Finding Happiness

When Yaakov blesses Yehudah, he says that Yehudah will be “red-eyed from wine, and white-toothed from milk.” [49:12]

In the Talmud, Rabbi Yochanan offers a homiletic interpretation of this verse. [Kesubos 111b]. He says that one who smiles graciously at his friend is even greater than one who gives him physical nourishment — a change of a vowel turns “white toothed” to “whitens his teeth,” which is “from”, or greater than, milk. One of the greatest things we can do for a person, he says, is to help him or her to be happy.

Last year I spoke about spreading happiness. But what is happiness, anyways? We think we know, but consider the following.

In our day, we are “blessed” with an industry whose sole purpose is to make us happy: entertainment. The dictionary tells us that entertainment is “something affording pleasure, diversion, or amusement,” and people clamor for the opportunity to work in an industry where their job boils down to making others happy — whether through acting, singing, professional sports, acrobatics or anything else that people will pay in order to come and be entertained.

There is also an industry whose practitioners seem chronically unable to be happy. An extraordinary number of them escape into drugs or even suicide. They are unlikely to maintain stable relationships. They often entertain themselves with unhealthy, harmful and illegal activities. And what industry is that? Why, the same one: entertainment.

You might also have thought that I was speaking of psychologists, because many of these things are true of them as well. The very therapists that people see when they are unhappy are themselves “at least as troubled as the general population.” People pay thousands of dollars for therapy to help them be happy, yet the practitioners themselves are miserable.

Does this make sense?

Yaakov said that Yehudah will be able to share happiness. I believe this is tied not merely to recognition of Yehudah’s leadership, but in the way it was expressed. When Yaakov prepared his family to descend to Egypt, he sent Yehudah on ahead “to guide the way to Goshen,” [46:28] which the Medrash explains to mean that he sent Yehudah to establish a House of Study.

Karl Marx wasn’t entirely wrong when he said that religion “is the opiate of the masses.” It does make people happier, but that happiness isn’t a drug or an escape. Recognizing that we are not alone, and rejoicing in our connection to G-d, makes us happier — but in the healthiest of ways. King David said it first: “were it not for your Torah, my consolation, I would be lost in my sorrows” [Psalms 119:92].

If a person has a true psychological issue, then indeed, a professional therapist can help. But if a person is just feeling a general malaise, then an escape into movies, books, and performances is of far less value than a visit to the House of Study. And by that, I don’t mean (only) eternal value, I mean what will be most helpful and enduring in the here and now.

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