Before answering the question I need to say that I do not believe the purpose of Jewish values, ethics and Torah is the pursuit of happiness.King David’s psalms tell us “Ivdu et Hashem B’simchah” (worship/ serve G-d in happiness) implying that happiness is a modality through which one can choose to serve G-d, rather than a result of service to G-d.Observing G-d’s Torah, which includes ethics, values and Mitzvot is the way we serve G-d in modern times, and we are asked to perform that service in joy.
That being said, I do believe that living a virtuous, value filled life gives meaning to our existence, and thereby enhances our sense of happiness.Attaching ourselves to the Eternal G-d connects us to eternity and helps us reconcile fear of death.Add the beliefs that these values are absolute truths, that there is an afterlife and that there is eternal reward for virtuous living (the mother of all 401k’s and a basic orthodox belief ), and one gains an even greater sense purpose and happiness.
Finally, since my understanding of orthodox Judaism places “Ohev et Habriot” (love and care for human beings) at least on the same level as Yirat Hashem (fear of G-d), I find great spiritual and physical happiness in helping others deal with and reduce their suffering, while aiding them in finding joy in their own lives.
I’m not sure that practicing Jewish values can necessarily make someone happy, however, I think that when an individual has strong, positive values and puts those values into practice they will be a happier individual.
It’s also important to distinguish the difference between Jewish values and Jewish law (mitzvot). Following the commandments of the Torah will not make someone happy, although if they’re a believing Jew they may be kept from feeling guilty.
There are many factors that go in to making someone happy, including both nature and nurture as well as their psychological makeup. Some people may be unhappy, or even depressed, because of a situation or because of their DNA.
In his book Stumbling on Happiness, Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert uses cutting-edge research to show that happiness is not really what or where we thought it was. We often think we know what will make us happy, but we really do not. We also say we are happy but oftentimes, as Gilbert explains, we are just misusing the term “happy.” So, it’s possible that when you raise the question: “How can Jewish values help us become happy?” you may have a different notion of happiness.
Possessing Jewish values might not take someone from unhappy to happy on the emotional continuum, but in general, I believe that following an ethical and value-driven lifestyle will add happiness to your life.
I do think that Judaism is a faith that places emphasis on happiness and I often tell Jewish people, teens and adults, that they should strive to find the Jewish pathways that will add both meaning and happiness to their lives. We recite these words from Psalms three times a day: Ashrei Yoshvei Veiteicha. They mean “Happy are those who dwell in Your (God’s) house.” Perhaps that should be our mantra in Judaism. Use Jewish values as a way to discover happiness.
The question of Jewish values making us happy comes at a most opportune time. At the High Holy Days, we wish each other “L’Shana Tova” which we usually translate as “Happy New Year”. But the real meaning is “For a good year.” Can our values make us happy? Rather our Jewish values impel us to be good, so that we have the opportunity to become happy. Can we truly be happy when being so is at the expense of others? Can I be happy when the tornado devastates my neighbor’s home yet leaves mine untouched? I might be thankful, but my happiness is not increased by his travail! Perhaps as Jewish tradition urges, he then needs my help, my aid of quality, my act of goodness, to repair the damage, so that we might share our happiness together upon its completion.
Within our tradition, a mitzvah is not a good deed. It is a commandment, irrespective of the increase or decrease of my happiness upon performing it. But I do get an element of satisfaction and a measure of happiness upon its completion. We are not promised a life without disappointment. But we are offered a good life.
The Jewish values that most pertain to our lives are the ones in which we are in concert with our families, our neighbors, our communities and our world. Our Holiness Code of Leviticus 19 stresses how we become holy in relation to how we deal in society. The fact that our tradition demands honor, caring and responsibility leads to goodness; whose value rewards us with happiness and contentment. It is our Jewish values that offer sign posts in choosing a life of honor and fulfillment. When we can conclude the day with the feeling that the time was well spent, that we chose well, that it was a time of quality and accomplishment, we can feel a true sense of happiness.
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