May 29, 2024
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The Jewish Soul’s Pursuit of Happiness

Is the pursuit of happiness in life a foundational goal of a Jew? Is there a mitzvah, an obligation to be happy? Is happiness an end goal of a Jew? Or is it simply a means to an end?

In a recent conversation that I was privileged to lead at Olami Manhattan with a group of young Jewish professionals on an inspiring journey to connect to their Jewish roots, we spent the evening studying this question while the majestic golden sun was simultaneously setting just beyond the Manhattan skyline. We turned to a widely circulated essay that former Apple founder and CEO, Steve Jobs, was said to have written in the final stages of a terminal illness.

The following is an excerpt from that essay:

“I reached the pinnacle of success in the business world. In others’ eyes, my life is the epitome of success. However, aside from work, I have little joy. In the end, my wealth is only a fact of life that I am accustomed to. At this moment, lying on my bed and recalling my life, I realize that all the recognition and wealth that I took so much pride in have paled and become meaningless in the face of my death.

You can employ someone to drive the car for you, make money for you, but you cannot have someone bear your sickness for you. Material things lost can be found or replaced. But there is one thing that can never be found when it’s lost—life. Whichever stage in life you’re in right now, with time, you will face the day when the curtain falls.

Treasure love for your family, love for your spouse, love for your friends. Treat yourself well and cherish others. As we grow older, and hopefully wiser, we realize that a $3,000 or a $30 watch both tell the same time. You will realize that your true inner happiness does not come from the material things of this world. Whether you fly first class or economy, if the plane goes down—you go down with it.

Therefore, I hope you realize, when you have mates, buddies and old friends, brothers and sisters, who you chat with, laugh with, talk with, sing with, talk about north-south-east-west or heaven and earth that is true happiness. Don’t educate your children to be rich. Educate them to be happy. So when they grow up they will know the value of things and not the price.”

These impactful and inspirational words from Steve Jobs carry immense truth. Nevertheless, after I read them to the young men from our Olami Manhattan chaburah (study group), I shared that while I would give Jobs’ essay high marks, from a Jewish perspective it certainly leaves room for improvement.

Returning to our opening question regarding the role the pursuit of happiness plays in the hierarchy of Jewish goals and values, I highly recommend listening to Rabbi Dr. Akiva Tatz’s brilliant and highly impactful lecture on this topic (which can be found on YouTube amongst other places, under the title “The Paradox of Happiness” – Rabbi Dr. Akiva Tatz, December, 2000). In discussing our question, Rabbi Tatz indicates that while there is no formal mitzvah to be happy, there are numerous statements that are derived from pesukim, which seem to indicate that there indeed is some form of obligation to be happy.

Perhaps the most well-known example is: “Ivdu es Hashem b’simcha, Serve Hashem with gladness” (Tehillim, Psalms 100, verse 2). Another example Rabbi Tatz brings is when the Torah describes the horrific curses the Jewish people would experience as it traverses history, the pasuk says that you will go through these negative experiences because: “Tachas asher lo avadetah es Hashem Elokecha bi’simcha, You did not serve Hashem with joy” (Devarim, perek 28, pasuk 47).

Rabbi Tatz asks the obvious question that if there is no formal mitzvah to be happy, why are there pesukim which clearly indicate some sort of obligation to pursue our service of Hashem in a state of happiness? Rabbi Tatz further asks that if happiness (especially happiness that is continuous) is some sort of obligation then how would that obligation work in the face of life’s unfortunate moments of trial and tribulation?

Rabbi Tatz proceeds to analyze and answer this question by demonstrating the fact that for many, their very definition of happiness is askew. He defines simcha, as “the experience of the neshama (soul) when doing what it should be doing. When the neshama inwardly knows that you’re moving along the road to the correct destination, you feel an expansion of consciousness that we call simcha, happiness. Conversely, the inevitable result of the neshama’s feeling of stagnation and lack of movement towards achieving your mission in life, is a feeling of sadness, even a feeling of depression.”

Rabbi Tatz further explains that this inward sense of simcha felt by the soul when it feels that you’re proceeding along the proper path to the correct goal in life has nothing to do with the pain or the trials and tribulations of life. On the contrary, the steeper the climb and the greater the effort one puts forth along the journey towards achieving their proper purpose in the world, the greater the sense of simcha, happiness.

Armed with Rabbi Tatz’s profound explanation of what simcha, happiness is, we can better understand the Torah’s obligation for us to serve Hashem in a state of happiness. As Torah Jews we do not value what the western world would call “the pursuit of happiness” as a foundational end goal in life (though certainly we wish for a life of happiness for ourselves and those around us!). We understand that through living a life of devaikus (clinging to Hashem), and a life where we actively contemplate and pursue our individual missions that Hashem tasked each of us with, the automatic result is one of complete simcha and happiness.

With the auspicious month of Elul underway, may our soul searching during the weeks ahead result in clarity regarding our collective and individual life missions and may we successfully navigate the journey along the path of ultimate happiness!


Daniel Gibber is a longtime resident of Teaneck and is a VP of Sales at Deb El Food Products. In addition to learning as much Torah as he can, he is also privileged to speak periodically on the topic of Emunah and be involved in Jewish outreach through Olami Manhattan. He can be reached at: [email protected]

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