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29 Cheshvan 5766 - November 30, 2005 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










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Opinion & Comment
The True Path to Happiness in This World

by Rabbi Mordecai Plaut

"And may Hashem give you from the dew of the Heavens and the fat (choicest) portions of the earth and much grain and wine. Nations will serve you and the sons of your mother will bow down to you. Those who curse you are cursed and those who bless you are blessed" (Bereishis 27:28).

These are the blessings that Yitzchok Ovinu gave to his son — our father — Yaakov. The blessings promise him material cornucopia and political power. It would seem to fit right in with the modern, Western world. Money and power are, along with pure hedonic pleasure, what evidently drive the modern rat race, and the blessings of Yitzchok Ovinu appear to promise success in that race.

That, of course, is ridiculous. Even modern psychology has found that wealth is not correlated with happiness. As Daniel Gilbert, head of Harvard University's Hedonic Psychology Laboratory, writes, "Wealth is a poor predictor of happiness. . . . The difference between earning nothing and earning $20,000 is enormous—that's the difference between having shelter and food and being homeless and hungry. But economists have shown us that after basic needs are met, there isn't much `marginal utility' to increased wealth."

In fact, Yitzchok is certainly not blessing his son with wealth in order to make him happy. The Rambam explains in Hilchos Teshuvoh (9:4): "Hakodosh Boruch Hu gave us this Torah, a Tree of Life, and whoever does all that is written within, and knows it thoroughly and properly — will thereby merit life in Olom Habo. . . . And the Torah promised us that if we do it with simchah and a happy soul, and we think about its wisdom constantly, that He will take away all those things that prevent us from fulfilling it, such as sickness and war and famine and the like. And He will shower us with all the beneficial things that strengthen our ability to fulfill the Torah, such as satiety, and peace, and plenty of silver and gold — so that we should not spend all our days occupied with the things that the body needs, but rather we will be free to learn wisdom and to do the mitzvos, so that we will earn Olom Habo. . . ."

The blessings received by Yaakov are not the goals of his life themselves, chas vesholom, but just the tools to achieve the true goal of life.

Interestingly enough, Professor Gilbert has something to say about what is usually correlated with happiness, and this is backed up by many other researchers in this area. (It is somewhat surprising that leading university researchers spend their time on these topics. It speaks volumes about the shallowness of modern thought, even among the genuinely intelligent thinkers.) "Social relationships are a powerful predictor of happiness—much more so than money is. Happy people have extensive social networks and good relationships with the people in those networks."

As a concerned father, Yitzchok Ovinu did not leave this key to happiness out of his blessings. When he tells Yaakov Ovinu to take a wife in Padan Aram, he adds, "And [Hashem] should bless you and make you fruitful and multiply, and you should become a community of nations" (28:3).

As tens of thousands of happy chareidi Jews can testify, being fruitful is usually a very effective way of making sure that one has an "extensive social network and good relationships with the people in those networks."

Professor Gilbert himself notes that ". . . while money is weakly and complexly correlated with happiness, and social relationships are strongly and simply correlated with happiness, most of us spend most of our time trying to be happy by pursuing wealth. Why?" He answers, "Individuals want to be happy, and societies want individuals to consume." Society teaches us "that consumption will bring us happiness."

So much the worse for society. However he leaves a very important question unasked: Why do people not pursue the most effective way of ensuring happiness-bringing social relationships, i.e., why don't they have large families?

We do not have an answer to this, except to stress that it was Odom Horishon, the father of all men, who was originally told to be fruitful and multiply. Those who cut off their link to the first man, apparently also cut off their link to his first commandment.

In any case, our concern is not with the nations of the world. Our hope is that our people will continue to take this commandment and blessing to heart, and will be fruitful and will multiply. We should realize that it is the best path to happiness in This World, no less than it is a mitzvah that brings reward in the World to Come.

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