Happiness…The Real Scoop – Boca Raton’s Most Trusted Source of Information
Erev Rosh Hashanah
Written by Rabbi Stephanie Shore
Great Holidays 2002/5783
I’m a huge fan of the “Shrek” movie series. Shrek is a very large green ogre. You could say it’s a combination of “Sleeping Beauty” meets “Rupunzel” with a bit of Sci-fi Matrix fairy tale thrown in for action and excitement.
In the first movie, we find Shrek living alone in the swamplands. We learn early on that although he looks big and scary with a pretty ominous roar, underneath it all he’s sensitive and only wants to be accepted for who he is. He remains basically alone living in relative isolation, but the townspeople still organize ogre hunts. They have a preconceived idea, drawn from their own judgments and not based on any interaction with Shrek himself.
In one scene, the townspeople, thinking they have snuck up on Shrek, as he sits in his house, are stunned on the spot, when Shrek stealthily ambushes them from behind and says, “You looking for?”. The townspeople, eyes big as deer in headlights, are frozen in fear. Then the ogre lets out a resounding roar. The paralyzing fear in their eyes spreads to their whole body. Wanting to move their panic has stuck them in place. After a dramatic pause, Shrek playfully says, “It’s part of the race.” The townspeople then do their best to escape in a frenzy and we see Shrek with a satisfying smile on his face. The viewer is made to realize that Shrek is content with his life and takes some pleasure in living by the townspeople’s presumption that he is a force to be reckoned with.
As Shrek’s life story unfolds, he saves a princess, gets married, and has children. His life is transformed. In Shrek 4, at a loud and chaotic birthday party for his baby girl, we see Shrek lamenting the circumstances of his current life. He romanticizes his young life. He only wants one day of his exciting but lonely life.
Enter Rumpelstiltskin. Who offers Shrek a magical deal that promises to give him back exactly what he was. Rumple says “To have a day as things were, you, Shrek, have to give me a day from your past.” Shrek has no idea which day to choose. Rumple suggests, “Why not pick a day when you were a little baby, when you can’t remember anything anyway.” Shrek accepts and signs the magic contract.
When Shrek wakes up in his new evoked past life, he comes to realize that Rumple took the day he was born, he realizes that his whole life didn’t happen because he was never born.
Save his princess, marry her, have children, meet his best friend the Donkey…. None of these things happened.
He’s yelling at himself saying, “What did I do”? I just wanted someday my old happy life.
Many of us chase that kind of happiness thinking that if I had this, if I had that, I would be happy. This look for for happiness is the crux of our problem.
In an essay, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, alav hashalom writes: “Happiness, said Aristotle, is the ultimate goal to which all humans tend. But in Judaism it is not necessarily so. Happiness is a high value. Ashrei, the Hebrew word closest to happiness, is the first word in the book of Psalms. We say the prayer known as Ashrei three times a day. We can certainly endorse the phrase in the American Declaration of Independence that among the inalienable rights of mankind are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
He continues: “But Ashrei is not the central value of the Hebrew Bible. The word simcha, joy, is almost ten times more frequent. This is one of the fundamental themes of Deuteronomy as a book. The root sm-ch appears only once in Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers, but no less than twelve times in Deuteronomy. It is central to the Mosaic vision of life in the land of Israel. This is where we serve God with joy.
So what is the difference between happiness and joy? I have contemplated this subject for many years and understood that happiness is a pursuit and joy is knowledge.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks has more to say on the subject, he writes “Happiness is a solid and joy is a liquid”. This means that happiness is related to time and joy is related to space. Time has constraints, it has a beginning and an end. Space is vast, it is infinite.
We all know that poverty is not a Jewish value. For the most part, we are prosperous people who appreciate quality things in the areas of entertainment, culinary delights, and possessions. But think of the 2n/a car you owned. It’s the one you saved up for and carefully selected. You were so happy to leave the parking lot until some time passed and you started thinking about the next car you would buy. One that was better than the one you have.
The happiness you felt was for an object, it was fleeting because the object was material and would age and thus be subject to improved technology and new gadgets. It was tied to a marketing ploy that tricks us into believing that something new and better will lead us down the path to happiness.
I can experience happiness after enjoying a delicious meal prepared by one of New York’s top chefs only to find myself, hours later, looking forward to my next meal as my body signals the need for more food energy.
Happiness is fleeting by its very nature. It is linked to the exterior which is constantly changing. We seek, we pursue happiness in so many ways. But when we seek happiness in this way, we may feel momentarily satisfied, but more often than not, we want more.
In an article from Unpacked for Educators, a Jewish resource site, we read: “We tend to pursue happiness by trying to be wealthier or materialistic; on the other hand, joy is the ability to celebrate life with safety, to enjoy the presence of others, to care for others and to give them joy.
Rabbi Israel Salanter once wrote that to be a good Jew, one must have all the human qualities and their opposite. The Torah does not enshrine the prohibition; it offers the full range of human emotions and behaviors. There is “a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to weep and a time to dance” (Ecclesiastes 3:4). Correct behavior consists in knowing when and how to do all these acts.
Rabbi Salanter continues, “As a harvest festival, Sukkot incorporates a frank recognition and celebration of material possessions. Jewish tradition views material possessions as a necessary but not sufficient basis for spiritual fulfillment. As Maimonides writes: “The general purpose of the Torah is twofold: the well-being of the soul and the well-being of the body. The well-being of the soul comes first but… the well-being of the body comes first. The welfare of the soul is more important, but the welfare of the body comes first, as it is the context of spiritual development. Thus, the appreciation and enjoyment of material things is a legitimate spiritual concern. It all depends on how it’s done. Prosperity frees the individual for his personal development; but revered or made absolute, wealth disrupts personal growth.
We are here as a community to celebrate and contemplate during these great holy days. We have an opportunity that is set aside by time. Give ourselves the space to engage in the essential task at hand. The task of engaging with the highest and reveling in what is truly great.
It is through this cognitive awareness that we will achieve an inner sense of joy that will last us through the coming year.