Real Joy: A Sermon for Parshat Zakor 5771


According to a 2009 World Happiness Survey, Bangladesh is the happiest country in the world. It is also one of the poorest. If the survey is accurate and scientifically valid, it confirms what we were probably taught, namely, happiness is not directly linked to wealth. Instead, it has to do with satisfaction, a point I will develop.

Parenthetically, all the happiness surveys I have researched never include Israel among the nations considered. I do not believe it has anything to do with a boycott or with anti-Semitism. I think it has to do with a fear of skewing the results. The majority of citizens of Israel are Jewish and as we all know, we Jews are rarely satisfied with anything.

Japan is also an interesting case. It is ranked 19th in the world in perceived happiness – only two spots behind Canada at a 75% happiness rating – but a full 28 spots ahead of the United States. Japan would have ranked even higher were it not for a cultural difference. Unlike the United States that has enshrined happiness, or at least its pursuit, as a national goal, the Japanese have for generations inculcated the spirit of “Gaman,” that is, a calm endurance in the face of adversity; a feeling of solidarity with each other, a willingness to trust and cooperate for the greater good. We are seeing those qualities now as the Japanese address the aftermath of the earthquake. They have our prayers.

What Judaism has to teach about happiness is connected with the joy of Purim. Says the Talmud (Pesahim 109a): “Our rabbis taught: a man is duty bound to make his children and his household rejoice on a festival, for it is said (Deuteronomy 16:14) ‘v’samakhta b’haggekha’ – ‘You shall rejoice on your festivals.’ How is that accomplished? ‘B’yayyin’ – through wine.” While in its Talmudic context this statement justifies the drinking of wine on Passover specifically, it is extended to all Jewish holidays in general and to Purim in particular. Thus Raba (Megillah 7b) is reputed to have taught: “It is everyone’s duty to drink so much wine on Purim that he is unable to distinguish between ‘Cursed be Haman’ and ‘Blessed be Mordechai.” In other words, to achieve the joy commanded by the Torah requires drinking wine to the point of inebriation. And the point of inebriation is defined by the inability to tell the difference between the villain and the hero of the Purim story. If this were a time to engage in textual exegesis, I would focus on whether children were actually intended to be included in the command to rejoice through drinking wine. If this were a lecture on anthropology, I would suggest reasons why, of all things, wine became the means for experiencing joy. If this were a sociological dissertation I might consider discussing the dangers of alcoholism that the text seems to advance or the feminist concern over the elevation of Mordechai to the position of hero and the omission of Esther altogether. All of these are live topics and make for good discussion which I encourage you to consider around your Shabbat luncheon tables. But at this moment I am preaching rather than teaching. And so I will focus the philosophical meaning of joy and the practical implications for us today. And when it comes to Jewish philosophy, it is impossible to proceed without due consideration of Maimonides, arguably the greatest Jewish philosopher and the greatest Jewish intellect of all time. So it is to Maimonides I turn. Typically, it is Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed that serves as the point of reference for his philosophy. But even statements in his encyclopedic code of Jewish law that he completed before the age of 45 are sources from which his philosophy emerges. One such statement appears in the section entitled Laws of Megillah. He first describes the principal mitzvah of Purim, the reading of the Megillah and all that entails. Then, after acknowledging (2:15) that the rule is that a person must drink wine until inebriated, Maimonides goes on to briefly outline the other mitzvot of Purim: sending two edible gifts to at least two friends and to give a gift of food or money to at least two poor people.

Then Maimonides considers a potential dilemma. Suppose a person is of limited means and cannot afford to perform all of these mitzvot. There simply isn’t enough money to pay for his own festive meal (accompanied by a sufficient supply of wine) and also send gifts to friends as well as give charity to the poor. Something must give, and thus priorities need to be set. Accordingly, Maimonides (2:17) rules: “It is better for a person to give generously to the poor than to spend lavishly on his own festive meal or sending gifts to friends.” And his explanation bears our attentiveness: “She-ein sham simhah gedolah u-m’fu-eret ella l’same-ah lev aniyyim, v’yetomim, v’almanot, v’gerim” – For there is no greater and more splendid happiness than to gladden the hearts of the poor, orphans, widows, and converts. Notice how Maimonides expands the law to include the unfortunates of society that the go unmentioned in the Talmud with regard to Purim.

To Maimonides, joy is not induced by alcoholic stupor – even though that is the clear implication of the Talmud. Rather, joy – real joy, deep and profound joy – is the feeling resulting from making the lives of other people easier. And the more people one can assist – the larger the categories and the greater the number – the better.

Aristotle, in many ways Maimonides’ primary influence, held that happiness was the result of the rational control of one’s desires. For Maimonides, this is not enough. Jeremy Bentham and his fellow Utilitarians believed that happiness is nothing more than the greatest sum of the greatest pleasures. To Maimonides, this would be supremely selfish and ineffective in promoting happiness. Seventeenth century philosopher John Norris said that happiness lies in the contemplative love of God. To Maimonides, this would be theologically true but morally and emotionally insufficient. The celebrated humanitarian Albert Schweitzer once said that happiness “is nothing more than good health and a bad memory.” Maimonides would say he should have known better.

To Maimonides, happiness is not simply a matter of feeling good but feeling fulfilled, ennobled, and proud of one’s contribution to others. Thus he adds that those who satisfy the needs of the unfortunate are doing God’s holy work – “domeh la-Shekhinah.

As you probably know, I am on an extended Sabbatical. If I were still in active congregational life, I would recommend that synagogues today act on the Maimonidean understanding of happiness. Each synagogue ought to appoint a “Simhah Committee.” By “Simhah Committee” I do not mean a committee mandated to look after celebratory events. That would be the task of the Catering Committee or Membership Committee. What I would propose is that each synagogue needs to put in place a vehicle for getting each member to feel the real joy in doing something important and meaningful for others. At one time, this might have been the task of the Social Action Committee. But, thank God, the number of Jews at peril today is shrinking. And even a Hesed Committee that does indeed aim at ameliorating the lives of others is operating from the perspective of outcomes, that is, what is done for others, rather than the joy it gives to the participants. What needs to be emphasized is the transformative power of engaging in an act of kindness. Jews today realize that the time or money they give has a positive effect on others. But what they do not hear enough is the positive effect it can and should have on them. This would be the mandate of the Simhah Committee.

If synagogues today are seriously interested in retaining its young, let alone attracting other young members, they must be prepared to show that the synagogue will help them be happy. That is, I know, quite the claim. But the results of a 2005 Pew survey showed that young people today are 15% less happy than their parents while happiness still remains an equal concern. If synagogues can find ways of convincing young Jews that happiness accrues to those who are active in organized Jewish life, and that organized Jewish life is the best vehicle for helping others, synagogues will flourish.

Tonight we will be celebrating Purim. And tomorrow we will eat and drink in fulfillment of our religious obligations. May we all enjoy. But let us also remember – since today is the Shabbat of remembrance – that real joy is not just the outcome of drinking wine. Let us all become partners with God in doing good for others and thus bringing true joy to ourselves.


Words to Live By

What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

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