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May/June 2016 – The Pursuit of Happiness

During the weeks between Pesach and Shavuot, we follow a time –honored Jewish practice of studying Pirke Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, works of wisdom about life and morality, offered by the Sages of old.

One of them, Ben Zoma, analyzed the qualities which comprise happiness.  His definition speaks to modern people with as much cogency as it did to our forebears some two thousand years ago.

The first element that enters the equation is wealth.  The Jewish Tradition is not naïve or unrealistic.  Poverty is not a virtue.  Poverty and happiness are not faithful companions.  Millions of people in underprivileged countries around the world would define happiness as a loaf of bread, a bowl of rice, a roof over their heads or a secure employment.

The second in the series of Ben Zoma is power.  No person can experience fulfillment if he/she has no influence over the lives of others, if her/his opinions are disregarded, his/her decisions rejected.  The ability to exercise control over events is a capacity necessary for happiness.

The third goal was wisdom.  This is a uniquely Jewish understanding of happiness.  From the Jewish point of view, a person devoid of culture and knowledge can achieve gratifications of the senses, but he/she cannot know the fulfillment of the mind that is essential to human happiness.

And finally, Ben Zoma refers to honor.  One who is the object of scorn and derision cannot be happy.  We recognize the deep universal need to be respected, to win the deference of others, the approval of our group, the regard of our peers.

If he/she said nothing further, we would be in Ben Zoma’s debt, for he has outlined the anatomy of happiness and established the fundamental conditions of its existence.

He then directs us to a formula by which we can acquire happiness.  He does so in a very few words which express profound ideas.

“Who is wealthy?  He/she who is content with his/her portion, who rejoices in his/her lot and is grateful for it.”  Ben Zoma grasped the essential truth about the human heart: our needs are few, our wants without number.  If we are tormented by limitless desires, we shall never have contentment.  The path to fulfillment lies in controlling our wants and looking upon our blessings with gratitude and appreciation.

“Who is powerful?”  The rabbi knew of great conquerors, but they didn’t conceive of these tyrants as men of power because they saw how these emperors were driven by ruthless ambition and consuming lust, self-destructive impulses.  The rabbis instead turned the gaze inward, for they taught that true power is in self-mastery.

“Who is the strong person?”  He/she who can conquer himself/herself.”  Self control and self discipline are the true signs of strength.  What the rabbis say to contemporary humanity is “Conquer your fears, your anger, and your despair.”  The art of self control is the greatest and most enduring form of strength.

“Who is wise?”  The rabbis were generally not people of wealth and were often devoid of power, but wisdom was their forte, the central quest of their experience.  But who is wise?  One who has mastered the law, who has probed the mysteries of the universe?

Ben Zoma’s answer was different.  “Who is wise?  He/she who learns from everyone.”  The truly wise person has an unclosed mind, receptive to new ideas, capable of extracting from human experience a rich core of insight.  Wisdom is the ability to respond to the stimulations of life.  If we can listen with understanding to the words of children, to the insights of the aged, to the sayings of the common folk, we can acquire new perspectives on a sometimes too familiar world.  To be truly educated means to be open to new challenges of thought all the time.

The last component in this formula of happiness should be noted.  “Who is honored? He/she who honors others.”  If we can respond to another human being with respect, if we can see in him or in her a unique individuality stamped by that same Divine power that makes life incalculably precious, then we shall create a climate in which honor and respect will flourish and grow.  This will make us worthy of honor.

Thus has Ben Zoma given us his guidelines for the acquisition of happiness.  They are simply stated, but their implementation requires limitless patience, concern, and understanding.  Ben Zoma not only told us what happiness is, he also told us what happiness is not.  Happiness is not in a pill, a bottle, a distant land or in some contrived amusement.  Happiness, like God’s Law, is not far away in heaven, but in your heart.  Seek the happiness that lies before you May your search be crowned with success.

Rabbi Leonardo Bitran