No society in human history has been blessed with the riches that we in the West enjoy today. Yet there’s scant evidence we’re happier than previous generations, and there’s even some to suggest that once basic needs are satisfied, there’s a negative correlation between wealth and happiness.
One of the tragedies of modern man is that he has confused pleasure with happiness. Humans by their nature are pleasure-seeking animals. And such is legitimate up to a point, one that modern man has crossed with a vengeance
We have just finished the yom tov season. One of the mitzvot associated with yom tovim is the obligation to be happy. Astonishingly, our sages claim “that there were no days more joyous than Yom Kippur.” We may be hungry, but that dare not interfere with our joy.
Yom Kippur is a day of reconciliation with ourselves, our family, God and those we may have wronged. It’s the day God re-established the covenant with the Jewish People and gave us the Torah that we have today. It’s the day where, more than any other, we can feel the presence of God. Can there be any happier day?
It’s interesting to note that our wedding day is considered to be a mini-Yom Kippur, replete with fasting, recitation of Al Chet, wearing a kittel and strengthening our bonds with others. There was a custom in talmudic times for single men and women to meet on Yom Kippur afternoon, with the young ladies dancing in the fields. They would then come back to shul and read the Torah portion relating to “Jewish sexual ethics,” something we do to this very day.
Five days later is, Sukkot Zman Simchateinu, the time of our joy. We rejoice even as we leave our homes and enter the unprotected sukkah, recognizing that it is not our material blessings that provide meaning, joy and security to our lives. Our faith must be reserved for God alone, while our material blessings are to be shared with others. It’s instructive that the Torah’s command to be happy includes the obligation to ensure that “the servant, stranger, the orphan and the widow” are also able to rejoice. There is great joy in helping others, and many an interview with philanthropists has confirmed that it’s the sharing of wealth with others that brings great joy to the donor.
Our sages teach that “the reward for a fast day is charity.” In its simplest form, this meant that the money saved by not eating for a day was to be donated to charity. But it means much more. Fasting sensitizes us to the needs of others. Without actually experiencing hunger ourselves, it’s extremely difficult, to understand the pain of the hundreds of millions of people who go to bed hungry on a regular basis. While in the past, one fast day – Yom Kippur – may have been enough to sensitize us and inspire us to do more, today we have five additional fast days a year to do so (though only Tisha b’Av requires a full 25 hours of fasting).
Just as Yom Kippur must inspire us to be more sensitive and empathetic, it’s also meant to inspire us to have greater joy. “One with a good heart is always rejoicing” is codified in Jewish law.
You are likely reading this on the day after the U.S. election. America’s founding fathers, in the Declaration of Independence, said, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
If one wants to pursue and, more importantly, attain happiness, it begins with the realization that true happiness is to be found in helping others.