Tag Archives: Kindness

What is Happiness?

The Torah describes the holiday of Sukkot as being especially happy, and commands us to be akh sameach, “only happy” (Deuteronomy 16:15). When we look across Judaism, we find that there are actually three more holidays that are described similarly. Purim is the next one, of which the Talmud famously states that one must “increase in happiness” during the month in which Purim takes place (Ta’anit 29a). This is based on Scripture, where we read “And to the Jews was light, happiness, joy and prestige” (Esther 8:16). The last two specially-happy days are Tu b’Av and Yom Kippur, of which the Talmud states “there were never in Israel greater days of joy than the Fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur” (Ta’anit 26b).

Why are these four holidays happier than the others? What is their connection to happiness? To answer that, we must first explore a bigger question: what exactly is happiness? Of course, we have all experienced happiness and innately know what it is. The real question is: what is the proper path to attaining true and lasting happiness? If we take a brief trip through centuries of philosophical thought, we will find that there are four major answers to this question. While every philosopher and school of philosophy had their own slight variation, we can group all of their answers into four categories:


The first and simplest answer is that the cause of all happiness is physical pleasure. Archaeologists and historians have found this sentiment in some of the earliest known human texts, including the Epic of Gilgamesh, where it says “Fill your belly. Day and night make merry. Let days be full of joy. Dance and make music day and night… These things alone are the concern of men.” Among the ancient Greeks, it appears it was Democritus (c. 460-370 BCE) who first subscribed fully to this notion. Aristippus (c. 435-356 BCE), a student of Socrates and founder of the Cyrenaic school of philosophy, made this the foundation of his worldview. It would come to be known as hedonism, the attainment of happiness through the pursuit of maximal pleasure.


The second answer is, perhaps ironically, the exact opposite of the first: true happiness can only come when a person detaches from all material things. Antisthenes (c. 445-365 BCE), another student of Socrates and founder of the school of Cynicism, held that the key to ultimate happiness was to be unconcerned with wealth and material pleasures. These are all temporary and fleeting, bringing a person short-lived joy and leading to ever greater addictions that can never be satisfied. Lasting happiness can only come from a simple, ascetic lifestyle. This same view is mirrored by multiple Eastern religions.

A related view is the one first espoused by Pyrrho (c. 360-270 BCE), an intriguing figure who journeyed all the way to India with the armies of Alexander the Great. He taught that happiness can only come after ataraxia, “freedom from worry”. A person does not necessarily have to detach from all material and physical pleasures, but does need to detach from all kinds of fears and dogmas. Nothing can ever be proven to be completely true, so we should stop worrying and stop making all kinds of judgements. One needs to develop a state of being mentally unbothered and at peace.

A bust of Epicurus

Epicurus (c. 341-270 BCE) took these ideas to the next level. He maintained that having no fears or worries means not having fear of God either, or any sort of divine punishment. It isn’t surprising, therefore, that the Talmudic sages had a particular aversion to Epicureanism, so much so that apikores became the standard Jewish term for a heretic. However, Epicurus did not preach immorality. Contrary to popular belief, he held that one should lead an ascetic life, be of high moral character, and focus on developing healthy and positive relationships with all people.


Possibly the most frequent answer to the happiness question lies in developing virtue. This means being of exceedingly good character, and being moral and just. Such was the view of Plato (c. 424-348 BCE), as well as Aristotle (384-322 BCE), who added that virtue meant having a properly-balanced life. Zeno of Citium (c. 334-262 BCE), founder of the Stoic school, also held that virtue was the key to happiness. One of the later Stoics, Epictetus (c. 55-135 CE) said that one who has true virtue will be “sick and yet happy, in peril and yet happy, dying and yet happy, in exile and happy, in disgrace and happy.”

This sentiment is very much in line with the view of our ancient Sages, and the approach of the Torah as a whole. One need not be an ascetic, nor should one descend into hedonism; rather, the Torah way is to balance the physical and spiritual, and focus on fulfilling the law (Torah and mitzvot), while increasing acts of kindness. This was succinctly stated by the first rabbi in Pirkei Avot, Shimon haTzadik, who stated that life is built on “Torah, divine service, and acts of kindness” (Avot 1:2). King Solomon concluded the same thing at the end of his existential Kohelet, where he ponders the meaning of life: “The end of the matter, all having been heard: fear God, and keep His commandments; for this is the whole man.” This brings us to the final key to happiness.


Taking what was said above one step further, we find that when we fulfil God’s law, we thereby connect to Hashem. This is indeed the root of the word mitzvah, which literally means to “bind”. Since God is the ultimate source of all goodness, binding to God is the ultimate way to maximize happiness. This view was echoed by Boethius (477-524 CE), among others. Long before them, we find it in the Torah, which repeats multiple times that we will be joyous before God (v’samachta lifnei Hashem, as in Deuteronomy 12:18, 16:11, 27:7, for example), and that we will be joyous when we receive God’s endless goodness (as in Deuteronomy 26:11).

Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

This is deeply connected to what psychologists today see as the root of happiness: living with a greater sense of purpose. Viktor Frankl (1905-1997) detailed it fully in his Man’s Search For Meaning. It is more succinctly depicted in Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs”, where physical pleasures are at the very bottom of the pyramid, offering the lowest degree of happiness, while “self-actualization”—living with purpose each day—is at the very top of the pyramid. Living with purpose is the key, and it needs to be a good, meaningful purpose (ie. “making more money” doesn’t cut it).

For a Jew, that purpose comes from God. We have a clear set of missions to accomplish in life, from the most basic being the fulfilment of Torah mitzvot each day, to the more mystical ones like rectifying our souls, and elevating the sparks of holiness trapped in Creation in order to repair the cosmos. This outlook gives a tremendous amount of meaning to each day, and to every moment. Something as simple as eating an apple becomes a world-altering experience: that beracha recited before consuming the apple is as a spiritual rectification that brings the world one step closer to perfection. In this way, one has the potential to be filled with joy at every moment. A person who sees himself as God’s divine emissary will therefore be, to borrow from Epictetus, “sick and yet happy, in peril and yet happy, dying and yet happy, in exile and happy, in disgrace and happy.” Is this not the reason that Judaism has survived millennia of death, destruction, exile, and disgrace?


The perfect model of self-actualization is a person who is intricately connected to the holiday of Sukkot: King David. His Psalms are an incredible lesson in a person who has found joy at each moment by cleaving to God. Take his most famous song as an example, Psalm 23:

A song of David: God is my Shepherd, I shall not lack anything. He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul; He guides me in righteous paths for His Name’s sake. Even when I walk in the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me. You set a table before me in the presence of my adversaries; You anointed my head with oil; my cup overflows. Only goodness and kindness pursue me all the days of my life, and I dwell in the House of God forever.

In this one Psalm we see the balance between asceticism and hedonism, we see true ataraxia—not from abandoning God, but form recognizing that faith in God means having no other fears at all—and we see the recognition that each and every day is full of goodness and kindness, even in death’s very shadow. In short, of the four answers to the question of happiness, the final is the best for it includes the other three within it. And this brings us back to the four happiest Jewish holidays.


It isn’t difficult to see how those four Jewish holidays described in especially-happy terms correspond to the four paths to happiness: Purim is known for its hedonistic elements, while Yom Kippur is pure asceticism. Tu b’Av is about virtue, as the Talmud (Ta’anit 26b) tells us explicitly that on that day when the men went out to find their soulmates, they were reminded not to look at physical beauty, but for a woman of real virtue. And Sukkot is the last: a holiday where we sit in Hashem’s Sukkah, literally immersed in the mitzvah, and have a chance to feel God’s “embrace”. In the same way that the fourth answer to happiness includes the three previous ones within it, Sukkot has all the elements within it, too.

Sukkot is the culmination of the season of Malkhut, the time when we crown God as “King”. It begins on Rosh Hashanah, when we start reciting HaMelekh HaKadosh, “The Holy King” in our prayers (instead of HaEl HaKadosh, “the Holy God”), and concludes with the last day of Sukkot. On that last day, the Kabbalists tell us that one’s decree for the year is sealed up for the final time, and the angels are given their instructions to carry out.

The last day of Sukkot is specifically tied to King David, who is the final leader of the ushpizin, the spiritual “guests” in the Sukkah. David is God’s appointed king on Earth, reflecting God’s own Kingship above. In the mystical Tree of Life, this is reflected in the fact that the lowest Sefirah of Malkhut, “Kingdom”, parallels the highest Sefirah of Keter, God’s “Crown”. Malkhut represents the earthly kingdom, and is therefore associated with King David. And it is in the Sefirah of Malkhut that happiness lies.

What exactly is Malkhut? While the other Sefirot, like Chessed and Gevurah, are pretty straight-forward in their meaning (at least on the surface level), Malkhut is not quite clear. How do we interact with Malkhut? Which character traits does it correspond to, and what exactly are we supposed to learn from it?

In many places the Kabbalists speak of Malkhut as Shiflut, “lowliness”. This is associated with humility, though there is a difference. Shiflut contains within it an aspect of sadness and melancholy. It is related to the ancient concept of a bar nafle, literally a “fallen child” (or “miscarriage”) but more like a “fallen soul”. It is a soul that often feels a sense of inner emptiness, and experiences itself as constantly “falling”. While all humans, at times, experience some inner emptiness, it was King David who was the quintessential bar nafle (see Sanhedrin 96b). Yet, despite this challenging disposition, he found a way to live in joy constantly, as we have seen. How? The secret is in Malkhut.

The six Middot (in red), flow into Malkhut below.

The Kabbalists describe Malkhut as an empty vessel. It is the receptacle at the bottom of the Sefirot, and only receives from the Sefirot above, particularly the six Middot. So, to fill that vessel one needs to focus on those six qualities: to increase acts of kindness (Chessed), and develop self-restraint (Gevurah), to build virtue and lead a balanced life (Tiferet), to persevere (Netzach), to be grateful (Hod), and to have a pure, monogamous, and loving marriage (Yesod). These are the things that truly fulfill a person, and altogether lead to real happiness. This is why the Kabbalists say happiness is in Malkhut.

The Ramchal (Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, 1707-1746) explains that this is all encoded within the letter Shin or Sin (ש), which stands for sasson (ששון) and simcha (שמחה), “joy” and “happiness” (Ma’amar HaGeulah, Discourse 3, Ch. 11). The letter Shin has three prongs, and the Ramchal says that the first Shin in “sasson” represents the first three Middot; the second Shin represents the next three; and the letter Nun is Malkhut. (“Nun” actually shares a root with the Aramaic term for “kingdom”, and is the same root as Nineveh, the capital city we read about in the Haftarah of Yom Kippur.) This is precisely what was described above, as the Middot flow into Malkhut, and fill it with joy. (It’s worth mentioning that the Ramchal says within Yesod lies the greatest source of happiness, which is alluded to by the letter Vav in the word “sasson”)

A four-pronged Shin on the head tefillin.

The Shin itself alludes to the paths of happiness. Shin actually has two forms: the normal one with three prongs, and the mystical one with four prongs (as found on the side of all head tefillins). This represents the three classic paths to happiness, and the fourth mystical one that includes the other three within it. (Something to be mindful of as we place the tefillin on the head!) The three-four arrangement also alludes to the Tree of Life itself, which is described as having three columns, all leading to Malkhut at the bottom. The left column represents the path of asceticism, the right column of virtue, and the middle column that proper balance within the sphere of pleasure. All flow into Malkhut, the kingdom in which we must live with a divine sense of purpose, as commanded by our King above.

In short, the proper Torah way holds all paths to happiness. When we walk those paths, we bring God’s kingship into this world, and as ambassadors of the King, we are privileged to all the honours and benefits that come with the position. Then, like King David, we can happily rest in God’s House all the days of our lives.

Chag sameach!

The Spiritual Significance of Sefirat haOmer

The Torah commands that each day between the holidays of Pesach and Shavuot be verbally counted (Leviticus 23:15). Along with this counting, a bundle of barley was brought as an offering in the Holy Temple. The barley was measured in units of omer, with one omer being equal to approximately 3 litres. Today, we no longer have a Temple or barley offerings, but the mitzvah of counting the days between Pesach and Shavuot remains, and is referred to as Sefirat HaOmer, “the Counting of the Omer”. Since there are exactly seven weeks between the two holidays, there are 49 days which need to be counted. What is the deeper meaning behind this seemingly mundane practice?

The Fifty Levels

There are a number of spiritual explanations for Sefirat haOmer. Perhaps the most popular is the idea that in Egypt, the Jews were so deeply mired in the immoral and idolatrous Egyptian society that they had descended all the way down to the 49th level of impurity.

It is said that there are 50 levels of impurity, rooted in (or at least suggested by) the numerical value of the Hebrew word for “impure” (tam’e, טמא) which has a gematria of 50. The Jews had stooped down to the 49th level, and had they reached the 50th, there would have been no hope of salvation for them. Thus, God cut short the 400 year period of slavery that was decreed upon them, and immediately took the Jews out of Egypt before they could fall any further.

Corresponding to these, the Jewish mystics teach that there are 50 levels of constriction in the world. Egypt represented these 50 constrictions. Again, this can be illustrated through Hebrew and gematria: Egypt is Mitzrayim (מצרים), the root of which is tzar (צר, meaning “constrict” or “narrow”) and the suffix of which is ים, numerically equalling 50. Egypt is the land of 50 constrictions.

Following the Exodus, the task of the Jews was to cleanse themselves of the 49 levels of impurity which they had acquired, and to break free from all those constrictions that were imposed upon them. This is why they needed a 49-day period – one for each impurity and constriction – before they were ready for the Divine Revelation and reception of the Torah at Mt. Sinai on Shavuot.

The Tree of Life

The Passover Haggadah reminds us that each Jew must envision themselves as personally coming out of Egypt. Though we are thankfully no longer literally slaves, the truth is that each of us is still mired in some kind of constriction, be it a constriction to time or work, money or health, stress, fears, and all those others things that “narrow” our lives and confine us into various forms of spiritual slavery. The Torah commands each of us to break free, to remove all of those impurities and boundaries, and to elevate ourselves over this special period of 49 days. Each day is associated with a unique energy to help us in this path.

The 49 energies stem from the Kabbalistic “Tree of Life”. This Tree is composed of ten Sefirot (a term not coincidentally related to Sefirat HaOmer). These Ten Sefirot are regarded as the spiritual building blocks with which God created the universe (together with the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet). It is said that all things in existence are permeated with these ten energies, and all things that are “ten” in the Torah correspond to the ten sefirot: the Ten Divine Utterances of Creation, the Ten Trials of Abraham, the Ten Plagues, the Ten Commandments, etc.

The top three sefirot are called the Mochin – the mental or intellectual faculties. The bottom seven are referred to as the Middot – the emotional and practical elements. During the time of the Omer, we are meant to focus on the purification of the bottom seven sefirot. Meanwhile, on Shavuot – having received the Torah – we are then able to rise further to the upper three mental sefirot and focus on intellectual development.

Etz Chaim, “Tree of Life”, Showing the 10 Sefirot and the 22 Lines that Unite Them (Corresponding to the Hebrew Alphabet), as Depicted by the Arizal

Therefore, each of the seven weeks between Pesach and Shavuot is associated with one of the seven Middot. The first week of the Omer corresponds to the sefirah of Chessed – kindness. The second to the sefirah of Gevurah – restraint and self-control. The third to Tiferet – balance (also called Emet – truth). The fourth is Netzach – “victory”, or persistence (often associated with faith). The fifth, Hod – gratitude, and the sixth, Yesod – literally “foundation”, referring to sexual purity. Lastly there’s Malkhut, “kingdom”, which is associated with the faculty of speech.

Each of the seven days of the week is further associated with one of these seven sefirot. So, the first day of each week corresponds to Chessed, and the second day of each week to Gevurah, and so on. This gives each of the 49 days a totally unique quality which one should be meditating on, and more importantly, attempting to rectify.

For example, tonight we will count the third day, with the corresponding sefirah of Tiferet sh’b’Chessed, “Balance (or Truth) in Kindness”. This suggests developing a harmonious approach to kindness: being a more giving person; charitable, helpful, sympathetic, but also making sure not to be taken advantage of or tricked into false kindness. Unfortunately, misplaced kindness has become a staple of Western society. (How often do we see well-meaning liberals supporting the “poor and disadvantaged” terrorists?) Tonight’s sefirah might be summarized well by the old Midrashic teaching that “those who are kind to the cruel will ultimately be cruel to the kind.”

Similarly, each of the remaining 49 days has a powerful message to teach us, hence the tremendous importance of Sefirat HaOmer – counting and meditating upon each and every one of these very special days.

The Soul of Abraham

In this week’s parasha we get a true glimpse into the character and soul of Abraham. The Kabbalists teach that Abraham stems from the sefirah of chessed – kindness. (The sefirot, or sefirah in the singular, are the ten central energies present in Creation, with which God formed the entire Universe. They are said to imbue all things, and directly parallel the Ten Commandments, the Ten Plagues of Egypt, and essentially all other “tens” in the Torah. All things emanate from the sefirot, including the spiritual anatomy of each individual.)

The parasha begins by telling us that Abraham was sitting at the entrance of his tent on a very hot day, and God appeared to him. As always, the question that must be asked is: why the details? The Torah could have simply said that God appeared to Abraham. Why does it mention that the day was very hot and that Abraham was sitting at the opening of his tent?

The commentaries explain that this was the third day since Abraham was circumcised (which is how the last parasha concluded), and the third day is the most painful. God wished to make it a little easier on Abraham, so He made it a very hot day, forcing people to stay home. As we know, Abraham constantly entertained guests, setting up his tent at a busy intersection to meet as many people as possible. On this day, the guests were not showing up. This is why Abraham was sitting at the entrance of his tent, hoping for a visitor. The Sages explain that for Abraham the pain of not having guests was even greater than the pain of the circumcision!

Suddenly, Abraham spots a trio of travelers in the distance. Despite his recent circumcision, he immediately jumps up and runs after them, begging them to take a rest at his home. Little does he know that these are angels sent by God, bringing him the news of the coming birth of Isaac. Abraham immediately springs into action, giving his visitors a place to relax, and water to wash their feet, then hurrying to make food. He asks his wife Sarah to bake various breads and cakes, while he goes off to prepare a calf. For just three visitors, Abraham took an entire calf, which would have a couple of hundred pounds of meat. Meanwhile, he asked Sarah to use three se’im of flour. A se’ah is a Biblical unit of volume that equals nearly seven and a half litres. This means that Sarah took about twenty two litres of flour – almost a hundred cups!

It is beyond evident that Abraham embodied generosity and kindness. We continue to see these traits throughout the parasha. The very next scene shows Abraham “bargaining” with God in an attempt to prevent the destruction of Sodom. Though Abraham knew very well how evil Sodom was, he hoped that there was a better way than simply eliminating them; perhaps they can be brought to repentance? Once again we see why Abraham merited to be the very first Jew and patriarch: his passion to make the world a better place. Not to destroy, but to build. Not to combat the darkness, but to bring in more light.