In 1998, the author, Denis Prager, wrote a perceptive work, Happiness is a Serious Problem. He describes a paradox. Although many people in the West enjoy better standards of living, with improved health care, advanced technology and increased leisure time, there has not been a corresponding increase in levels of happiness.
Every year, the United Nations publishes a World Happiness Report, ranking 156 nations according to various criteria of satisfaction. For some years, the Nordic nations have consistently outranked the rest of the world with Finland coming top for the past three years. A country’s wealth is not necessarily a measure of the happiness of its citizens. For a number of years, Israel has come higher in the rankings than the UK.
Within Israel itself, studies have shown that while there is a wide gap between the charedi community and the non-charedi community in terms of income, education and employment, the gap in quality of life is very small. Of course, there are unhappy charedi people and many secular Israelis who lead fulfilled and meaningful lives. Nevertheless, there seem to be benefits in living a religious life that outweigh many material deficiencies.
Is it religion, per se, that can provide happiness?
The writer, Emily Esfahani Smith (The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life that Matters, 2017) has identified four pillars that enable people to find happiness:
Belonging, Purpose, Story-telling, Transcendence
We recognize these four pillars. They are an integral part of Jewish life. We are all part of one nation. Indeed, as the Talmud (Shevuot 39a) puts it, Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh Bazeh – all Jews are responsible for one another. We share each other’s joys and sorrows. We will come to the aid of our brothers and sisters in times of need. As Jews, we have a mission or purpose in life. As the prophet Isaiah )43:10) expresses it: Atem Edai – “You are my witnesses.” It is our challenge to live lives that represent G-d’s will and bring his morality to the world. Story-telling is an inbuilt part of the Jewish calendar. We re-experience the Exodus every Seder night and relive the Destruction of the Temple every Tisha B’Av. Every Shabbat we recall Creation and every day we mention the Exodus and the Crossing of the Red Sea in our prayers. But, as well as Jewish history, there is Jewish destiny. We recognize we part of something far greater than ourselves. There is a heaven awaiting us, after this life, and a heaven-on-earth we can help achieve in this life.
Our parashah this week, begins with the pilgrim who brings his first fruits to the Temple in Jerusalem. In doing so, he makes a declaration where he tells the story of his people. He recognizes the role he is able to play both as an individual and as part of a nation. He is grateful for his gifts and doesn’t take them for granted. He brings his first fruits in gratitude and thanksgiving.
The Torah then tells him to rejoice: Vesamachata Bechol Hatov – “Be happy, with all the good that the L-d your G-d has given you.” Appreciating the meaning in his life enables the pilgrim to experience joy and happiness, however modest his contribution was.
Despite the challenges of living with corona, may we all be able to acknowledge our blessings as being part of a community, a story and a destiny. May we discover the meaning in our lives and thereby come to happiness. Shabbat Shalom.