On Happiness

What is the meaning of happiness? How do we achieve it? It appears from this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavoh, that happiness is a major value and indeed is looked at as a duty as well. The Torah tells us that one of the reasons for G-d punishing the Jewish people was that they did not serve Him with the appropriate amount of joy, Simcha. How do we understand Simcha?

There is a fascinating verse in Chronicles, ‘Yismach Lev Mevakshei Hashem,’ “happy is the heart of those who seek Hashem.” What is interesting is what it does not say; it does not say, happy is the heart of those who have found G-d, but happy is the heart of those who seek Him. And, I think the explanation of this can be found in Rav Chaim Vital, one of the great kabbalists of Safed, Tzfat, in his book Eitz Chaim, Tree of Life. In the introduction to the book Reb Chaim Vital writes that there are four foundational elements of the world: earth, fire, wind and water. He relates sadness to the element of earth and happiness to the element of wind. On a simple level, I think we can understand it in the following way.  Earth, soil is stationary, and depression often occurs when a person is stagnating, stationary. If a person is not moving, not making progress, and not building or creating, then the person will feel depressed.  When a person is building, making progress, and moving forward they are happy.  The element of wind is only called wind when it is moving. Happiness I believe is the concept of moving, of building, of making progress. And people pursue all manner of goals in order to feel like they are actually building. Very often this involves collecting trinkets, strange hobbies, getting to the next level in a computer game and so on and so forth. But when a person is really building the world, really improving the world and themselves, and are making progress in life in meaningful ways that is when the person experiences real happiness.

The Talmud talks about two different types of measures, a level measure, and a heaping measure. So, if someone gives you a recipe, and it calls for a tablespoon of ground jalapenos.  You should ask, “level or heaping?” For Ashkenazim this could be a life or death question.  The Talmud refers to a heaping measure as  ‘mida socheket,’ literally “a laughing measure” and a level measure as ‘mida atzuva’ “a sad measure.”  When one is bound within the confines of the past, within the confines of failure, or even within the confines of the present, then one is a level measure,  and that produces sadness. When you are able to go beyond limitations, and go further than the walls of the vessel that is holding you back, when you are able to break out of whatever it is in the past, your failure, your sins, whatever it happens to be, and you are able to move forward and go out of the vessel and move beyond it, that is called an overflowing measure and that is called mida socheket – a laughing measure..

One definition of happiness is progress and movement, things that Hashem expects of us and obligates us in.  As humans we are not supposed to be static but to be in continuous movement, and then, we will definitely be happier.

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