Getting Back on Track to Torah Based Happiness

I’m trying to write a short essay explaining Torah Judaism to interest people to learn more about Judaism. In the latest draft, I’ve written the following opening paragraph:

Many people realize that true happiness requires that a person lead a meaningful life of self-actualization and giving to people, community and the greater good. Torah Judaism provides the means and framework whereas a person can infuse every second of their life with meaning and happiness.

Although I believe the above paragraph is true, few people I know are living such a life. Most of us are so distracted by day to day events, that we’re fortunate if we can infuse a few mitzvos each day with the above-mentioned meaning. Yes we appreciate Shabbos and the fact that our children are being raised with a solid moral compass, but where is the encompassing meaning-based happiness that we perhaps felt when we started out.

I’ve been recently learning the dialog version of the Mesillas Yesharim and perhaps it holds the key. One deterrent to a Torah based life of meaning is complacency. Many of us worked hard to integrate successfully into the Torah community and after achieving that goal we feel that we made it and that we can take pleasure in our accomplishment. But the Mesillas Yesharim tells us that we can never be complacent in our Judaism, we need to constantly focus on become a better Jew today than we were yesterday. We need to focus on the next step we need to take to become that better Jew and not fall into the trap of being complacent with our achievements to date.

A second deterrent is lack of focus. In the dialog version, the Mesillas Yesharim makes it very clear that knowing all the halachos is necessary but insufficient for our Divine service. Every mitzvah act needs to be accompanied by a focus on why we’re doing the mitzvah and then performing it with love, fear and emulation of Hashem. Without this focus we are performing the mitzvos at the lowest possible.

Here is the basic focus we should have before performing a mitzvah:

1) Hashem the creator of the universe has commanded me to perform this mitzvah
2) I am accepting upon myself to perform it because I have been commanded by Hashem
3) Through the performance of the act, I am fulfilling Hashem’s commandment

Here is the basic focus we should have before davening Shomoneh Esrai:

1) I am standing in the presence of the Creator
2) Hashem is elevated and raised above all blessing and praise and above all forms of perfection that the mind can envisage and comprehend.
3) Due to our inherent earthiness and the sins we’ve committed, man is of a lower and inferior quality

It takes a lifetime to reach the highest levels but with a little focus in our daily mitzvah acts we can find happiness in our meaningful quest to perfect ourselves and our world. When it is evident that we are tapping into this meaning-based happiness, perhaps it will be easier to interest our fellow Jews in investigating Torah.

18 comments on “Getting Back on Track to Torah Based Happiness

  1. If I were writing the essay, I would focus on the fact that man has so much potential and that he is both near to and distant from God and that we can recognize that fact without denigrating the fact that man was created Btzelem Elokim and that man has the choice to either elevate or degrade his role in the world. When I recite a blessing, it is dictated as the prelude to perfoming a Divinely Imposed or rabbinically designed commandment that has unique significance to a Jew with respect to my life as a participant in a covenant with God that was entered into between God and the Jewish People. When I stand before God before Shemoneh Esreh, I realize that this is one of the many ways of being Lifnei HaShem that the Torah provides by providing praise, asking for the fullfillment of my requests and saying thanks, regardless of whether I am a Tzadik, Beinoni or Rasha.

  2. Ron, what we are talking about is the character trait (middah) of happiness and not a reaction to life events. These two are often confused.

    We can all have the middah of happiness no matter what life events we are facing. However, reacting to all life events with the joy of Rabbi Akiva, requires reaching the highest levels delineated in Mesillas Yesharim.

  3. If this is meant for non-observant people, I don’t see how they get past “Therefore if you are not happy, you are not serving Hashem properly.” Clearly many people, using martyrs R”L as the most extreme example, have been and are identifiable as perfect tzaddikim, but is it reasonable to say that anyone who does not go to a miserable death in the joyous manner — no matter how you define “happiness” of Rabbi Akiva is “not serving Hashem properly”?

    If the answer is yes, then why would anyone read further? Who would want any part of such a religion, which sounds like the gory “lamb of God” misery-based theology of Christianity. If the answer is no, then of course we have to reconsider this formulation.

  4. What we want is “Simcha Shel Mitzva”. If anyone has a really good English rendition of that phrase/concept, it would clear up what we’re striving for.

  5. PL, Why not give it a stab and put together an article. It’s desperately needed and certainly whatever I write is not the last word on the subject. If not an entire article, how about the outline.

  6. That’s fine, Mark. I personally prefer that Emet not be “shaped” to tailor a message, so I personally wouldn’t author an article that speaks of “Torah-based happiness”, without the addition of my clarification above. Of course, an article expounding on “Happiness-based Torah life” may not be the formula for outreach, so I would structure the entire article differently.

    If you are comfortable “gearing the wording” as such, that is certainly OK. I noted my point for the sake of its importance, and I see that you understand it.

    In all fairness, I think you completely understand and represent the clarification I provided, as evidenced by your excellent postings elsewhere. I think it was simply an inadvertently less than perfect choice of phraseology.

    Hatzlacha Rabba in your efforts.

  7. PL, this essay is geared towards non-observant people so the wording is important and you can’t lead off with Avodas Hashem, it doesn’t make sense for the non-observant.

    People understand and want happiness and I think it’s important to emphasize that the properly lived Torah life leads to happiness.

    The fact that happiness is not emphasized more in the observant community is unfortunate because many who don’t find happiness in Torah pursue non-Torah avenues. Telling them that Torah is not about happiness but about Avodah does seem to be a winning formula for the observant either.

  8. “Happiness may not be a goal in itself, but it is clear that serving Hashem with happiness is the goal.”

    Now you’re getting it.”Happiness-based Avodat Hashem”, if you will.

    Yes, keeping on checking that happiness meter (good term!) in order to serve Hashem properly.

  9. I’m thinking that the first paragraph is to early to discuss “one’s inner soul’s deepest needs”. Although the spiritually inclined might relate to that, I think the majority of people do not fall into that category.

    In the second paragraph I’m thinking of introducing and defining spirituality and the soul, using the ideas of Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan on the subject.

    By the way, if anyone wants to take a stab at constructing a 300-500 word essay on the subject, we’d be happy to post it here.

  10. Hi Menachem,
    I actually prefer Mark’s formulation. Most non-religious folks would kind of shrug at the term “objectively meaningful”, as in “say what?”. Also, I like the way Mark ties in giving to a greater good, which I believe is a necessarily element of happiness. I think that is p’shat in the Chazal which states that someone that does not have a wife lives without simcha. A person needs to give to another to transcend himself. And the more intimate the giving (I use that term NOT in the sexual sense) the greater the happiness incurred. That is why sitting on a hilltop will never produce true happiness.

  11. Many people realize that true happiness requires that a person lead a meaningful life of self-actualization and giving to people, community and the greater good. Torah Judaism provides the means and framework whereas a person can infuse every second of their life with meaning and happiness.

    I would reconstruct this paragraph as follows:

    True Happiness is achieved when a person leads a life of self-actualization that fulfills one’s inner soul’s deepest needs. Torah Judaism provides a framework within which these needs can be met in an objectively meaningful way.

  12. Happiness may not be a goal in itself, but it is clear that serving Hashem with happiness is the goal.

    Therefore if you are not happy, you are not serving Hashem properly. So we need to check the happiness meter and make the necessary adjustments to our service.

  13. Interesting post but slightly backwards. Happiness isn’t a goal in itself; Torah is. Happiness-based acquisition of Torah and Mitzvot is consistent with Judaism; laudatory actually. “Torah-based happiness” is using the Torah as a means to happiness- yah, Torah-based happiness is nice, perhaps more “meeaaningful” than “materialism-based happiness” or “drug-based happiness” or even “culture and science-based happiness”.

    Phraseology matters.

    Other than that, good post- keep up the good work.

  14. Rabbi Goldson, I’m not clear on your exact point as you have mentioned many ideas (here and in your article) such as pain, pleasure, happiness, wealth, Jeffersonian happiness which are not all equivalent.

    In my research on this subject I find that people often interchange the terms pleasure, happiness and wealth, when they in fact refer to different things.

    I’m also amazed at how far apart the secular psychologists are when it comes to defining happiness, although I think the Positive Psychologists including Martin Seligman of UPenn and Tal Ben-Shahar at Harvard are coming close to the Torah point of view. Ben-Shahar defines happiness as

    Pleasure + Meaning = Happiness

    Where the secularist and the Torah differ is in defining what is ultimately meaningful. The secularists would define meaning subjectively whereas the Torah has an objective definition of meaning, which is connecting and integrating with G-d, people and yourself. The meaningfulness of other activities can be viewed in light of how they relate to these specific goals.

    At the end of the day I do feel that following the Torah does produce the highest levels of happiness in all its manifestations and we greatly benefit by examining our practice and continued growth in Judaism – to make sure we’re doing it better today than yesterday.

  15. Perhaps the most relevant point here is our unreasonable expectations of what it means to be happy. Aside from a few extraordinary individuals (myself far from included), no one goes through daily life in a state of blissful euphoria. Most of the time we’re slogging through, trying to cope with all the problems and distractions that interfere with what we think we ought to be doing.

    As long as we’re quoting Mesillas Yesharim, let’s remember what he says at the outset, that man was created to learn, to serve, and to withstand nisyonos — difficult trials. For most of us, number three may be a continual battle against frustration.

    But this doesn’t mean we aren’t happy. As Rav Noach Weinberg famously points out, the opposite of pain isn’t pleasure — it’s no pain. We’re supposed to be struggling, emotionally as well as physically, on many levels. But if we know that our struggles are toward a purposeful end, then we retain the constant awareness that our lives are worth living and that we as individuals have value and are making a difference in the world.

    I address this in an article about Sukkos — zman simchaseinu:

    And, as long as we’re mostly ba’alei tshuva here, remember what John Lennon said:

    Life is what happens to you when your busy making other plans.

    Instead of pursuing Jeffersonian happiness, we devote our lives to the pusuit of ultimate good and ultimate meaning. That is the source of happiness.

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