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Parshas Ki Savo: How Happiness Happens

At the start of therapy, I ask all my patients some version of the same question: “In six months from now, if therapy were useful, what things in your life would have changed?” In addition to identifying specific goals or behaviors to increase or decrease, almost all of the folks I see tend to respond with some version of the same answer: “I’d feel happier,” or “I’d be happy,” they say. In a society where pursuing happiness is a human right, a direct corollary of freedom, explaining to my patients that happiness is not an attainable goal is often a buzzkill in the early stages of therapy. And, it is also entirely true. While most people are driven by this desire to achieve a static state called happiness, such an entity simply does not exist.

The fields of sociology, psychology, and philosophy alike have been obsessed with the study of happiness for many years. Millions of words have been written on the subject, thousands of best-selling self-help books tout the secret to happiness, and scores of people try therapy or coaching or world travel or meditative retreats in the wilderness seeking this elusive state of being. Some people spend their whole lives feeling that they are lacking, chasing after an intangible something that they may never find.

What many scientists, philosophers, and human beings have concluded is that happiness is not a destination to reach, or a goal to be met definitively and finitely. Happiness is a subjective reality, an emotional experience and mood state derived from a combination of factors, including consistent engagement in activities and relationships that increase joy, meaning, fulfillment, pleasure, and mastery. But happiness also is the feeling you can access when you pause to take in what already exists, when you reflect on what joys, pleasures, values, meaning, and connection already fill your life’s arena. If, as emotion scientists claim, joy is the feeling that tells us “this is good, let’s keep doing this,” then joy can only truly be felt if we stop to take in whatever “this” is.

There are two seemingly unrelated moments in this week’s Parsha that, when studied in tandem, give us a glimpse into the Torah’s view on happiness and highlight much of what has since been explored about this concept.

The first of these moments is embedded within the Tochacha, pesukim describing terrible calamities that Hashem says will befall Klal Yisrael if they do not adhere to Torah and Mitzvos. The pasuk (28:47) explains that these curses will occur, “tachas asher lo avadita es Hashem Elokecha b’simcha u’v’tuv leivav, me’rov kol.” Most Mefarshim explain this pasuk as providing one collective explanation – the curses will come because we did not serve Hashem with joy, with a good heart, feeling glad for all the good.

The classical understanding of these words is that we are being rebuked for not serving Hashem with hearts full of joy. While doing Mitzvos is important, doing them by rote is not enough; we must engage in our Avodas Hashem with intention, and with gladness and excitement. These pesukim imply that joy can both be accessed through Avodas Hashem, and is a prerequisite for true, sustainable spiritual connection.

I read a beautiful explanation of these pesukim by R’ Immanuel Bernstein in his weekly Divrei Torah on Ki Savo that provides a different and unique explanation that resonated deeply with me. R’ Bernstein cites the Meshech Chochma’s interpretation of this Pasuk, which is that it is providing one reason for the curses occurring, as well as an explanation for how that reason came to be. The pasuk says, “tachas asher lo avadita es Hashem Elokecha,” the curses will befall Bnei Yisrael because of an abandonment of Avodas Hashem. And what, asks the Meshech Chochma, could lead to us neglecting our Torah learning and Mitzvah observance? “Bi’simcha u’vituv leivav, mei’rov kol,” because we can become distracted by pursuing happiness and joy from material abundance. We are not punished simply because we are neglectful of Torah and Mitzvos - that can happen, unfortunately. Rather, we are punished when our pursuit of happiness and joy leads us to look for these feelings and experiences in the wrong places, in material wealth and success rather than in the very relationship and lifestyle we are neglecting.

The second related set of pesukim in our Parsha occurs in the former half, when Moshe outlines the process of bringing Bikurim, first fruits, which Bnei Yisrael will do when they begin their new agricultural lives in Eretz Yisrael. The pasuk (26:11) says about Bnei Yisrael when they bring their Bikurim, “visamachta b’chol hatov asher nasan l’cha Hashem Elokecha,” and you shall rejoice over all the good that Hashem has given you. What is the nature of the joy that Bnei Yisrael will feel in this moment and from what is it derived? Ironically, it appears as though the Torah is saying that Bnei Yisrael will rejoice over their material bounty! But did we not just say that only a bit later in the same Parsha we will be warned of terrible curses that will befall us if we engage in this very enterprise? How can this be?

The experience of Simcha inherent in bringing Bikurim has very little to do with the fruits themselves, or with the bounty of one’s crops. Rather, as R’ Bernstein explains, the joy of bringing Bikurim comes from recognizing “asher nasan l’cha Hashem Elokecha,” that Hashem has given us so much. When a Jewish farmer brings his first fruits to the Beis HaMikdash, he is pausing to reflect on and take in the fact that Hashem is constantly showering him with blessing and is taking care of him. Judaism does not believe in asceticism, but in utilizing physicality to enhance our spirituality. We recognize that all material wealth and physicality is a means to connect to G-d in gratitude – and in joy.

Taken together, these two pesukim carry within them incredible wisdom, the not-so-secret ingredient, perhaps, to the tireless pursuit of happiness with which the world is constantly preoccupied. Chasing after happiness is a futile enterprise, for in the running and seeking and desperate pursual of a feeling or state of being, we cease to exist in the moment, where the blessing and bounty of our lives is actually happening. And that moment, that unfolding of our very existence, is a story being written for us exclusively by the Master of the Universe. It is as Chazal tell us (Pirkei Avos) “Eizehu Ashir? Ha’Sameach bi’chelko,” - Who is truly wealthy? He who is happy with his portion. My portion is what I have, already, right now. If we are present with that story, if we can pause and take in what we do have, the pleasure, mastery, meaning, and fulfillment there is to be had right now, therein lies our joy. When we neglect that present moment and reject it instead to chase some other state of being, when we abandon our Avoda and our relationship with Hashem because we think joy lies in material success or achieving or attaining some other eventual thing or status, that is when curses befall us, and when joy becomes harder if not impossible to access.

The static state of “being happy” may not exist, for joy is an emotion that, like any emotion, comes and goes. But we can access joy and therefore feel happiness when we stop chasing after what we don’t yet have and pause to take in what opportunities we do have. From a spiritual perspective, engaging in Mitzvos with intent, learning Torah and allowing the joy and inspiration of the activity to fill you – these activities are wellsprings of joy just waiting to be tapped. They remind us that we are connected to a loving G-d Who has the capacity to shower us with blessing, and Who is, in fact, already doing so, which we would see if we only stopped running after intangible Unattainables and take in what is.

Happiness can be experienced when we are fully willing to be in what is happening. This week, let us commit to pausing to reflect on all the good we have in our lives every day, all the ways in which Hashem has blessed us. If we can do this, and if we can identify the Mitzvos and spiritual pursuits that we can engage in to feel more connected to that reality, perhaps we all will be Zocheh to realize the Pasuk’s promise, “visamachta bichol hatov asher nasan l’cha Hashem Elokecha.”

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