General Topics



The American constitution says that we have the right to happiness. What is happiness? Can the pursuit of happiness be a right, an experience, a state of mind, or an aspiration? 

The Hebrew word most often translated as Happiness is ASHRey ( in modern Hebrew MeuShar ). A word with a root SHaR which can also mean a poem or song. It is used only once in the Torah itself.  “Be Happy Israel who is like you, a people saved by God” (Deuteronomy  33.29).  But it does recur throughout the Book of Psalms, most popularly as in 144:15 “Happy are the people who dwell in your house.” In both cases, the JPS translates the word Ashrey as happy. But the more traditional Art Scroll prefers the word fortunate! Which I prefer.

The Mishnah ( Avot 4 ) says “ Who is a rich man? Someone who is satisfied with his lot.” Which implies that happiness is a state of mind, an attitude. The word for a rich man is Ashir. But Ashir is the same word for happy. So, it could equally mean that satisfaction is what defines happiness. 

Some Indian traditions identify happiness with sexual fulfillment. Greek philosophers thought of happiness as a state that can be reached, and that one can remain in that state. Some identified it with Hedonism, the pursuit of pleasure. Others with wisdom, knowledge, and self-control. Various words in Greek and Latin are used for happiness. Aristotle’s Eudaimonia is the highest human good that we should all strive for. Some might say mindfulness. The Latin Salus also means well-being and welfare. Felicitas means good fortune and pleasure. Gaudium means happiness and joy. The varieties are many. But there is a difference between happiness as a state of mind that suffuses one’s life and personality, and the happiness that comes from specific actions and experiences. 

This is why I find happiness a problematic word. Instead, the Torah much more frequently uses the word Simcha, best translated as joy. The emotion we should focus on to achieve a state of blessedness rather than just happiness. Which is the foundation of our relationship with God, religion, and humanity.  To do good. This is what we call a blessing even if sometimes it is a burden. In the words of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, “ It is a positive command to be joyful all day long.”  Serve God through joy through interacting with others positively, doing things of an uplifting nature that encourage joy and humanity. 

It is not happiness or pleasure that I feel when I go to a hospital or a funeral. But I know it is the right thing to do and I feel joy in that I am helping another person even though I may not be happy at that moment.  Happiness seems to me to belong to the realm of pleasure but does not necessarily have anything to do with being a good or spiritual person. One can be fortunate without being happy and certainly happy without being rich. A hippopotamus may be happy wallowing in the mud, as much as a person may be happy in a drug-induced euphoria. But I would not want to change places with them.

I would like to say there are two kinds of happiness. Physical happiness is universal. But spiritual happiness is when one adds that extra dimension that comes with the Hebrew word Simcha. And if I had to choose a Latin word to express it,  I would choose beatitude which means blessedIt is much more than just feeling happy. It involves a sense of gratitude. A blessing. 

This was the experience and the message my parents bequeathed to me. Epitomized by sitting around my parent’s table on a Friday and Festival night. The candles lighting up the Shabbat table. The joy on my parent’s faces and the songs we sang together, serious, contemplative, rhythmical, and lively, interspersed with words of wisdom and tradition. That is what has inspired me. Those were happy moments that repeatedly bring me joy, pleasure, and satisfaction. I have had many moments of pleasure in my life. 

We start every day with blessings expressing gratitude for everything we have in life. When we say “Baruch Ata” it is translated Blessed are You which is so easily misunderstood as if God requires our blessing. It is rather a way of saying “thank You”. And in return when we are blessed by another person or God, it is an expression of love, sympathy, concern, and connection. As the Mishna says ( Brachot 9:3) “ We bless God for the bad as well as the good.” It is an acceptance of our fate, for better or for worse. Satisfaction with what one has and determination to try to make the world a better place even when things around us cause us pain.

Happiness can be pleasure and enjoyment. But doing good brings true joy which is a thing apart and beyond.