How to Find Happiness
BY RABBI NOAH ZVI FARKAS
“These are the times that are called holy” Leviticus 23:2
There was an economic survey back in the 1970s that asked a series of questions that can be boiled down to the inquiry, “are you happy?” The economists behind the survey wanted to know-- in a long period of economic growth where incomes were rising and debts falling-- did having more money in your pocket made you happier. Questionnaires of this sort have been repeated many times. The results of the survey were decidedly mixed. On the one hand, you can track happiness and life-satisfaction to income. The more you earn, the more things you can own, and the happier you can become. This is true for both individuals and whole countries. On the other hand, when the data is reexamined through the lens of behavioral economics and psychology, a paradox emerges. While happiness seems to rise with increasing wealth, so did the rising sense of meaninglessness. As one billionaire said, “how many more pairs of jeans do I need to own to make me look good?”
What emerges from these studies is that our sensibilities adapt to the things we own. Every purchase of material goods we make can add to our satisfaction, but only for a short period of time. You quickly get used to your new car or purse and soon feel just as empty as you did before you bought that new thing.
Why bring this up? Because Judaism has always said that our lives cannot be reduced to the mere biological cycle of need and satisfaction. Life is more than the circle of pleasure, desire..pleasure...desire. You are more than a biological creature, more than what Freud said about how you are driven by instincts. The vital drives of sex, food, power and all the time we spend trying to satisfy those needs do not, according to our rabbis, describe the fullness of our existence. The material desires are part of each human being, but they cannot fully describe the experience of being human.
Our Torah portion, Emor, approaches this very subtly. “The LORD spoke saying….these are My fixed times, the fixed times of the LORD that you shall call holy.” (Leviticus 23:1-2). How remarkable it is that Book of Leviticus, which takes the newly minted Tabernacle as its backdrop, seems to always be focused much more on time than on space. Emor lays out a calendar throughout the year requiring you to take note of time’s passage in a sacred way. These times are ordained by God. They occur whether you know it or not. There is a world beyond your own desires, a sacred drama of which you are a part. Life is an ever-unfolding series of events that require inner renewal. When you become aware of these ordinal times you can see the drama around you in wonder and realize that you are unprecedented in history, you are a novelty, a surprise, a culmination and an emergent uniqueness. You are precious because you are more than material desires and satisfactions. It is the moments given to you in time that lift you beyond your biological self to your sacred self.
At the center of Torah is the story of you: of where you come from, of what is the nature of being human, of what is demanded of you and what you can give to the world, which gives our Torah portion a second dimension. God ordains the sacred times but it is up to you to make them holy. In the search for meaning we know that happiness is not found in the fullments of your needs, but in the answer to the question “are you needed?” Your life answers this question. You are needed by God to transcend the biological to the spiritual. This, according to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, is the central task of your life. The world, according to the Talmud, was created for your so that you know that you are part of something dramatically bigger than your personal needs. (Sanhedrin 34a). Being human and finding significance, and indeed happiness, cannot happen solely by the fulfillment of your desires, but instead in the realization that you are needed.
Shakespeare was right to put the question, “To be or not to be” in the mouth of a madman. For, it is insane to think that the only question worth answering is whether to live and not how to live. Our Torah portion teaches these great insights. It is time that shapes your life, and you are uniquely responsible for not wasting it. The great sage Hillel had a more sacred proposition a thousand years before the Bard when he asked, “If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”