Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

2 Tammuz 5763 - July 2, 2003 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









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Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Shema Yisrael Torah Network

Opinion & Comment
. . . And the Pursuit of Happiness

America was built on the premise that all people have an "inalienable right" to pursue happiness, as well as the rights to life and liberty as recorded in the American Declaration of Independence whose anniversary is this week.

These latter two rights, as interpreted over the last 227 years, have served the Jewish people well, providing a refuge from persecution and the sanction to pursue our vision of avodas Hashem without interference. For this, the Jewish people must feel a deep gratitude to the American people in recognition of what they have provided and allowed us.

Moreover, the sense of morality evident in the Declaration of Independence has made America a champion of justice and enemy of evil throughout the world, coming directly or indirectly to the aid of oppressed Jews in Europe and seeing it as a duty to rid the world or evil tyrants from Hitler to Hussein. For this we are grateful both as those who suffered from their evil as well as our overall interest in tikkun ho'olom.

Notwithstanding all of this, and perhaps as part of our gratitude, it behooves us to warn that America has, in recent decades, pursued "happiness" in too many ways that are wrong and ultimately self-destructive. We can certainly not give a full catalog of how this has expressed itself -- in part because it would be too long and in part because it would be too ugly and disgusting -- but just mention a few examples.

The bounds of what is socially acceptable in the areas of retzicha (murder) and arayos (intimate matters) have been repeatedly broken down. Modern heroes are those who manage to do in public something that was hitherto considered intensely private. They are hailed and applauded for "pushing the envelope" and, perhaps more importantly, are showered with riches -- the ultimate American sign of approval. The consumer culture pressures everyone to consume more and more. The breakdown of a personal sense of morality makes people care less about how they achieve their desires. The happiness that is pursued has become defined overwhelmingly in terms of carnal pleasures, the lowest form of happiness that there is.

Scholars say that this was not the intention of the founders of America, who wrote in the Declaration, "That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men . . . " When they spoke about what they envisioned, they often used biblical images such as, "to be at peace under your vine and fig tree with none to make you afraid."

Though the Torah lifestyle does not ignore or suppress the pleasures of the body, there is a great stress on social pleasures that are unknown in modern America which glorifies the pleasure of individuals. The weekly seudas of Shabbos, the periodic observance of yom tovim in the family, and the celebration of life cycle events that are usually accompanied by a gathering of people and often for a festive meal, provide a steady source of genuine pleasure of a higher kind. The pleasure that one derives from being a part of a community of like-minded family and friends striving together for spiritual improvement is great and lasting -- and totally alien to the spirit that prevails in America these days.

Our call is to our own people: In such times it is more important than ever that we not be swept up in the excesses and decadence of the moment. We must ensure that we are truly a holy people and thereby provide an example of what the pursuit of happiness should be.

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