Tag Archives: Purpose

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:

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Shabbat, Technology, and Our Cosmic Purpose

This week’s Torah reading is Vayak’hel, which is mostly a repetition of earlier passages regarding the construction of the Tabernacle. It begins by restating the command of keeping the Sabbath: “Six days shall you work, and the seventh day shall be for you a holy day of complete rest for Hashem…” (Exodus 35:2). The mitzvah of Shabbat is among the most commonly mentioned in the Torah. It is also among the most severe, with those who desecrate the Sabbath being “cut off” from among their people, and ultimately succumbing to death.

Although the Torah suggests a death penalty for those who desecrate the Sabbath, an accepted tradition is that no one was ever actually put to death for doing so, except the one case mentioned later in the Torah (though even that case is more complicated than it appears). Certainly, in the post-Biblical period no one was given the death penalty for Sabbath desecration. In most cases, the punishment of death is seen as more of a spiritual death, not a physical one.

In any case, Shabbat is unarguably of tremendous importance. It is so central to Judaism that when Jews inquire whether other Jews are religious, they often simply ask if they are “shomer Shabbos”. And, of course, the Torah itself begins with the creation narrative that lays down the blueprint for Shabbat, right from the very beginning. Before there is any mention of Israel or Hebrews, laws, commandments, Patriarchs, or prayers, there is a description of the Sabbath. What makes it so special?

The Simple Answer

In simple terms, everyone understands the inherent beauty of Shabbat. After all, the majority of people only get through their work week because of the promise of a weekend. Everyone needs a break; a time to recharge their batteries and relax. Shabbat takes the concept even further, offering a true day of rest by disconnecting from the wired world: no cellphones or computers, no bad news or annoying messages, no politics, no advertising, no finances, no celebrity gossip. An opportunity to restore some mental sanity and emotional peace, to actually spend time with family (instead of spending time with the television), and not have to worry about running errands, doing chores, or having to be somewhere. Scientific studies show that having a Sabbath-like day of rest (without work and worry, and with prayer and family involved) was one of the key factors in living a longer and happier life (see here).

Having said that, Shabbat is far more than just a day of rest. The Torah commands us not only to observe the Sabbath (shamor) but also to remember, or commemorate, it (zachor). What exactly are we supposed to be remembering?

Our Cosmic Purpose

When we recite Kiddush on Friday evenings, we say zecher l’maase beresheet, “a remembrance of the Work of Creation.” Shabbat is supposed to remind us of God’s creation of this universe. To remember His creation is really to remember why it was that He created it. Although the Torah does not explicitly say so, the purpose of creation is clear. God created the universe and then placed man, the pinnacle of creation, within it, in a Garden of Eden, to enjoy the delights of this amazing world. And God made man in His own image: a creative, intelligent being. He gave man the potential to further improve an already incredible place, and bring about even more pleasure, beauty, and comfort. Man’s role was to complete the creation started by God. This is what the Torah tells us, and what we read every Friday evening:

“And God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, for in it He rested from all of His work, which God had created to complete.” (Genesis 2:3)

Though often translated otherwise, this well-known verse ends with the words asher bara Elohim la’asot, literally “which God had created to complete.” God created it for us to complete it. This is why man is often described as “God’s partner in Creation”. And sure enough, this is what mankind has been doing since the earliest days. We have taken the raw material that this universe provides us and improved upon it. It is incredible to think that you are reading this right now on some sort of digital device that runs on a silicon chip – essentially made from melted and crystallized sand. Your device also has copper and gold, among other elements, taken out of the earth, purified and transformed into a wire that can carry information. You might be wearing clothes made of linen, cotton, or silk – extracted from plants or animals – or taking life-saving medications derived from trees or bacteria. God gave us the raw materials, together with a divine intellect to transform them into wonderful technologies that make our lives so much better.

Returning to Eden

All of this technology is slowly bringing us back to a perfect world, as God originally intended. What the Sages of past centuries described as miracles that will happen in the future Messianic world, we take for granted as everyday normalities. There are references to these technologies across Jewish texts.

Grape-Harvesting Machine (Credit: Wineanorack.com)

Grape-Harvesting Machine (Credit: Wineanorack.com)

In one place, the Talmud (Ketubot 111b) describes the wheat in Messianic times as having grains the size of kidneys! This must have sounded far-fetched in those times, but today is quite possible with tools like genetic engineering. The same page of Talmud describes thirty kegs of perfect wine being produced effortlessly, without a person needing to tread upon the grapes, and without even needing to harvest them with back-breaking labour, as was normal in those days. Indeed, today’s wineries use machines to harvest the grapes, with an automated production process that has sensors to ensure the ideal levels of sugar, alcohol, and so on, resulting in the same perfectly-tasting wine year after year.

Jewish texts describe Messianic events being witnessed by the whole world, and Mashiach himself being recognized universally, leading the entire globe. This was hard to imagine before the era of modern communication, yet satellites, television, and the internet make it very simple for Mashiach to be recognized and heard internationally. These technologies also bridge together cultures, spread truth and understanding, and ultimately serve to break down barriers. It is no longer so difficult to envision a united, peaceful world working together.

Partners in Torah

In the same way that we are God’s partners in creation, fulfilling the physical realm, we are also His partners in the spiritual realm. Like the raw material of the Earth, God gave us the Torah in raw form. It was the Sages that then interpreted, explained, modified, enhanced, and continue to reinterpret the Torah, generation after generation, further improving God’s Word. What began as Moses’ five books turned into a Tanakh of 24 books, then a Mishnah of 63 tractates, followed by an even longer exposition on each tractate in the form of Talmud, and then even more texts of Midrash, Kabbalah, Halacha, Mussar, and so on.

Where once divine service consisted primarily of offering sacrifices, we have evolved to “pay the cows with our lips” (Hosea 14:3), and instead serve God in prayer. Indeed, the Rambam writes (Moreh Nevuchim III:32) that God only permitted sacrifices temporarily in order to slowly wean people away from such bloody practices; prayer was always the ideal form of communing with God, and what He intended all along.

In the same way that we are fulfilling God’s will, and our purpose, by perfecting the physical world, we are fulfilling God’s will, and our purpose, by perfecting ourselves in the spiritual world.

The Psychology of Shabbat

Shabbat is meant to remind us of our purpose in God’s creation. We should never lose sight of why we are really here: to be His partners in completing the world, both physically and spiritually, and returning it to its intended state of Eden.

This is yet another reason why Shabbat is so important, and inscribed among the Ten Commandments, those ten that are most central of God’s many other commands. A person who does not observe the Sabbath is not only missing out on a day of proper rest and relaxation, but also forgetting their true purpose. And without purpose, life loses its meaning. This was the conclusion of the great neurologist and psychologist Viktor Frankl, who found that the real source of depression, anxiety, and mental pains is not the many troubles of life, but simply a lack of purpose:

“What man actually needs is not a tensionless state, but rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost, but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him.”

Smith explains purpose in ‘The Matrix Reloaded’

Beyond being a day of rest, Shabbat is a tool that gives our lives a grand sense of purpose. God commands us to work diligently towards the fulfilment of this purpose for six days. But on the seventh, we should take a break, and simply enjoy the fruits of that labour. The Talmud (Berachot 57b) reminds us that the pleasure of Shabbat is one-sixtieth of the pleasure of the World to Come. We should spend Shabbat as if we have already completed our mission. And then, after recharging, and reminding ourselves why we are really here, we should go into a new work week, refreshed, to continue our special task as God’s partners in His universe.

Shabbat Shalom

 

What Are the Jewish People “Chosen” For?

This week’s very powerful Torah portion is Va’etchanan. In it, Moses continues his farewell speech to the nation before his death. Among other important points, he recaps the Ten Commandments, and proclaims the text of the Shema. Included in this speech are a number of significant prophecies and statements.

Moses reminds the people that what they witnessed at Mt. Sinai was a totally unique, once-in-history event, where God brought forth a divine revelation to the entire nation, with every single individual experiencing a prophetic vision. Moses tells us to always remember that this has never happened elsewhere in history (Deuteronomy 4:32-34). Although modern Biblical critics will immediately point out that there is no proof that such a national revelation ever took place, Moses tells us that no other people has ever even claimed such a thing! To this day, there is no nation or religion that claims to have started with a national revelation. Strangely, only the Jewish people make such a claim.

National Revelation at Sinai (Providence Lithograph Company, 1907)

A 1907 Illustration of the National Revelation at Sinai

(Although some point out that the Aztecs seem to have a similar story of their god guiding them through a Wilderness to their very own promised land in Mexico, most modern scholars agree that this myth is very recent, adopted from the Jewish story in the Torah. The Aztecs picked it up from Christian missionaries and made it their own.)

Another prophecy in this week’s portion is that the Jewish people will be scattered around the world, and will always remain small in number (4:27). Three thousand years later, the prophecy still holds true, with just 0.2% of the world’s population being Jewish. That’s quite amazing, as it defies normal growth patterns. There are roughly two billion Christians in the world, and their religion emerged over a thousand years after Judaism. The number of Muslims is also steadily nearing two billion, and they came around even later, roughly 1400 years ago. Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, and virtually all other major religions outnumber the Jews. Even the Bahai faith, which started just 160 years ago is quickly catching up, and will soon outnumber Judaism, too.

Moses suggests that it is precisely because we are small in number that God chose us (7:7). Perhaps this can be explained with simple economics of supply and demand. The more of something that there is, the less value it is perceived to have. (Note the word perceived; all human life is of course equal.) The sworn enemies of the Jews seem to agree: Hamas thought it was totally fair to demand 1000 Palestinians to be freed in exchange for one Jew – Gilad Shalit!

The big question is: why did God “choose” us?

The Chosen People

To understand why God chose the Jewish people, and what exactly we are chosen for, one must look back to the beginning of the whole story. Originally, there were no Jews and no Torah. There were only Adam and Eve, in a perfect world, living with God’s revealed presence. The problem of this “perfect” world was that Adam and Eve were essentially unable to truly enjoy it. Having never experienced anything “bad”, they had no concept of what is “good” either. Life was just bland.

In the middle of Eden, God placed the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. By consuming of its fruit, Adam and Eve would be introduced to these new concepts. They would now have to experience hardship and confront evil, but measure for measure, they would now also be able to enjoy goodness and pleasure. After all, it is only because we have had negative experiences that we can truly understand, appreciate, and strive for the positive ones.

Adam and Eve had a choice. They chose the Tree of Knowledge. With that, their perfect world was over. However, this was only temporary. God’s intention was for mankind to live in a world of goodness, not one of suffering. Yet, in order to make the most of the Garden of Eden, mankind first had to experience evil, overcome it, and transcend it. Ever since Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden, their mission has been to remove evil from their midst, restore goodness, and finally return to that Garden.

Adam and Eve were unable to do this, and neither were their children, or grandchildren. As humans multiplied, they only become more and more sinful, pushing themselves further away from Godliness and goodness. After ten generations, God hit the “restart” button to try again with Noah. Noah ultimately failed as well, and once more each passing generation only fell further into immorality. It took another ten generations before things started to change.

Abraham’s Revolution

Abraham was the first person to properly recognize what the universe was all about. He understood that the current state of the world was wrong. Life was never meant to be this way. Abraham thus made it his life’s mission to repair the world. He travelled across the Middle East and spread monotheism, righteousness, and Godliness wherever he went. Abraham embodied all of the traits necessary to restore the world to a state of Eden. And so, it wasn’t so much that God chose Abraham, but rather, that Abraham chose God.

To complete the task of repairing the world would require more than just one man. This huge mission would require a nation. Thankfully, Abraham’s son Isaac continued in his father’s path, as did Jacob the grandson, and his own twelve sons. From these twelve sons an entire nation was born – a nation whose mission would be to restore the world to the Garden of Eden.

History shows that the Jewish people have indeed done so. The Jews’ moral contributions to the world have been vast, and described in books like Ken Spiro’s WorldPerfect – The Jewish Impact on Civilization and Thomas Cahill’s The Gifts of the Jews, among others. The Jews’ contributions to science, medicine, and technology may be even greater. Some of the most important minds behind breakthroughs like the personal computer and the internet, the cellphone and lasersvaccines and automobiles were Jews, as were some of the greatest figures in biology, chemistry, mathematics, and physics. It is also important not to forget the immeasurable spiritual contributions of the Jews to the world.

Of course, Jews are not perfect. The Torah itself attests to this many times, even in this week’s parasha that admonishes the nation on multiple occasions. At the end of the day, the name of our nation is Israel, which literally translates as “struggles with God.” Our history has been a difficult one, full of struggles and challenges. It is clear, though, that we are nearing the end of this period, and we will soon see the restoration of the Garden of Eden, as God originally intended.