Life's Tool Box – A Guide for Parents and Educators

March 9, 2011

Chasing the Elusive Bluebird of Happiness – Thoughts on the Torah Portion of Pekudei

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I was recently invited, as part of a Yeshiva University community wide Shabbat program in Los Angeles, to speak to the congregation of Bnai David-Judea.  The topic, which was jointly agreed upon by Rabbi Kanevsky, the Rabbi of the shul, and myself, was Chasing the Elusive Bluebird of Happiness.   Here is a summary of the address I gave. 

How do we typically chase happiness?  Perhaps you’ve had the experience of eyeing a bauble, shirt, new electronic device, or snazzy car, and saying, if I buy that it will make me happy.  Or maybe you have been seduced by a yummy looking dessert, or a frothy drink, and you’ve indulged, reasoning – this will make me happy.  Or perhaps you’ve looked around your house and decided that a new kitchen, a bit more closet space, a redecorated den, that will make you happy.  But anyone who has done any of these things has probably discovered that any happiness you felt was fleeting.

Happiness – by its nature is elusive and fleeting– because it is random.  The word happiness – from the Latin root hap – like haphazard, happenstance, means chance, luck, unplanned and unstructured.  I’d like us to think with ancient Jewish wisdom today – and consider, instead of elusive and random happiness – Simcha, the Hebrew word for joy.  Unlike happiness, the notion of simcha or joy is far from random, and both modern psychology and the lines of the Torah portion of Pekudei which is read in synagogue this week, offer direction for inviting simcha, joy, into our lives.

My field of expertise, the field of clinical psychology has, for most of its history, focused not on studying happiness or joy, but on understanding human faults, mental illness and pathology.   The relatively new field of positive psychology however, recognizes the power of the human spirit, and focuses on resilience, and strength.  One of the first tasks of this new field has been to determine how to define and measure happiness and joy. 

Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Laureate in behavioral economics, defines happiness as pleasure – and has individuals carry a hedonometer, a device that gives off a signal at random and allows the carrier to record feelings of pleasure or pain.  The greater the recordings of pleasure – the higher the level of that person’s happiness, Kahneman argues. 

Other researchers have suggested that beyond pleasure, happiness should include one’s overall life satisfaction.  Still others argue that objective measures that sum our ratings of health, emotional state, relationships, and work satisfaction to form a happiness quotient are inadequate, because our objective ratings of happiness do not jive with our subjective feelings.  Consider the following examples:

 despite improvement in health, prosperity and safety in the Western World over recent years – people are no happier.   

  • Studies regarding Do Not Resuscitate orders and living wills show this disconnect.  When healthy, people often say they should not have heroic measures used to keep them alive, assuming their quality of life will be poor.  However, when you speak with chronically ill and debilitated pts, they enjoy life far more than they had expected.  60% of severely ill patients in one study said they would want treatment to the end – even with their limited capacity, if it prolonged their life for only one week.

Despite disagreements about how to define it, psychology has begun to identify elements that contribute to a joyful life.  Two of these are present in this week’s Torah reading – Pekudei  – and can be organized using the Geometry of Simcha that my colleague, David Pelcovitz, at the Azrieli Graduate School at Yeshiva University, is about to publish.  Let’s look at two geometric paradigms for happiness – the line and the circle.   

What words or images come to mind regarding lines?  We think of  

  • making a bee line,
  • line of sight,
  • finish line

All these phrases reflect direction, movement towards a purpose.  Parashat Pekudei, this week’s Torah reading, tells us 18 times the clear purpose that Moses, Bezalel and the entire k’lal Yisrael (Jewish people) applied themselves to – the building of the temple, the Mishkan,  ka- asher tzivah Hashem – according to the exact commandments of Hashem.  They had clarity of purpose.  They had no doubts and no confusion about what was needed or why.

Psychologists know that a sense of purpose is a critical element in happiness and joy.  I had two experiences this past year that drove this home.  During winter vacation, I visited the Carmel region in Israel, recently devastated by a horrible forest fire.  I joined a group for a day of volunteering in a Youth village that had been badly damaged by fire.  On our bus of volunteers were old folks like me, and high school students on their winter vacation, seminary and Yeshiva students.  We spent the day fairly deep in mud, planting areas that had suffered in the fire, and in a library with no running water, dusting books covered in ash, and packing them into boxes.  The high school students on the trip, I’m fairly certain, weren’t regular carriers of dust cloths, and would not volunteer for landscaping detail, yet by the middle of the day, spirits were uniformly high.  Sent on our way with heartfelt thanks from the staff and residents, everyone smiled, sung, and experienced the “happiness” of having an important purpose. 

This past Chanukah, at Yeshiva University, I saw how the joy of purpose can happen even when we engage in not so important tasks, and when the focus is not on solving big problems.  The unbridled joyfulness on campus was not from the internet smash of the University’s a capella singing group, The Macabbeats, who had hundreds of thousands of hits with their youtube video,  although that was pretty exciting.  It was dreidlepalooza. Posters all over campus urged everyone to meet in the gym on the Wednesday night of Chanukah to break the world record for the number of dreidles spun concurrently in one place.  I actually dismissed my graduate class a few minutes early so we could participate in making history.  We rushed to the next building, were issued stickers saying we spun at dreidelpalooza and arrived in the gym just in time to hear the loudest yell and applause I think I’ve ever heard.  In the room were Yehiva Univeristy students, guys and gals, and janitors, security guards, Washington Heights residents from the Jewish community and beyond.  Everyone, young children, older folks, all cramped into every inch of space, sitting on the floor spinning multicolored dreidels.  The sense of joy was palpable as the cameras and Guiness Book of World Records officials recorded the event.  Happily, and with a great sense of purpose and accomplishment, the crowd spilled into the commons for celebratory jelly donuts.

The straight line of simcha, the clear path to joy, is about having direction and focus, putting our minds and energy towards a goal.  The circle of simcha, another path to joy, is less about what we do, than who we do it with, who we connect to, and how we belong.  Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch, a prolific Torah scholar from Germany, in the late 1800’s,  in his commentary on the final verses of Pekudai, describes the “free, joyful obedience” with which B’nei Yisrael, the Jewish people, participated in the building of the temple, the Mishkan.  It was not a question of individual purpose, of Moses and Bezalel and a few workmen doing their thing, but of an entire community selflessly devoted to the task.  “Nowhere could be detected an effort, by adding or leaving out,  Hirsch explains, to carry out any idea of improvement, to leave some impression of the artists’ own personality on the work” .

In synagogues, this Shabbat, in addition to reading the weekly portion of Pekudei, a special additional reading is included, Shekalim. This reading, which describes the requirement for every male above the age of 13 (Bar Mitzvah) to donate half a shekel coin, mahazit hashekel , concretizes the unity and connection among B’nei Yisrael, the Jewish people  This all inclusive commandment reminds us that every Jew is both unique and critical.  Every Jew is equal to every other – no one can replace another by giving more, and no one can be overlooked, or allowed not to contribute. 

The unity embodied in mahazit hashekel echoes the unity of the circle. The circle is a symbol of equality.  In a circle, no one is a leader, no one is ahead of another, and no one is closer to the center.  The circle is also a symbol of connection, of how we are joined one to another in a powerful, unbroken chain. 

George Vaillant, Harvard professor of psychiatry explains that human beings are wired both for individual happiness and communal joy.  We have a sympathetic nervous system that goes into high gear to support the fight or flight response we need in the face of danger.  This allows us to survive as individuals.  But it is our parasympathetic nervous system, the part of our brain that handles positive emotions, that supports the survival of the community.   It is this communal brain, the parasympathetic nervous system, that allows us to cry.  We cry at loss and the grief of disconnection and we cry tears of joy when we experience true connection, when we feel a part of something.  Happiness, Vaillant says, is about ME, Joy, or simcha is about US.

Last week, in my synagogue, our wonderful Rabbi, Yehudah Kelemer welcomed visitors from Yachad, an organization for developmentally disabled individuals, who were participating in a Shabbat program. He raised a question about the upcoming new month, which is typically seen as a time of renewal, a new month brings the potential for a new start.  Renewal, the Rabbi argued, is a universal concept, marked and celebrated in many religions and with many rituals.  What, he asked, makes Rosh Chodesh, the Jewish celebration of a new month, uniquely Jewish?  The clue, he answered is the three words that appear in birkat haChodesh, the blessing of the new moon.  These three words, chaverim kol Yisrael, all Jews are connected as friends, occur nowhere else in Jewish liturgy.  We can only have simcha, joy, and experience renewal when we are connected to each other.

At the end of Parashat Pekudei, this week’s Torah portion, we read: V’hinei asu otah ka-asher tzivah Hashem cayn aso, v’yvarech otam Moshe.   And it was done as G-d commanded, so it was done, and Moses blessed them.  Moses blesses the Jews for following G-d’s plan exactly.  Jewish sages explain that Moses’ blessing to the Jews was: v’yehi noam Hashem Elokeynu aleynu u’ma – aseh yadeynu connenah aleynu u’maaseh yadenu connenehu – that the pleasantness (Hirsch actually says the happiness) of G-d should be upon you and the work of your hands. 

Why does Moses invoke the blessing of G-d’s pleasure or happiness on the work of our hands at this time.  After all, the work of the Mishkan, the building of the temple, was commissioned by G-d, and it was completed according to his specs.  Wouldn’t it naturally be blessed? 

The Malbim, a Russian Rabbi known for his Torah commentary (also in the 1800’s) offers a wonderful insight in his commentary to Psalms.  When a person builds a grand structure, he has changed the landscape, but has he changed himself?  Moses’ blessing for the Jewish people is that in building the Mishkan we have changed much more than the external look of the neighborhood.  His blessing is that through the process of building, by walking the straight line towards a Heavenly purpose,  and in doing it united as one unbroken circle, the Jewish people have been thoroughly and permanently changed, and therefore all their future work will be graced with the presence of G-d. 

 As Jewish people the world over prepare for the simcha, the joy of the month of Adar, which includes celebration of the holiday of Purim, let’s agree that chasing the elusive blue bird of happiness with purchases, food, or otherwise is futile.  Instead, let’s walk the line of purpose – as the builders of the Temple did, as the heroes of the Purim story that will soon be read, Esther and Mordechai did.  Let’s circle our wagons, connecting ourselves, ish l’reyeyhu, each one to his neighbor, being certain to provide equal kavod, honor and welcome to all.  And let’s hope that in walking the line and embracing the circle of simcha we merit the blessing to experience in our celebrations, and in all the days of our lives, tzahalah v’samecha, joyous rejoicing.

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