2012-03-07 / Religion Column

True happiness can be found in family and community

Congregation Beth Tikvah

There are any number of stereotypes to describe Jews—studious, observant, family-oriented, clannish, loyal, hardworking, and socially conscious, to start off a potentially long list. One of the lower ranking words to appear on this chart would probably be “happy.” If an outsider learned their view of Judaism via the later movies of Woody Allen, it’s unlikely they would think of us as a Happy People at all!

Yet, happy we should be, particularly at this time of the year. The sages tell us, “When the month of Adar arrives, our happiness increases.” Adar is our current Hebrew month, most known for its holiday of Purim. We all remember the joy of the food, drink, and the costumes. Fewer of us cling to the precarious situation of the Jews of ancient Persia and acknowledge how close we were to Haman’s dream of Jewish annihilation. The reality was pretty harsh; who wants to dwell on the depressing persecutions! The dictum about Adar happiness implies that one should be joyful even if one’s heart is not in it.

Does someone need to be told to be happy? Charismatic Hassidim have taught that happiness is the natural state of being. Perhaps being happy isn’t the norm for some people and they need to be encouraged to do so.

Maimonides, known as the Rambam, lived in the 12th century, said that “…happiness is the fundamental element of our relationship with God, and its lack is a great fault.” The Baal Shem Tov taught that, “…there is nothing that causes as much spiritual damage as the lack of joy, because depression opens the doors to all types of decadence.”

I wonder if the conclusions of the two scholars put too much blame directly on the unhappy individual. I wear two compatible professional hats (or Kipot) as both a rabbi and a therapist. Sometimes, I see people who are depressed or grieving, or both, who need to be assured that they are indeed worthy of happiness. Others need to accept that a sufficient amount of time has passed since a defining moment interrupted the flow of their lives and as they seek permission to return to their former selves. Some people’s unhappiness can be addressed by talk therapy with a compassionate rabbi or therapist, but others are candidates for a pharmaceutical intervention. Everyone deserves to be happy, and the annual Adar reminder is therapeutic.

What does it mean to be happy, anyway? Would you define happiness as a euphoric rush of the giggles, or maybe a manic display of disproportionate feeling of being supercharged? Hardly. As Jews we absorb the teachings of the second century C.E. Mishnaic sage, Ben Zoma, “Who is rich? The one who is happy with their share.” Not the wealthiest individual, but the one with the well-lived life. For our ancestors, happiness was defined as a sense of well-being, more concerned about the quality of one’s soul. They were more aware of the kind of life one led, rather than how one felt at a given moment.

Viewing Judaism as a therapeutic rabbi, I believe one achieves happiness through our relationships with others. Family, community, and our holy congregations define who we are and how we are accepted. I recommend to everyone to find others with whom to celebrate this holiday along with the balance of the ritual year. The joy and happiness of Purim will be fun and cathartic


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