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Dec 28 2012

Finding Happiness

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When Yaakov blesses Yehudah, he says that Yehudah will be “red-eyed from wine, and white-toothed from milk.” [49:12]

In the Talmud, Rabbi Yochanan offers a homiletic interpretation of this verse. [Kesubos 111b]. He says that one who smiles graciously at his friend is even greater than one who gives him physical nourishment — a change of a vowel turns “white toothed” to “whitens his teeth,” which is “from”, or greater than, milk. One of the greatest things we can do for a person, he says, is to help him or her to be happy.

Last year I spoke about spreading happiness. But what is happiness, anyways? We think we know, but consider the following.

In our day, we are “blessed” with an industry whose sole purpose is to make us happy: entertainment. The dictionary tells us that entertainment is “something affording pleasure, diversion, or amusement,” and people clamor for the opportunity to work in an industry where their job boils down to making others happy — whether through acting, singing, professional sports, acrobatics or anything else that people will pay in order to come and be entertained.

There is also an industry whose practitioners seem chronically unable to be happy. An extraordinary number of them escape into drugs or even suicide. They are unlikely to maintain stable relationships. They often entertain themselves with unhealthy, harmful and illegal activities. And what industry is that? Why, the same one: entertainment.

You might also have thought that I was speaking of psychologists, because many of these things are true of them as well. The very therapists that people see when they are unhappy are themselves “at least as troubled as the general population.” People pay thousands of dollars for therapy to help them be happy, yet the practitioners themselves are miserable.

Does this make sense?

Yaakov said that Yehudah will be able to share happiness. I believe this is tied not merely to recognition of Yehudah’s leadership, but in the way it was expressed. When Yaakov prepared his family to descend to Egypt, he sent Yehudah on ahead “to guide the way to Goshen,” [46:28] which the Medrash explains to mean that he sent Yehudah to establish a House of Study.

Karl Marx wasn’t entirely wrong when he said that religion “is the opiate of the masses.” It does make people happier, but that happiness isn’t a drug or an escape. Recognizing that we are not alone, and rejoicing in our connection to G-d, makes us happier — but in the healthiest of ways. King David said it first: “were it not for your Torah, my consolation, I would be lost in my sorrows” [Psalms 119:92].

If a person has a true psychological issue, then indeed, a professional therapist can help. But if a person is just feeling a general malaise, then an escape into movies, books, and performances is of far less value than a visit to the House of Study. And by that, I don’t mean (only) eternal value, I mean what will be most helpful and enduring in the here and now.

7 comments

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  1. chuck

    Yes i do think that people are happier when they are happy, ha ha…but it seams to me that H’ gives us the greatist happines when we do good.. especially when we do good to the poor…

  2. Connie Wiener

    Rabbi,
    Thank you for your heartfelt message. My New Year’s resolution is to read your site regularly.
    Shalom, Connie Wiener

  3. Alan B Wolfer

    I am eighty three, healthy and do not pass by anyone without a gesture of recognition. A smile in return-makes it a moment that changed the life of the person who was greeted..How easy-a simple communication and you’ve made a difference. Same with humor-a comment which brings a chuckle to someone else -or yourself- deflects the moment and changes the mood. From my own experience-people who I have met-casually-and shared a light moment with me-greet me with a happy face the next time we cross each other’s path. Try it–it works.

  4. Judah

    You are right happiness requires purpose and purpose needs a manual.
    My problem is that I am in London,aged 50 with no no one to study that manual such as a suitable Yeshivah type place

    1. mdixler

      Judah,
      Thanks for your comments. You might consider giving Phone and Learn a call. You can study with someone on the phone!

  5. ABM

    Thank you so much for the time you take to share your thoughts and ideas. You give me me many things to consider, which greatly richens my learning! I appreciate your insight. I have always seen this passage as a blessing of ‘plenty’ upon Jacob and his descendents. Being able to wash one’s cloths in wine (v11), to me, seems like a promise of extreme wealth, more specifically, a blessing of the orchard, as a result of being able to accomplish the common tasks with a valuable resource. One’s eyes being red from wine may infer that he and his descendents will enjoy the promise of abundance in a way that will not only permeate to the deepest recesses of their being, but also will be clearly visible to all. One’s teeth being white with milk may refer to a blessing of the herd in the sense that he, and his descendents, will be able to consume all that he desires. This is consistent with the blessing of v10, which seems to indicate that through his lineage, his descendants would become a leader of the nations. If the previous is a possibility, my question revolves around the second half of v11. If “washed his garments in wine” is a sign of a blessing upon the fruit of the orchard, what is the meaning of washing “his clothes in the blood of grapes”. Is it possible this may be a reference to the idea that his wealth will not be a gift, but rather will come as a result of toil (i.e. he is treading the grapes). It also intrigues me about why a different word is used for ‘garments’ and ‘clothes’. Is it possible the passage may be referencing a time of plenty (i.e. washed his garments in wine) that would ultimately be followed by a time of trial and difficulty (i.e. and his clothes in the “blood” of grapes).

  6. Karl Marxhausen

    Often I feel “tethered” to the One who loves me. The way he breaks in, steals my attention and draws my thoughts back to Him. It really is more of an ambush on His part. The way a phrase from a hymn can bring tears to my eyes. The way his presence can overwhelm at times. Surrounding with comfort like a cloak. Those times are blessed. But it does not seem to be constant. Rather, I get caught up with other business.

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