Worthy of Happiness – Shemini Atzeret 5781

D'var Torah | Holidays

The Torah portion the Rabbis assigned to Shemini Atzeret includes a brief description of the sacral calendar in which the three annual pilgrimage festivals are included. For Sukkot, the festival that immediately precedes Shemini Atzeret – an independent holiday – the Torah states: “You will be only (akh) happy” (Deuteronomy 16:15). Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno explains that being exclusively happy means having no intermingled sadness. Seforno will find support for his interpretation in Leo Tolstoy’s masterpiece, War and Peace.


One of Tolstoy’s central characters is Count Pyotr Kirilovich Bezhukov, known simple as Pierre. Bezhukov was taken as a prisoner of war. In captivity he comes to the understanding that “man is created for happiness” and “happiness lies…in the satisfaction of his natural human cravings.” For Pierre, happiness is the pleasurable fulfillment of human desires. In other words, all that would bring pleasure would yield happiness and anything that would subvert or mitigate that pleasure would not. Seforno seems to agree with this sentiment. But herein lies a problem.


The fulfillment of one’s pleasures would include the pleasure gained from material success. Or, to put it somewhat differently, the happiness assured by the Torah must be the happiness of universal and unconditional prosperity. But the statement in the Torah just one chapter earlier contradicts this idea, namely, that poverty shall never disappear: there will always be poor people in the population (Deuteronomy 15:11). The only way to account for the existence of this sad reality is to understand akh differently.


Here, the observation of the influential German philosopher of the eighteenth century, Immanuel Kant, is helpful. Happiness, argues Kant, is entirely subjective. What ensures one person’s happiness might very well dissatisfy another. Thus happiness, on Kant’s view, is a poor standard on which to base moral philosophy. Even so, Kant is unwilling to dismiss altogether the existence or the desirability of happiness. Instead, Kant argues that the motive of any system of human conduct is not to make one happy but make one worthy of happiness. Perhaps this is what the Torah has in mind. There is no promise of personal gratification intended but a demand of proper conduct: when one fulfills the obligations associated with serving God and humanity one becomes worthy of happiness.


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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