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The Keys to Life

Judaism and the Pursuit of Happiness - Rabbi Zamir Cohen

Aside from happiness being a basic emotional need, it is also one of the most important principles in Judaism with respect to the service of G-d. Rabbi Zamir Cohen explains how to achieve happiness in times of darkness, difficulty, and crisis

Judaism and the Pursuit of Happiness - Rabbi Zamir Cohen

The natural tendency of the healthy mind is to be in a state of constant happiness. Joy is reflected by the expansion of the heart, which stems from a sense of inner satisfaction, and provides the will and capacity to advance in every area. Sadness on the other hand, leads to the suffocation, constriction and pressure of the heart, which inhibits all progress. And since a person's soul strives towards good and truthful peacefulness (and as we know, good, happiness and trust are interrelated, while evil, sadness and fear are intertwined), the pure soul strives for constant happiness. Especially since it longs for the boundless, heavenly euphoria, which is where it was immersed before it came down to the world in order to build its character inside a physical body. Therefore, it strives for happiness and avoids any feeling of suffocation leading to sadness.

However, aside from happiness being a basic emotional need, it is also one of the most important principles in Judaism with respect to the service of G-d: “Serve G-d with joy.”[9]

And there are certain times when we are commanded to be more joyous than usual, as it says:[10] “You shall make the festival of Sukkot for a seven day period when you gather in from your threshing floor and from your wine cellar. You shall rejoice on your festival – you, your son, your daughter, your slave, your maidservant, the Levite, the proselyte, the orphan, and the widow who are in your cities.”

The Torah also alludes to the fact that failure to rejoice while serving G-d will bring a claim against the person, as it says:[11] “Because you did not serve Hashem your G-d amid gladness and goodness of heart when everything was abundant, so you will serve your enemies.”

This demands an explanation. Man can be commanded to perform an action, but how could he be commanded to feel an emotion such as happiness? Is it in his control? Ideally, the average person would favor the idea of perpetual happiness, but he would probably also claim that the disappointments and hardships he endures take the joy away from him and sadden him.

How then, can the Torah command him to do something that's not in his control and in most cases, cannot be carried out?

However, the word B’Simcha (with joy), which appears in the above verses together with the added letter Bet at the beginning of the word, is composed of the same letters as the word Machshava (thought). This comes to teach us that happiness is not contingent upon that which we do or do not have; rather, it is dependent on our mental attitudes towards our experiences. In other words: It is through proper reflection that we can attain happiness. And this is what we are commanded to do - to stimulate our thoughts to reflect upon the events in our lives in a correct light. In this way, happiness will inevitably enter our hearts. Having the right perspective involves the following three mental tracks that must be considered and initiated in times of darkness, difficulty, and crisis:

1.  Focusing on the abundance that we already have.

2.  Reflecting upon the good that will come out of what currently seems bad.

3.  Internalizing the idea that the physical world, with all the its suffering, is nothing but an illusion.

We will now examine these three tracks. 

Track #1: Focusing on the Abundance that We Already Have

In times of distress, it’s a good idea to take a pen and paper and make a list of all the important things that people need in life, while considering the fact that some people were not fortunate enough to receive them. For example: a place to live, a bed to sleep in, legs to walk with, hands, five fingers on each hand, two functional eyes, teeth to chew with, and so on. The person should also list all the things he’s lacking and believes are important. Then, he should make a positive mark next to those things that he possesses, and a negative mark next the things that he does not possess, and then examine the results. Does he truly have a good reason to be sad? After all, he will find that he has more than ninety percent of all the important things! So is it wise of him to shut down mentally and physically because of the little bit that he is lacking? Particularly when in most cases, that ‘little bit’ pales in comparison to the things that are truly important.

Our sages have already alluded to this in the Mishnah:[12]” Who is rich? He who is happy with his lot”, the word ‘Ashir’ (rich) is an acronym for: Eyes, hands, teeth, and legs. If he has these then he’s already rich and he should be happy with his lot. How many wealthy people are there who would pay millions to restore their eyesight or the health of a dysfunctional vital organ? What about the person who’s alive and well? He possesses healthy organs in his body worth billions! Is it worth it for such a billionaire to be upset over a few hundreds of dollars or thousands or even a few hundreds of thousands? Or over some plan that didn’t work out? Or because of something displeasing that someone said to him?

And if we’re talking about a Jew, then he has an even greater spiritual abundance to rejoice over. Firstly, he should rejoice over the fact that he was fortunate enough to be a part of a special nation - as the One who created the great universe with all the people in it said: “You shall be to Me a kingdom of ministers and a holy nation.”[13] He has also declared and said: “My first born son is Israel.”[14] Meaning, you are greater to Me than all the kings and princes among the nations of the world! And thus, he should reflect upon the fact that his soul is exalted and is situated on the top rung of the ladder of all the various spiritual levels that exist in the world. And he should be happy and rejoice over the fact that he has the ability to attain the highest level of spiritual perfection in all of humanity. After all, while the nations of the world only received a Nefesh (a lower spiritual life force) and fewer tools with which to build their spiritual characters, the Jew has 613 instruments at his disposal that can be used to design and shape his immense spiritual soul. These 613 tools fully correspond to the structure of the Jew’s soul.[15] And through his efforts to withstand the tests and challenges that he receives by Divine intervention, he can acquire a lofty and exalted life of eternity, which no one else in the world can attain except for the Jew!

The truth is, that just focusing on and internalizing the above concepts alone can lead a person to obtain true happiness.

Track 2: Reflecting Upon the Good that Will Come Out of What Currently Seems Bad

As explained in other parts of this book, even though man does not have the ability to know what his future will hold, the person who believes in G-d is well aware of the fact that the Creator, Who has no limitations, loves His creations and wants the best for them. Especially the Jewish people who He refers to as: “My first-born son…”[16] Therefore, he must reflect and think to himself, that if that’s the case, then surely, once I’ve fulfilled my obligation to do what is necessary regarding my affairs, they will be orchestrated and arranged for me in a way that will produce the most favorable result, whether it is now or in the future. But I, with my limited comprehension and vision, do not know why the current phase that is so difficult, is essentially in my favor, but I trust the Creator Who loves me, that certainly, “Everything that the All-Merciful does, He does for the best.” And he should strengthen himself by observing all the things that have happened to him or others in the past, when at first they seemed difficult and bad, but after a short while the extended good that came out of them became apparent. And he must always remember that on the contrary, in the world of nature, dawn illuminates only after nightfall, and the brightest light only comes after the darkest moments.

There’s an ancient story about a king who wished to find the wisest man in his entire kingdom and award him for his wisdom. So he declared that he is conducting a very complex competition. Only forty-seven people had the courage to compete for the exalted title and the prize that came along with it. All the participants were wise sages with gray hair, educated in all the wisdoms, who possessed many skills. Among them was a Jewish boy with clever eyes, who came to try his luck; maybe he will be able to help his family financially with the prize that he wins. And behold, the rules of the competition were announced: “Before you is a massive structure with tens of floors, thousands of rooms and hundreds of corridors. The king is hiding in one of the many rooms. The first one who reaches the king and shakes his hand, will receive the honorary title and be awarded the big prize. The time allotted for the search: Thirty minutes only!” After a few moments of shock, the wise men began their calculations basing their conjectures on probability and other mathematical factors hoping it will lead them to the right conclusion as to where to begin the search. In the meantime, the boy stepped out of the courtyard without saying a word. He walked around the structure, quickly returned, went up to the thirteenth floor, passed one corridor, opened up the fourth door, and shook the hand of the king who was hiding inside.

During the grand banquet that was conducted in his honor, the child prodigy sitting next to the king was asked, “how did you know where the king was hiding?” The boy answered innocently: “When I went outside, I looked at all the windows of the palace. All the rooms were lit except for one dark room, and my father always tells me; ‘wherever there is darkness, that’s where the treasure lies.’  

So that’s how I knew; the dark room must be where the king is hiding…”

This is the secret to happiness in life; to understand and internalize that in times of darkness, not only will the light appear, but also that it is specifically concealed inside that darkness. And the present difficulty that the person is enduring is the reason for the great abundance that will come in the future.

But what happens is, that the Creator in His infinite wisdom sees that prior to the new and improved design, certain interfering factors must first be removed or even destroyed as they are inhibiting the building process. Sometimes it is pride that delays abundance, in which case suffering is brought about in order to destroy the pride and pave the way for an abundant future. Sometimes it has to do with blemishes that have stained the person’s soul from all the sins that he has committed in the past, so the suffering comes as a cleansing device. While other times involve reasons beyond human comprehension. We must always remember the following law of nature; that immediately after a seed rots in the ground, a beautiful stem with many new seeds emanates from it. The same is true in the spiritual world.

There are negative forces that can inhibit the physical or spiritual abundance that man is supposed to receive. Some examples of this abundance may include: marriage, children, income, spiritual elevation, and closeness to G-d. The inhibiting factors may involve arrogance, anger, jealousy etc. or a deficiency in the person’s trust in G-d. Sometimes a deficiency in either the observance of the mitzvoth, prayer, or Torah study may be the cause, while the purpose of the hardships serves to humble him until he becomes more trusting in G-d, more meticulous with the mitzvoth, his Torah study, or prayer. Once that takes place, the great abundance can finally come.

These are the profound teachings of our sages in the Midrash[21] regarding the verse:[22] “Do not rejoice over me, my enemy, for though I fell, I will rise! Though I sit in the darkness, Hashem is a light unto me.”

Our sages have taught: Will stems from anger, light from darkness, and mercy from aggravation. Relief comes from sorrow, closeness from distance, and growth from failure. It is within the hardship itself that the opposing force is embedded. This is the good that directly follows the bad. This kind of introspection has the power to bring a person to endure hardships with joy, because ultimately – it is all for the best.

Track 3: The Illusion of the Material

This mental track is seemingly the most intricate one of all, however, it is actually quite simple and entirely true. Sadness can be caused by several factors – i.e. material losses, disappointments, lost wages, damaged property, loss of assets, an unpaid loan, or financial aspirations that have not materialized and so on.

As we know, all physical matter in the world is nothing but a tangible illusion that adapts itself to the physical body. Every object in our world is made up of tiny particles invisible to the naked eye called atoms. Each atom is made up of a nucleus surrounded by fast-moving electrons that give the atom the appearance of an encasing in the same way that the propellers of a fan resemble a solid plate when rotating at high speed. And when countless electrons are crowded together, they begin to form a physical image that eventually becomes tangible. To further elucidate the matter, we can say that trillions of atoms can fit on the thinnest tip of a needle! This is an unfathomable number.

We will also mention that the distance between the nucleus of the atom and the cloud of electrons surrounding it, proportionately resembles the distance between a tiny box in the middle of a huge stadium, and the walls of the stadium.

From here we see that visible matter in the world is nothing but a complex system made up of dense masses of imaginary atomic encasings, which create the image of matter – or more accurately, the illusion of matter.

Scientists cannot provide an answer to where the energy that drives the electrons comes from. It is frightening to think of what would happen if for any reason, the electrons would suddenly stop moving. If that were to occur, then all physical matter in the living and in the inanimate world, including the world itself would simply vanish. And from all that exists, only a tiny bit of matter the size of a matchbox would remain.

However, the sages of the mystics have already told us not to worry about such an occurrence, as the real world is spiritual, not physical.

Physical matter is nothing but an encasing for the spiritual soul, and that inner soul is the root of everything that exists, as ordered by Heaven. It is what moves and connects the particles of the inanimate, makes the plants grow, and provides life to the living (read more on this topic in the book, The Revolution, in the chapter called ‘The Atom and the Spirit of the Inanimate’. See the chart that details the levels of the soul in the different elements of creation and the place where they are rooted in the upper worlds in the book Hatzofen page 336.)

Now, since physical matter is nothing but an illusion, then all the physical pleasures (as well as all the physical hardships) are not only momentary, they are also illusory, as it is the spiritual dimension of the world that is real and eternal. Therefore, real pleasure can only be achieved through spiritual fulfillment.


Notes and Sources

[1] Tehillim 98:8

[2] Psachim 117a

[3] Melachim 2, 3:15

[4] Kohelet 7:14

[5] Hatzofen Letter ‘Samech’ page 221

[6] Tehillim 32:11

[7] Kohelet 2:2

[8] Midrash Rabbah, Shemot Parsha 30:21

[9] Tehillim 100:2

[10] Devarim 16:13-14

[11] Devarim 28:47-48 The simple explanation of the verse teaches that when there was an abundance of good and happiness among the people of Israel, they committed sins and did not serve G-d, therefore, all good would be taken from them and they will serve their enemies. However, the Midrash explains that since their service of G-d was not done with happiness but rather with sadness, as though they are being burdened by the observance of the commandments and do not understand that all the mitzvoth are intended for their benefit, they will be punished when they serve their enemies. Both of these explanations can be applied to the verse.

[12] Avot 4:1

[13] Shemot 19:6

[14] Shemot 4:22

[15] The gentile is commanded to observe seven laws, which correspond to the seven parts of the male body, while the Jew received 248 positive commandments and 365 negative commandments, which correspond to the 248 limbs and 365 sinews. See the words of the holy Zohar in Parshat Vayishlach (page 170b) and the words of Maharchu in the book, Shaarei Kdusha (section 1 gate 1).

[16] Shemot 4:22

[17] Zohar Parshat Vayakhel 201b

[18] Nefesh Hachaim Shaar 2, chapter 10

[19] Yevamot 64a

[20] Zohar Parshat Toldot 137a

[21] Midrash Tehillim 24

[22] Michah 7:8

Adapted from "The Keys to Life" by Rabbi Zamir Cohen