:

לפי שחייב האדם על השמחה בהתעסקו במצות, והשמחה במעשה המצוה מצוה בפני עצמו, מלבד השכר שיש לו על המצוה יש לו שכר על השמחה, ועל כן יעניש בכאן למי שעובד עבודת המצוה כשלא עשאה בשמחה.

Because every person is obligated in joy in his engagement in מצוות, as being in a state of joy in doing a מצוה is its own commandment and separate from the reward for the commandment is reward for joy. Consequently, G-d punishes one who serves Him through a commandment when he does so without joy

Being present in the moment, appreciating the value of what you’re doing in your Torah observance, seeing coming to minyan or learning Torah, or doing an act of kindness, or maintaining a kosher home as causes for joy and celebration is essential to עבודת ה׳, to service of G-d. But Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out that the identification of שמחה with happiness is a mistake. Actually, the closest Hebrew word to the word happy is אשרי, the first word in the book of תהילים, of Psalms. Agreeing with Aristotle, King David, too, argues that happiness is the study of knowledge, particularly Torah:

אַ֥שְֽׁרֵי־הָאִ֗ישׁ אֲשֶׁ֤ר לֹ֥א הָלַךְ֮ בַּעֲצַ֪ת רְשָׁ֫עִ֥ים וּבְדֶ֣רֶךְ חַ֭טָּאִים לֹ֥א עָמָ֑ד וּבְמוֹשַׁ֥ב לֵ֝צִ֗ים לֹ֣א יָשָֽׁב׃ כִּ֤י אִ֥ם בְּתוֹרַ֥ת ה׳ חֶ֫פְצ֥וֹ וּֽבְתוֹרָת֥וֹ יֶהְגֶּ֗ה יוֹמָ֥ם וָלָֽיְלָה׃

Happy is the man who has not followed the advice of the wicked, or taken the path of sinners, or joined the company of the insolent; but rather, the Torah of Hashem is his delight, and he studies that Torah day and night.

So if Moshe is not saying that happiness is the central value of Judaism, then what does he mean when he says that עבודת ה׳ must be characterized by שִׂמְחָה and טוּב לֵבָב? Rabbi Sacks points out that the root of the word שמחה appears only twice in כי תבוא. The first is the one we just mentioned, in the context of punishment. But the other context is in the context of the מצוה of ביכורים, of bringing the first fruits to Jerusalem:

וְשָׂמַחְתָּ֣ בְכָל־הַטּ֗וֹב אֲשֶׁ֧ר נָֽתַן־לְךָ֛ ה׳ אֱלֹקיךָ וּלְבֵיתֶ֑ךָ אַתָּה֙ וְהַלֵּוִ֔י וְהַגֵּ֖ר אֲשֶׁ֥ר בְּקִרְבֶּֽךָ׃ 

And you shall rejoice in all the bounty that Hashem your G-d has bestowed upon you and your household, together with the Levite and the stranger in your midst.

The מדרש, commenting on this, says that this verse proves that joy for the Jewish People comes from tithes and Torah. The question is, what is the relationship between מעשר, ביכורים and Torah? And why are these specific things connected to joy? Explains Rabbi Avraham Lieberman, in his book זרע אברהם אוהבי, that there are two kinds of transactions. רש״י in his commentary to משלי explains that when someone makes a trade, there is always a hint of sadness at the loss of that which is being given away. But when you trade words of Torah with someone, נמצאו שניהם ביד כל אחד ואחד – both participants gain and no one loses. As רבי חנינא says in תענית:

הרבה למדתי מרבותי ומחבירי יותר מרבותי ומתלמידי יותר מכולם

As much as you gain from learning Torah from someone or learning it together, you gain the most from the act of teaching, of trying to give your Torah to others. Explains Rabbi Lieberman, the same is true of other types of giving, of צדקה and מעשר (tithes) and ביכורים – if you give to others, if you dedicate what you have to holy purposes, you gain more than you give.

As the מדרש says עשר תעשר – עשר כדי שתתעשר, tithe so that you will be enriched. In other words, שמחה, joy, is not a function of what I do for myself, of what I pursue for myself – it is a function of what I give to others, of what I share. The חגים, including the upcoming holiday of סוכות, are supposed to be times of this type of joyful giving:

וְשָׂמַחְתָּ לִפְנֵי ה׳ אֱלֹקיךָ אַתָּה וּבִנְךָ וּבִתֶּךָ וְעַבְדְּךָ וַאֲמָתֶךָ וְהַלֵּוִי אֲשֶׁר בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ וְהַגֵּר וְהַיָּתוֹם וְהָאַלְמָנָה אֲשֶׁר בְּקִרְבֶּךָ.

You shall rejoice before Hashem your G-d with your you’re your daughter, your male and female servants, the Levite in your communities, and the stranger, the orphan, and the widow in your midst,

Even sooner than that, we are approaching ראש השנהand יום כיפור, the days of awe and judgment, days on which we declare that צדקה is one of the things that is מעבירין את רע הגזירה, that removes from upon us the worst of the fate decreed for us as a result of our past. When משה says that our failure in not rejoicing in the מצוות causes destruction, he refers to our failure to serve G-d through טוב לבב and שמחה, generosity and joy shared with others.

I’m talking about this now because we are at a time in which so many people are in need. Hurricanes Harvey and Irma have been devastating, not only for the Jewish communities in Texas and elsewhere but for people throughout the region. Whole islands have been leveled, destroying 95% of buildings in places like St. Martin and Barbuda. If that wasn’t enough, there was an 8.2 Richter scale earthquake in Mexico this week that struck the poorest areas of the country. Our own community has many people in need, our shul needs, its own support, and the discretionary funds that I use to inconspicuously help people you know in financial trouble are starting to run out. Please show support, please commit to finding ways to give to the community and to the millions in need of help, and please do so בשמחה ובטוב לבב.


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