Parashat K’doshim: Happiness vs. Meaning

This past Wednesday night, we had the unique opportunity to host Anat Hoffman, a civil rights pioneer in Israel. Through her organizations, Women of the Wall and the Israeli Religious Action Center, Hoffman works to protect the rights of women, Reform Jews, Arabs and other vulnerable populations. Hoffman does not shy away from exposing Israel’s uglier side, and believes that we can love the country even more when we recognize that, like all of us, Israel is not perfect.

During the question and answer portion of the evening, one woman who was exploring making aliyah (emmigrating to Israel) asked Hoffman a difficult question. She said, “My husband and I are Jews of color, do you think we will face racism in Israel?” Hoffman paused for a moment and began her answer by quoting the Declaration of Independence. Perhaps seeking to agitate the hometown crowd, Hoffman said, “I’m dont really like the whole ‘pursuit of happiness’ thing.” Hoffman then went on to challenge the audience. “If you want a life of just happiness,” she said, “don’t move to Israel. Stay in the US. Your life will be easier. You won’t face as much discrimination. But if you want a life of meaning, make aliyah and challenge Israel to be better.”

Anat Hoffman posed an essential question to all of us: do we want a life of happiness or a life of meaning?

In surveys most people list happiness as their top value. One study says that last year 45% of Americans New Year’s Resolutions were related to living a happier life.

However, according to research by former Penn professor, Emily Esfahani Smith, the happy life and the meaningful life differ — and that the surest path to true happiness lies in chasing not just happiness but also a meaningful life. Psychologists have started to look more closely at how seeking happiness affects people, and unearthed some unsettling trends. The pursuit of happiness, it turns out, negatively affects our well-being and the surest way to find happiness is though seeking a life of meaning.

In one study by Veronika Huta and Richard Ryan, college students were asked to pursue either meaning or happiness over ten days by doing at least one thing each day to increase meaning or happiness, respectively. Some of the most popular activities reported by people in the meaning group included forgiving a friend, studying, and helping or cheering up another person. Those in the happiness group listed activities like sleeping in, playing games, and eating candy.

Although the students in the happiness group experienced more positive feelings and fewer negative ones immediately after the study, three months later their mood boost had faded. The students focused on meaning, meanwhile, did not feel as happy right after the experiment, which makes sense: meaningful pursuits, like helping a friend, require sacrifice and effort, and can even be painful in the moment. Yet three months later, the picture was different. The students who had pursued meaning said they felt more “enriched,” “inspired,” and “part of something greater than myself.” They also reported fewer negative moods. Over the long term, it seemed, pursuing meaning was more deeply satisfying than chasing happiness.

But this idea should not sounds so radical – it has been in our texts for thousands of years.

This week we read from the most central portion in our Torah. As you might have noticed when I did hagbah (the lifting of the scroll), parashat K’doshim (Leviticus 19), is the physical center of the Torah (which makes it one of the easier portions to  lift – you should see me try to do it when we get all the way to the end of Deuteronomy). But more importantly, K’doshim is also the spiritual center of the Torah. Mark Twain once wrote, “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.” K’doshim begins to answer the that question. We were born, we are here on this earth, to be holy and to emulate God’s holiness. The Torah portion begins, “Be holy because I, the Eternal your God, am holy.”

But what does that mean? What does it mean to be holy? Thankfully the portion continues, giving us a very unambiguous framework for living a holy life of meaning:

  • When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner.
  • When a stranger resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. Love them as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
  • Do not hold back the wages of a hired worker overnight.
  • Use honest scales and honest weights
  • Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind
  • Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly.
  • Do not go about spreading slander.
  • Do not hate a fellow in your heart. Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge.
  • Stand up in the presence of the aged, show respect for the elderly.
  • Love your neighbor as yourself.

This is what it means to be holy, this is what it means to live a meaningful life. The Torah does not tell us to sleep in and eat candy. They might feel great in the moment but focusing solely on our own immediate gratification and happiness will not lead us to holiness or to lasting fulfillment and happiness.

Viktor Frankl, the Holocaust survivor and author of “Man’s Search for Meaning,” wrote, “Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to ‘be happy.’”

In Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl suggests three ways for finding meaning in our lives:

  1. By creating a work or doing a deed
  2. By experiencing something or encountering someone
  3. By the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering

These are not theoretical ideas. Frankl’s ideas can be achieved in very practical ways. Although written in a different age, we can still easily live out parashat k’doshim’s blueprint for living a meaningful life. There are even a few easily accessible ways right here at Rodeph Shalom. You want to:

  • Leave the gleanings your the fields for the most vulnerable? Then join our Hunger Response group on May 29th to cook for a local shelter or sign up for a youth summer meal program, Breaking Bread on Broad.
  • Love the stranger as yourself? Join in our efforts with HIAS to help resettle refugees.
  • Ensure that justice is not perverted? Join RS Women Symposium: Gender-based Power Imbalance on May 6 or Day of Learning on May 15 and learn what Judaism says about gerrymandering.
  • Remove the stumbling block before the blind – Join our Support Group for Parents of children with Addiction.
  • Ensure the wages of a hired worker are not held overnight? Join our multi-faith community organizing group, POWER’s economic dignity campaign.
  • Love your neighbor as yourself? Get to know the other at our next multi-faith dialogue experience as we gather for an iftar meal with Masjidullah on May 20th.

Our goal in life can not just be happiness. Our goal should be meaningfulness. Instead of picking projects, hobbies, and relationships based on how happy they will make us, let’s focus on those things that make our lives more significant and worthwhile. If happiness ensues, great. But if it doesn’t, we can still take comfort in knowing that our lives matter and are contributing to the world in some way.

 Rabbi Harold Kushner, in his book, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” wrote, “You don’t become happy by pursuing happiness. You become happy by living a life that means something.”

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