Q&A : Happiness – September 2010 – “Jewish Life” magazine
On Simchat Torah we celebrate the Torah – but it’s full of restrictions, limitations, and don’ts-dos – what is there for us actually to be happy about?
To answer this question we actually have to go into the root of happiness, to ask ourselves,‘What is it that makes people happy?’
Can this question even be answered?
One of the strange things about people is that we often don’t even know what makes us happy or unhappy. Sometimes people pursue things that actually end up ruining their lives. Or make terrible decisions which were aimed at increasing their happiness but which only end up bringing them misery. That is why in our prayers we ask Hashem to “Fulfill the wishes of our heart for good”. We say to Hashem yes, we ask for many things – but we pray that He must only give us the things that will be good for us. Because sometimes we want things that are bad for us.
How so – surely we only want what is best for us?
It is the same as with a child. A child may want to sit at home, eat sweets all day, not go to school, and stay up all night because doing this will make them happy, but in fact, it will only bring them long-term misery, and a parent knows this. So too are we often so confident in our own ability to construct what will make us happy, that we don’t realise how wrong we can get it.
So how do we figure this out? Is it even possible?
That is where the Torah comes in.
I have never seen a line in the Torah saying “read on if you want to be happy”…
But what is the Torah? The Torah is Hashem’s revealed wisdom. An instruction manual on how to lead our lives, containing all the correct values, principles, and behaviour that we need in order to lead a good life. And when I say good, I mean morally good, as well as being in sync with the deepest reality of who we are as individuals.
That doesn’t always correspond with happiness though, so how do we accept this as our version of what happiness should be?
In a sense, people only pursue short term happiness. But the Torah gives us a blueprint for a holistic life, which deals with every dimension of it – soul, body, mind, emotions – and provides a framework for how we interact with other people, how we interact with G-d, and how we interact with the world. It is a framework designed by the Creator of the human being and the world, the manufacturer’s manual on how to use the appliance. And what Hashem is saying is that with His infinite wisdom, and the fact that He sees what we don’t see, this is the best way to live in this world. Both from a moral and an emotional and physical health perspective. And when we follow that, what we are actually doing is living in accord with our inner reality and that of the system.
Why is it so important for us to follow the guide – surely there is some way for us to pursue happiness in the world according to the way we see it?
One sees when people have drifted from these eternal principles of goodness and morality, and the importance of family, connection to Hashem and a holistic Torah life, that it leads towards a sense of alienation. And this never ultimately brings a person to happiness.
What you are saying sounds so obvious but why do we all fail to get the brief, every time?
One of the most famous verses from the Torah is ‘Shema Yisrael’ – ‘Hear o Israel, the Lord is our G-d the Lord is one’. Why does it say Shema Yisrael –hear, listen? It is really saying that the key to doing the right thing and living a good life in all of its dimensions is that we actually have to stop and listen. What is G-d saying? What is the Torah saying?
So listening is in and of itself a lesson?
Yes, the process of listening to those messages is a process of humility. We have an enormous gift that has given us clear direction of what to do and how to live our lives, and we have to recognise and accept that. And this is part of what we are celebrating on Simchat Torah.
We are celebrating the awesome privilege we have here! To have been given step-by-step do’s and don’ts from the Creator of the whole world, who made us and therefore He knows us better than we know ourselves! It is not only a celebration of the completion of the five books of the Chumash, but the overall wisdom of the Torah that we live with everyday. As it says, “Ki Hem Chayeinu” – “This is our life” – and we are grateful to G-d for telling us exactly what to do. Because what can be better than being shown the precise way to do something well, straight from G-d, who knows everything. And so what we celebrate on Simchat Torah is that we have His Torah – His book of instructions and ideas for our lives.
Why do we start reading the Torah again on the very same day that we finish reading it – after the last line of Devarim comes the first line of Bereishit? Is it to keep the messages fresh?
Part of it is that we need to repeat it in order to go over what we have learned and remind ourselves of all of this. But also that because it is the wisdom of Hashem, His instructions are not simple, like an instruction manual usually is, telling you how to work the machine in a couple of easy steps. But the Torah is deep and complex, and there are many layers to it. Part of the beauty of the Torah is that it can be understood by a child in grade one or the greatest Torah scholar in the world, a talmid chacham. Each will understand it on a level that has meaning and power for them. And the purpose of repeating it is that every year our understanding of it should deepen, so that this year when we read Bereishit, it shouldn’t be the same Beresihit that we read last year.
So we shouldn’t stagnate…
The biggest trap we all fall into is this: because the Torah can be understood on so many different levels, we sometimes become satisfied with our childish understanding of what the Torah and Judaism is about. We grow and develop, but our understanding of Torah sometimes doesn’t. But it is waiting to develop with us, to be understood at the deepest possible levels, because it is the wisdom of Hashem, it is endless. As the Mishna in Pirkei Avot says, ‘Turn it over and over because everything is in it’ – we need to keep going deeper, and the deeper we go the more we understand about ourselves, the world, and the easier it will be for us to stick to the right path – and ultimately be happy.